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Wild Bergamont in a Prairie / Prairie State Outdoors

At a conference on sound and scent in the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. landscape historians delved into spaces of the past in an attempt to unearth historic sensory experiences. A question that ran through all the lectures was: can we ever get a true sense of what it felt like to be in a place that no longer exists?

Barbara Burlison Mooney, University of Iowa, gave us a deeper sense of what the great Illinois prairies sounded and smelled like. She said tall grass prairies are not a designed landscape — “they are really the antithesis of Versaille” — but they were still managed. Native Americans set fire to the grasslands so as to sprout the small green shoots that would bring bison. Today, just small parcels of the original American grasslands remain. What’s left has inspired landscape architects such as Jens Jensen and James van Sweden, who have attempted to replicate the beauty of these grass landscapes everywhere.

Mooney said the first time settlers in the early 1800s saw the prairie they were totally overwhelmed by its “breathtaking magnitude.” Settlers traveling west would be in dense forest up until Ohio, when they started to experience meadows. Then, as they hit Indiana, the trees would disappear and the grasslands would open up for countless miles. Mooney said scholarship has “looked at the sight of the prairie, and artistic interpretations of it, but the auditory and olfactory experience is a more complex experience to relate.”

Mooney read from first-hand accounts of settlers who recorded their experiences crossing the prairie, including some of the first American naturalists. She played recordings of a range of birds, including wild fowl, songbirds, and turkeys; insects; dangerous animals like wolves, snakes, cougars; and less dangerous ones, like bullfrogs.

She described how scent, “our most memorable sense,” defined the prairie, too. “Prairie rose, bergamont, and sassafras all have sweet scents.” For the settlers, foul odors also foretold disaster. As an example, some of these settlers feared the smell of “bad water” and were overwhelmed by rotting vegetation.

“Early Illinois settlers understood the sensory experience of the prairie.” Unfortunately, their recounting is “unstable, limited, biased in describing ephemeral experiential cues.” The result may be we can get just a hint of what the prairie was like from these early accounts and modern sound recordings.

Mark Laird at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) described Strawberry Hill, a Gothic revival villa created by Horace Walpole, a politician, writer, and artist, in the late 1700s. Using letters Walpole wrote over five decades, Laird discovered some aspects of the historic sounds and smells, which helped guide recent restoration efforts.

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Strawberry Hill by Paul Sandby / Wikipedia

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Strawberry Hill today / Wikipedia

Restoring the sound and smell of a place is challenging, as nature changes. Laird said the sound of field crickets were mentioned in Walpole’s letters, but today, “they no longer exist in the UK,” except for three small managed populations. Similarly, the Landrail (or Corn Crake), which was once widespread, is now confined to small parcels of Scotland. There are just about 1,200 males left.

What Halpole yearned for most, Laird said from the letters, was the smell of the “lilac tide” and the sound of nightingales in late spring. Through intensive research, Laird discovered where the lilacs, roses, and lavender was planted, but, again, a changing world has robbed us of having a similar experience, as there are just 6,700 male nightingales left in the UK. Furthermore, “it’s a secretive bird that hides in bushes.”

So more historic sensory experiences don’t go extinct, Laird and John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, discussed efforts to create a “world heritage of sound.”

For Anatole Tchikine, a post-doctoral student at Dumbarton Oaks, sensory experiences found in Italian gardens are all political. In the early 20th century, American writers such as Vernon Lee and Edith Wharton visited Italy many times. Wharton even wrote a book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, which argued that Italian gardens can be defined simply by their use of “stone work, evergreens, and water.” Anything like flowers were extraneous to the sensory experience of the forms in the Italian garden.

The fascists picked up on this very limited definition of an Italian garden and used it for nationalistic purposes. Before, there was no singular Italian garden, but many local vernacular gardens. The fascists chose the Tuscan garden, making it the “national language, the trans-regional and trans-temporal garden. It became part of the national agenda, helping to create a shared national identity.”

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Orti Oricellari in Tuscany / Wikipedia

Italian-style was then reclaimed from France, the UK, and elsewhere where it had been misappropriated. In 1931, during the Florence garden festival honoring Italian traditions, the Italian garden was presented as “rational, ordered, geometrical, with the emphasis of mind over body, conquest and domination over the expression of natural genius.” Tchikine said under the fascists, “Italian gardens became about intellect over experience, with an exception for sight, which was needed to experience form. Flowers were just an expression of form; they were not to be smelled.”

The sensory experience of water then became political, too. “Water has a volatile nature — it can be hot, cold, hard or soft. Water can be temporarily restrained but it can’t be subjugated.” Water was then threatening. Different themed fountains showed either militaristic installations or the trickster-nature of water, as “playful, bizarre, and unpredictable.”

The end result is Italian gardens became an “impoverished experience, filled with contradictory cliches. They became simple repositories of art works.”