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Delight & Delirium: Dancing in a French Garden

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Photo courtesy of Eric Sander (c)

Those of us of a certain generation can't help but remember that magnificent introduction to the world of poetry in A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Those simple verses were meant to transport us into realms of delight unknowable by stern switch-wielding adults, a compact between child and poet. This year in the heart of France's chateau country along the Loire River there are 30 gardens created by grown up landscape artists who understand all too well that the hunger for delight and delirium -- as year's theme would have it -- never really dies; it just gets buried under the torpid language of political conventions, cheap sci-fi movies, and lead-minded news networks.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the International Garden Festival at the Chateau Chaumont-sur-Loire, which each year offers a celebration on six and a half acres to 30 0f the world's wildest and wittiest of garden deciders. And for its coming-of-age year what theme could have been better than "Gardens of Delight, Gardens of Delirium."

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It was a gray Sunday day in August that we wandered through the delirium and found ourselves delighted even as we dodged the raindrops. A "cabinet of curiosities" as its organizers describe it, it is as full of talking tomatoes and terpsichoried tom cats as anything Lewis Carroll could have dreamt. Like all deliriums worthy of the word, these garden curiosities speak to all the senses we have only the eyes to delight.

Where better to start then with the Irish team Rita Higgens and Peter Little's rendering of the imaginary isle westward of the Emerald Isle known as Mag Mell, which owes a lot to Hieronymus Bosch.

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A little further along architect Patrice Gobert and his team of artists turn the world literally upside down -- feet, roots and branches all.

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Dodging the drizzle, some garden visitors become so captivated with the imaginary they even join in.

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Passing by the jam jar pavings and the vining beer garden, one comes, of course, to the temple garden dominated by a great round vegetative platter called Cordon Bleu -- a design offered in tribute to master cheff Alain Passard, the president of this year's competition jury, who believes that his carrots and beets ought to earn the same "grand cru" status as fine bordeaux and chardonnays.

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Still and all, no once royal chateau garden should conclude without kneeling briefly to the long-suffering march of les nains, the mythical little people or garden dwarfs who have long struggled underground to mount their own Liberation Front. This is, after all, nominally "socialist" France.

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All photos except Sander's (c) courtesy of Christophe Sevault