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Paul Gough
‘Cultivating dead trees': The legacy of Paul Nash as an artist of trauma, wilderness and recovery
Journal of War and Culture Studies, 4 (3). ISSN 1752-6272

Gardens and the mnemonic impetus
Gardens and arboreta have long been regarded as a ‘palliative for melancholy’ and a congenial environment for solitary contemplation.
(Coffin 1994: 17) In Christian teaching the garden is a place for spiritual reflection, a space designed to stimulate meditation, introspection and the easing of the imagination. (Hunt 1976) To this end, gardens can be thought of as liminal enclaves, withdrawn from the customary disruption of urbanization, where precious objects, memorials and other sculpted forms can be placed under the open sky ‘in the eye of God’.

In their multifarious forms gardens and arboreta are closely associated with memory systems, whereby themes, ideas, and classical references can be referenced in statuary, fountains, and diverse formal objects. Carefully arranged, these objets de jardin act as a sequence of code that might be ‘strung together into an iconographical programme or narrative.’
(Hunt 2001: 20-22) However, here the garden-as-mnemonic-text is at its most vulnerable, as over time cultural references will be lost or displaced, and a ‘proper’ reading will be at the mercy of the linguistic sophistication and foreknowledge of subsequent generations. In addition, growth, decay and replacement will muddle the narrative intent. Those who design arboreta, in particular, rely on a parallel narrative of naming, using captions and texts to provide a running commentary on the origins, associations and mnemonic function of particular trees, shrubs or plantings.

As ‘theatres of memory’, the mnemonic structure of a designed garden is perfectly matched to the task of memorialisation.
(Mosser and Nys 1994) Doris Francis has argued that the seasonal cycle of nature ‘confronts men and women with their own changes and mortality’ concentrating the mind on the brevity of life and swift passage of time. (Francis et al 1999: 122) As a manner of ‘dramaturgical’ space, the staged setting of the garden can represent both physical vulnerability and transience, and is thus suggestive of both decay and renewal. This effect is exactly matched to the diction of commemoration, indeed garden-memorials have perhaps the unique capacity – of all art forms - to evoke poignant analogies between human existence, the fragility of nature and consolations of cyclic regeneration. (Miller 1993) These modes of signification are emphasized by the knowledge that many gardens and arboreta will not achieve their intended design until long after their designers have passed away.

Trees, shrubs, and flowers are a pivotal trope in the design of gardens. Here, the role of the gardener is crucial: a skilful gardener can appear to deny death and disorder by, planting maintaining, and caring for plants within the walled domain. As Francis observes, a well-tended garden is a ‘symbolic bulwark’ against disorder, decay and the occasional randomness of death.
(Francis et al: 122) Indeed, a skilled gardener can appear to postpone, even eradicate, death by judicious and diligent plant management. Miller (1993) draws important analogies between the natural cycle of plant life and the course of human development: in that they both put down roots, blossom, flower, come to fruition, and unfold.

As ‘materialised memory’ flowers are often used aesthetically, as acceptable means of ‘visualizing the process of physical decay’ unleashed by death
(Hallam and Hockey 2001:133). Their gradual decay stands as an approved reminder of the fate of all flesh; the antithesis of ‘identity, system, order’ that is the character of the living body. (Kristeva 1982: 4)