Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Wilderness and Italian Gardens

Our backyard, partly by design and partly by serendipity, transitions from a typical suburban lawn to sixty-three acres of maturing forest, Dudley Woods Park, along Gregory Creek, a tributary of the Great Miami River in southwest Ohio.

Years after downsizing to a condo in 2006, we had decided it was time to take the unusual step of upsizing ("right-sizing"). In late 2020, we moved into a new home that borders Dudley Woods. The backyard is fenced, and for the first time, our small dog (Scooter) has a place to run and play. (He pretends to be the dog on the Mighty Dog commercial.) 

Nature close at-hand

We have a great view of the forest, including spectacular fall colors, active wildlife (red and gray squirrels, rabbits), and pleasantly-noisy birds (chickadees, flickers, robins, cardinals). Once the leaves fell last autumn, we could see a number of dreys where the squirrels lived. Then, when the ubiquitous honeysuckle lost its leaves and we were treated to some significant snowfall, we could watch deer approach the fence that separates the yard from the woods. As one deer pawed at the snow, I thought it might be looking for something to nibble on. Instead, it was simply clearing a little spot to bed down and rest. There is a prominent boulder beside a nearby trail in the park that displays deep grooves where bucks have been rubbing the velvet off their antlers for probably years. Paths through the park have led us to cedars, hackberry, honey locust, black cherry, and osage-orange, as well as giant sycamores along Gregory Creek.

Transition from suburban lawn to wilderness

Okay, so maybe "wilderness" is a bit of poetic license. (Okay, it's an exaggeration. Humor me.) 

Our backyard is divided, from one side to the other, by a natural, descending swale that drains surface water from our neighbor's yard and ours. It's not enough to cause any erosion, but we learned, once we moved in, how difficult it was to mow, and how it stayed wet most of the time. (If we were to follow it into the woods, no doubt it would empty into Gregory Creek.) And we hired a landscaper to create an artificial "creek bed" in the swale to help control the drainage. A small garden-bridge lets us conveniently cross the swale and get the lawnmower to the other side. Sometimes Scooter will use the bridge, but sometimes he will run and leap the swale without slowing down.

Something the landscaper said stuck with me. The part of the yard on the other side of the swale is -- esthetically -- a transition zone from our grassy yard to the forest behind us. The trees in the transition zone have not leafed out yet, so I've only identified a beech tree so far, but I believe several of the saplings are sugar maples. Beneath the trees, grass and moss cover most of the ground, with a sprinkling of bright red elf cups (a fungus) and early-blooming wildflowers like cut-leaved toothwort. Thankfully, our fence restrains the honeysuckle (for now).

Italian Gardens?

I have trouble remembering the locations of the light switches in our house, but my brain did remind me of a book that discusses transitions between carefully manicured, designed arrangements of plants (in this case, Italian gardens) and the not-as-random-as-you-think "arrangements" of plants and trees in an area of wilderness. The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness, by John Hanson Mitchell, is not your typical book on gardens or wilderness. The best summary of this interesting book can be found in a Barnes & Noble review on Goodreads. Mitchell, writes the reviewer, uses "Italian garden design as a framework for exploring the meaning of wildness. This is not as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Over the centuries, Italian gardens have always incorporated wild spaces as part of the overall design. It is the balance of order and disorder, of control and freedom that gives these gardens their special qualities." I highly recommend Mitchell's book for anyone who likes novel juxtapositions of concepts.

Though our yard is no Italian garden, our "transition zone" is something I'm sure Mitchell would appreciate.


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