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19 de desembre de 2011

Follow your desire up the garden path

Garden paths can transport us, via nostalgia or curiosity, to other worlds.


The Telegraph (Regne Unit) [Crònica]

Just how irritating a garden path can be is demonstrated in the 1958 Jacques Tati film Mon Oncle. Tati, as the awkward but lovable uncle of the title, has to negotiate his way from the street gate to the front door of M and Mme Arpel's ultra-modern house and garden ("Villa Arpel") in a new Paris suburb.

The path consists of a series of round concrete stepping stones, pas japonais, laid across the lawn, the stones running neither in a direct line to their destination, nor set at the right distance for stepping.

Each leap, as our hero tries to get safely from one stone to the next, leaves him more awkwardly unbalanced, more precarious, than the last, lest – quelle horreur! – he should inadvertently plant a foot on the grass. He is a man in a minefield.

And there, only a little exaggerated, we have the problem of the garden path. It has conflicting agendas: it masquerades as a true path, taking us where we want to go, but actually it's a contrivance, taking us where it wants to go. This crucial difference is graphically illustrated by a stroll in an urban park. Start on an official walkway and in no time you'll spot one of those narrow earth tracks worn across the grass by impatient feet opting for a more direct route.

These are what landscape architects call "desire paths". They are, in a sense, the path in its purest form. There's a certain poetry in their "rightness", their concision, the way they give expression to something so ethereal as desire, the cheerful "sod you" they declare to municipal bossiness.

Garden paths are only ever desire paths to the extent that they successfully stimulate our desire. Their point, at least their main point, is not to get us from A to B, but to transport us in loftier ways, to non-physical places like our memory or imagination, via flights of nostalgia, melancholy or awe.

To achieve this, over the centuries, there isn't a trick they haven't tried.

Imagine you have a successful banker friend who's recently bought a large country house, say 18th or 19th century. You've just had Sunday lunch and wandered outside to get some air.

Padding across the lawn to inspect the view, you notice some kind of folly on the hillside opposite. And you see a path leading off through an arch in an ancient yew hedge. Does it lead to the folly? Almost without thinking, you find yourself taking the path, hardly aware that you're answering some deep, almost irresistible impulse to see where it goes.

So much is genetic. Environmental biologists studying habitat preferences have shown that mystery is key to what makes a landscape beautiful to us, and a path offers precisely that.

After winding through a wilderness, the path zigzags down a steep, pine-scented ravine to a river. You glimpse the folly again – is it a ruin? – on the hill opposite.

Breezing briskly along, you are surprised how carefree you feel in your little adventure. How pleasant it is to have a path to follow, to not have to make pettifogging decisions at every turn! Darwin, you might even recall, felt the same: daily striding his gravel "sandwalk" round the garden at Down House to clear his mind.

Stimulated by the changing scenery (a bridge across the river has come into view), you are lulled, as if on a train journey, into that pleasantly freewheeling mental state which is most conducive to ideas and daydreams, caught between pleasant curiosity for what's ahead and the flow of the moment.

Over the bridge, there's another glimpse, nearer now, of the classical temple – for that's what it is.

In your newly reflective mood, you find you have slowed down. The correct walking pace, that inveterate walker Henry Thoreau maintained, is a slow saunter, emulating the camel – the only beast, according to him, that could ruminate and walk at the same time.

You reach the temple. Unfortunately, the nostalgia for vanished golden ages that the building is supposed to inspire has to be temporarily banished by the more pressing threat of rain. Diving inside for shelter, you barely notice the irony that this classical building was devised to provide shade from Mediterranean heat. The Latin inscription, Procul, O procul este profani, allows you to contemplate your inability to translate Latin inscriptions.

The path winds back, via, well, who can say how many more Disneyfications?

Grotto? Obelisk? Stone statues of worthies? Carved monsters rising from the ground? Fountains? Water features that wittily squirt you? Rockery?


You arrive, finally, at the bronze sculpture you overheard someone mentioning at lunch, your banker friend's youthful third wife's naked breasts, a "bust" reminding you that no garden path is ever completely free of its owner's vanity.

Which brings you, as all good garden paths should, back to where we began.


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