I was reminded by a reader the other day that I had promised an additional entry on this iconic garden. I had visited it way, way back in 2013 but somehow my second installment never made it onto the page….
Time and space made me realize I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was left unsettled by this garden.
It is perched high above the surrounding valley, with views reaching down to the St. Lawrence in what was, and remains for many, the playground of the well-heeled.
When the gardens at Les Quatres Vents were created in the last quarter of the 20th century, Francis Cabot’s horticultural, historical and architectural aspirations were reflected through these landscape expressions. This level of excellence was made possible through wealth and high-society connections and Cabot’s creations mimicked the famous gardens in England, France and Japan, drawing upon (literally, physically and ideologically) the most influential gardeners, artisans and horticulturists of the day.
All this was taking place during the gardening boom in North America, when the work of contemporary British gardeners like Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stuart-Thomas were being heralded for the first time to us colonials. More than this, the historical gardens of British icons like Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Russell Page were being documented in lush picture books that beginner gardeners began to devour (much to the delight of the big publishing houses in New York and London). Cabot’s hedges channeled those in almost every English estate garden, while his languorous half-circle stone staircases reflected those designed by the famed British architect and “taste-maker” Edwin Lutyens.
He sought their advice and held to it strictly …..
…witness the rose garden under-planted with pinks (Dianthus), a la Russell Page’s instruction.
There are allees, precisely clipped hedges and regimented sight-lines galore, which in my mind are a stereotypical fetish of the male gardener. Think Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote Manor fame.
But I ask you, when is rigidity visually pleasurable and when is it claustrophobic?
When is repetition satisfying and when is it predictable and formulaic?
And when is monumentalism awe-inspiring and when is it simply exhibitionism?
There were moments in this garden when I couldn’t help wondering, “Where is the authentic spirit of the place? Where is the place I can sit and feel at peace near the mouth of the St-Lawrence, without feeling the uncomfortable imposition of prestige and power?”
There were moments when I thought I had found that place …. but the question remained: were these choreographed moments where the garden designer had anticipated the blurring effects of time or simply nature triumphing over artifice …? And did it matter?
In this new 21st century world where we are loosening our grip around nature, letting plants be what they intrinsically are without shaping, coddling, orchestrating and overseeing, it was the moments where wildness seemed to win where I found the most pleasure…
But there were also dream-like “garden” moments that were clearly the result of intensive construction projects. The relative instant gratification they must have provided Cabot is almost breath-taking. Take his homage to the Japanese garden.
Cabot’s Japanese garden, like its inspiration on the other side of the world, combines stone, water, temple and plants. There is no question that it creates a place of contemplation where the furthest thing from your mind is artifice or incongruity (if this Asian art is new to you) …… and yet, in this Quebec countryside, it is exactly that. It tries but it is not an authentic Japanese garden experience. But, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
And then there were the plants….
As Cabot himself characterized it, his garden had to be a “greater perfection.” A skilled stonemason constructed the terraces, walls and stairs; a craftsman borrowed from Japan built the tea house; visiting professionals were asked for input on the plants and gardens. Cabot sought instruction from the very best and when he couldn’t do some of the practical stuff himself, he hired those who could.
Many of these plants are moisture lovers that require cool summers and humous-rich soil. And so, in order to grow these spectacular Asian beauties (Rodgersia, Primula, Lilium, Iris, Meconopsis), soil was moved, trees were planted, water was directed and misters were rigged. It is the perfect man-made environment.
So isn’t that what a garden is anyway?
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes.
Still, I choose imperfection. Because I am.
I will visit what is presented as perfection, with my eyes gazing up and down in awe and my mind overwhelmed with the logistics. But I will feel at home with much less.