The Art of Borrowed Scenery

A medieval hortus conclusus: The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhenish Master (c. 1410).

Outside, the mountains have been drawn into the garden, becoming a part of it. Aritomo was a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.

— Tan Twan Eng , The Garden of Evening Mists [i]

The Rev. James Bramston, an eighteenth-century English cleric, was known for his satirical verses. One of his targets was Archibald Campbell (Lord Islay), who wanted to improve his extensive gardens by removing some of the trees blocking his view of the world beyond his private Eden. 

Old Islay, to show his fine delicate taste,
In improving his gardens purloin’d from the waste,
Bade his gard’ner one day to open his views,
By cutting a couple of grand avenues;
No particular prospect his lordship intended,
But left it to chance how his walks should be ended. 

With transport and joy he beheld his first view end
In a favorite prospect — a church that was ruin’d —
But also! what a sight did the next cut exhibit!
At the end of his walk hung a rogue on a gibbet!
He beheld it and wept, for it caus’d him to muse on
Full many a Campbell that died with his shoes on.
All amazed and aghast at the ominous scene, 
He order’d it quick to be clos’d up again
With a clump of Scotch firs, that served for a Screen. [ii]

In those days, landscape design cultivated the idea of the “Picturesque,” in which a visual environment is composed like a painting. In a picturesque scene, whether discovered or constructed, every element presenting itself to the eye of the beholder plays a part in summoning a feeling, stimulating reflection, or creating a mood. “Views were created resembling paintings or recalling events from myth or literature with the aim of producing desired states of feeling in the observer.” [iii]

One of the more unusual elements of the Picturesque was the ruin. A decaying church or temple, a weathered pagan statue, a partially collapsed arch or a broken column—traces of human pastness amidst the greenness of the natural world—aroused “la douce mélancolie qui parle à l’âme sensible” (“the sweet melancholy which speaks to the sensitive soul.”) [iv]  Since authentic ruins were few and far between, it became the fashion to build new ones, in either classical or medieval styles, fabricated to appear like ancient remnants. In 1767, Diderot described the intellectual and emotional effect this way: 

“The ideas aroused in me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away; the world alone remains, time alone continues. How old this world is! I walk between these two eternities … What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of crumbling stone?” [v]

When the poem’s Lord Islay told his gardeners to “open his views” by cutting a couple of wide avenues in the woods around his estate, he was reaching for the Picturesque, though rather by chance than careful design. In the first instance he succeeded wonderfully. At the end of the first avenue, perfectly framed, was a ruined church, promising many pleasurable ruminations on time, history, and divinity in the days to come. 

But when more trees were felled to make the second avenue, the results were less agreeable. Lord Islay’s eyes were met with a ruin of the worst kind: a human corpse hanging on a gallows. “Amazed and aghast,” he quickly closed off the terrible vista with a planting of tall firs.

I recently came across Bramston’s poem in Roy Strong’s marvelous anthology, A Celebration of Gardens. While I can’t vouch for the factuality of the story, it struck me as a vivid image of the challenge for spirituality in this troubled and suffering world. How can we enjoy our gardens—the necessary environments and practices for emotional and spiritual health—and yet remain vulnerable and responsive to the cries of distress from near and far? 

Isaac Walton window, Winchester Cathedral (1914).

From the Garden of Eden to the medieval cloister, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), a tranquil space of beauty and calm, walled off from the outside world, has been a significant image of the interior life. We all need the kinds of spaces, both physical and spiritual, where we can shelter from the storm, sink into the depths of holy Presence, and “study to be quiet.” [vi]

But we are long past the innocence of the first Eden. We know, all too well, of the terrors and horrors raging beyond the protecting walls which nurture our peace and shield our joy. We may, like Lord Islay, be aghast at the sudden glimpse of the victim on the gallows—or the cross—but we are long past surprise. A row of tall firs cannot protect us. The knowledge remains. How do we live with it—and act in response to it—and still guard our heart in its hortus conclusus

Tan Twan Eng’s deeply moving novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, suggests a way. The Japanese gardening practice, shakkei, is described (see the epigraph above) as “the art of Borrowed Scenery.” Sometime after the Second World War, Aritomo, a Japanese master gardener living in Malaya, agrees to teach his art to the Malaysian narrator, Yun Ling. But their collaborative garden project does not enjoy the innocence of Eden. Yun Ling’s sister had suffered abuse and death in a Japanese internment camp during the war, and she wants to create a memorial garden for her lost sibling. Years later, she returns to the garden while investigating war crimes by the occupying forces. Aritomo, who had participated in that occupation, carries his own secret burdens and sorrows. 

Aritomo and Yun Ling are not insulated from pain, guilt, grief and loss. Even from their beautiful garden, they can glimpse the gallows. And yet, the garden’s beauty—and the spirituality it engenders—is not diminished by the pain outside its sacred enclosure. Yes, look just beyond the garden, and you will see immense suffering. But look further, beyond the gallows. Can you borrow what lies in the greater distance? Can you make the Transcendent an integral part of your view?

Are the mists, too, an element of shakkei incorporated by Aritomo? I wonder. To use not only the mountains, but the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light? Did he borrow from heaven itself? [vii]  

The rose garden in Portland, Oregon, “borrows” distant Mt. Hood for this view.

[i] Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (New York: Weinstein Books, 2012), 25.

[ii] Cited in Roy Strong, A Celebration of Gardens (Portland, OR: Sagapress/Timber Press, 1992), 105-106.

[iii] Diana Ketchum, Le Desért de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), cited in Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 224.

[iv] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 158.

[v] Ibid., 153.

[vi] The famous motto of Anglican writer Isaac Walton (1593-1683), who valued his tranquility (and loved to fish). 

[vii] The Garden of Evening Mists, 27.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Borrowed Scenery

  1. Even as an environmentalist, I must learn to live with our borrowed scenery from the earth, which was made with a seemingly inexhaustible universe but which has its own limits, its own “borrowed scenery.” It’s been a challenge to broaden my sights from recent history, which seems so long ago but is just a moment of time geologically, to be willing to see beyond the line of fir trees, my own cultivated barrier, to try to comprehend how massive the universe and how small but privileged humans are.
    Thanks for a meditation to help spur that process.

Leave a Reply to jimfriedrich Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s