for more lively forms of recre- ation and entertainment? Mixed with the contemporary culture of consumerist democracy, which has made the leisured life and unhur- ried travel enjoyed by aristo- crats such as Sitwell obsolete, is the undeniable commercial motive on the part of both private and public owners to make ends meet, something that is necessary for the con- tinuance of their gardens. Today, Renishaw, the Italian- ate garden that grew from Sitwell’s imagination, hosts coach tour groups and school parties as well as a variety of events, including plant and craft fairs and an Easter egg hunt.
Yet, even if we cannot aspire to achieve the resonant antiquity of the great villa gar- dens of 400 years ago, Sitwell’s observations and design principles still may inspire the creator of today’s version of the hortus conclusus in weaving together elements of ordered expectation and delightful surprise, in consid- ering the effects of leaf- filtered light and rippling or reflecting water, in under- standing the expressive power of natural stone and the sculptural and painterly properties of plants, and in enlarging the garden’s space with borrowed views of town and country. His book also may liberate the latent aes-
thete in park visitors and gar- den tourists and encourage them to find a quiet, agree- able spot in which to give way to their own psychological impulse to let mind and body connect with the forces of nature and the power of land- scape art.
But how, we might ask, can one sustain such an idea at a time when so much seems to be going wrong with the world? Today, habitat- rich rainforests are being bull- dozed out of existence, and many cities have sacrificed their once- handsome downtowns to a diffuse and formless urban metastasis. Dominique Browning does not have an explanation for why, in the face of ecological destruction and metropolitan ills, nurtur- ing a small piece of the planet matters, but in Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener she demonstrates her faith that it does, at least on an individ- ual, personal level. Unlike Sitwell, she has no ample ancestral estate, so it is on
less than half an acre in sub- urbia – that middle landscape of small house lots, squab- bling neighbors, rebellious teenagers, and pilfering ani- mals – that she coaxes a prob- lem-ridden property into becoming a hortus conclusus.
For Browning, like Sitwell, is romantic by nature. She understands the impor- tance of sitting quietly on a movable chair, studying her garden-to-be from multiple perspectives with an atten- tive eye, regis- tering her psychological responses to the way in which “the genius of the place” slowly reveals itself. She listened to this landscape as it began to speak to her the language of aes- thetics, summoning a latent beauty that was hers to real- ize. But not without many tri- als and missteps along the way, for her paths of desire were tortuous and fraught with the difficulties that beset the owner of a charming but deteriorated, cash-draining old house and a site with stony soil, too much shade, unsightly views of neighbor- ing backyards, and ailing trees.
Overcoming obstacles and persisting in spite of frustrat-
ing setbacks are the stuff of comedy as well as of moral heroism. Browning, who is a talented writer and editor (she has been the editor in chief of House and Garden since 1995), is adept at the genre of personal garden writing built on a learning- from-mistakes-with-the-help- of-bemused-experts approach, of which Michael Pollan, author of A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, Second Nature, and Botany of Desire, is currently the undisputed master. She knows what Pollan knows: that the self-made garden is the only deeply satisfying one. Although she is a postfemi- nist who values both career opportunity and domesticity, she is no Martha Stewart, who makes homemaking and gardening look deceptively easy. She knows there are few simple solutions in gardening or in life and that the trials of both are as unending as the joys.
Browning’s literary long suit is vulnerability. It is the vulnerability of a single mother without a dependable man in her life, helpless (perhaps more helpless for narrative effect than is actual- ly the case) in the face of a collapsing retaining wall, rot- ten roof, eroded driveway, and unpleasant neighbors. (They clearly do not share her aes-
thetic approach to landscape, which includes the two-way benefits of borrowed scenery.) She thus sets herself up as the protagonist of a drama in which the other actors have role-defining names: the True Love, whose attentions are frustratingly intermittent; the Helpful Men, who include Leonard, the can-do nursery- man and Mr. Fix-It, and Bob, the affable, instructive arborist; and the creativity-lib- erating Artist. Then there are the Boys, her teenage sons Alex and Theo, who see no redeeming value in the con- version of their childhood backyard playground into their mother’s garden refuge, especially when they are called upon to lend a hand. Finally, there are the Three Graces – Caroline, Bonni, and Zoe – the sympathetic female friends to whom the book is dedicated.
Browning began her proj- ect of creating a garden fol- lowing the collapse of a retaining wall due to a mud- slide caused by a builder who rerouted a neighbor’s storm- water drainage into her yard. Hesitantly at first, she chal- lenged herself to go beyond repair and to improve and fashion into a unified land- scape composition the prop- erty’s several parts – the Old Garden (a bedraggled front yard), the Back Forty (the ignored woods away from the immediate environs of the house), and the Back Bed (the
single sunny border where her first tentative efforts as a gardener had begun but then had been obliterated by the breached and fallen retaining wall).
The kind of garden that Browning ultimately created following the period she calls the Winter of Last Daydreams was the product of obses- sion. Garden images captured her night as well as her daydreams, and these were reinforced by childhood recollections and somatic memory – the potent, because unconscious, bodily memory of place and “what the earth is supposed to feel like under your feet.” This was her winter of discarded fears and uncertainties accompanied by hidden growth. As spring approached she began to design not on paper but on the land, arrang- ing and rearranging long nylon cords of different colors as she delineated the shapes of beds, two defined patches of lawn, and paths of desire – those routes we instinctively use when navigating a cam- pus, a park, or a garden as “our own footsteps etch our desires into the ground.” When she was done, with some helpful criticism from Leonard and the knowledge she had gained earlier from studying the garden’s sight-