Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Refined Beauty: reflections from visiting gardens in Waddesdon Manor and Stowe

Walking in Stowe Landscape Gardens was an experience similar to walking in the Oriental gardens of Suzhou, China, in some curious ways. Gardens in Suzhou take great pains to ensure that the scenery changes with every step the observer takes. The shadow of bamboos dances on a white wall; a trickling stream pours out from beneath a tiny triangular pavilion; red carps swim under purple water lilies… No matter where you are standing or to which direction you are looking, what your eyes behold is guaranteed to be beautiful. Such exquisite craftsmanship and such relentless determination to perfect nature are shared by their Stowe counterparts. Their endeavor is not as obvious as in the case of Waddesdon Manor’s formal gardens, however. Gardens in Stowe and Suzhou look superficially “natural”—or at least much more natural than those in Waddesdon. But they are the products of strict manipulation of nature all the same.

People in general believe that nature is “not enough”—whether they are from the East or the West. Something has to be done to improve nature before it can be enjoyed by them. Take my mother as an example: she would be put in awe by spectacles like the Grand Canyon, but if taken to an average nature reserve, she would complain, “What’s here to see? It’s just trees.” If without exciting elements such as megafauna, waterfalls, showy flowers, and limestone formations, nature can be quite boring for some people. After all, civilization is to be proud of. By sculpturing nature, man’s creativity, craftsmanship, and resourcefulness are illuminated. No wealthy and influential guest would be impressed if you show them a simple patch of forest.

Can nature be valued as it is, no more, no less? Can unrefined beauty be as appreciated as are delicate works of art? Some may argue that recreational activities like fishing and bird watching do not require nature to be refined into gardens. But these also come with manipulation. Bullfrogs were introduced from Eastern to Western U.S. to entertain fishermen. RSPB reserves are micro-managed to please birders’ binoculars.

…Conservation has a long way to go.


  1. Great piece Kai. It's interesting how some people might aestetically value nature more once it's been altered by humans. Maybe it's part of the

    I've never come across the story that fisherman introduced bullfrogs before, do you have a link?

    Another good example might be the stocking of non-native fish (such as Rainbow Trout in British rivers, Nile Perch, or Carp in Australian rivers) for recreational fishermen to catch, which then become dominant.

    There's also problems in the Lake District with species like Vendace (found only in Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite in England) becoming outcompeted by growing populations of bait-fish (such as roach) introduced at the end of an angler's session.

    That said, I'm thinking about writing a blog on how recreational fishing can foster a positive environmental's never simple!

  2. "Maybe it's part of the.."

    Don't know what happened there! A cliffhanger!

    I think I was going to mention the lens through which people value nature as an "other" to be modified, controlled and understood by humans.