Rose garden, perennial garden, shade garden, kitchen garden. All of those spaces occur as part of a larger landscape that most of us would call, generically, the garden. Isn’t it absurd to use the same word for a conglomeration of things and a single thing that’s a part of the conglomeration?
Think about it - When it comes to buildings, an individual space is a “room” while a conglomeration of rooms is a “building” or “house”. Why don’t we have words to describe such distinctions in gardens? Just calling them “garden rooms” doesn’t count.
The language of landscape - especially words that describe physical features in agricultural landscapes - has received flickers of attention in recent years. Given the vast population shifts from rural subsistence farming to urban life over the past decade, it’s not surprising that language reflects such changes in human experience. Every few months, the old story resurfaces from the 2008 protests over removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. This story in itself isn’t all that interesting, but it’s helped draw attention to the relationship between landscape and language.
As a result of that story, there have been a wonderful new crop of books - particularly in the UK - that catalogue names for landscape features which might otherwise be lost. I’m building a small stack of them in my own collection. Uncommon Ground: A Word-Lover’s Guide to the British Landscape by Dominick Tyler is a particularly beautiful example, with stunning photographs of the features given name in the book. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (one of the instigators of the Oxford Junior Dictionary kerfluffle) is a more literary approach to words of the same region. How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley is an incredibly joyful bit of writing that also contains an incredible number of terms relating to water in the landscape.
I don’t know of anyone who’s done such poetic studies of disappearing landscape language here in the US (please shoot me an email if you’re aware of someone whose work I’m missing). I have Barry Lopez & Debra Gwartney’s Home Ground, a doorstop of a book which does a quick glance over the landscape language of the entire United States. But we lack works that celebrate the landscape words of the Ozarks and Appalachians, Cajun country, Florida - to name just a few of the regions I know well.
Collecting regional words for landscape features isn’t enough. Garden design and landscape architecture are creative practices - they involve naming spaces, relationships and objects that we desire to create. So far, the language that we use in garden and landscape studies reflects the hybrid nature of our inquiry. The words we use derive from many different disciplines: art, architecture, anthropology, botany, ecology, geology, geography, are just a few.
But there’s still something missing. There’s no quick verbal distinction between a single flower bed (which we’ve all heard someone call their “flower garden”) and an immersive space where you walk in between and through masses of planting. The word garden still means “vegetable garden” to most people in the south and midwest. There’s no easy way to describe a garden’s relationship to its context within the landscape, whether it flows into its surroundings or is cut off and inward-focused. These are just spatial aspects - they don’t even address the social and ecological dynamics of gardens.
We lack language to adequately describe the physical and spatial qualities of landscapes. I’d argue that this lack is limiting our industry’s agency in society. If you can’t name something, that thing doesn’t matter. It’s time for those of us who care about gardens and landscapes to be both more creative and more intentional about the language we use. Once we can more clearly describe what makes the places we love valuable, we’ll be better able to bring others along to understand and appreciate them with us.