Right off the bat, John Dixon Hunt pronounced his antipathy for any textural description of sounds and scents in the garden. I found this particularly amusing. Hunt is the author of numerous books and articles. Like or not, as the first speaker of the day at the Sound and Scent Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks: he was the fly in the ointment. Did the organizers of the conference know this would happen? I was unsure. He objected to the idea that there is anything objective in describing scent or sound in the garden. Two people walk through a field of lavender in Southern France. They recount that experience. Each person describes the experience in a different way. Hunt made a case for the inability to measure the immeasurable. “I want to kill words.” What a way to begin a two-day symposium of scholarly papers. “I think it’s terribly important to have something in your life you can’t grasp.” I was totally in tune with Hunt’s philosophy and started to doubt my decision to come to the symposium.
Anatole Tchikine, a Dumbarton Oaks Fellow, seemingly had an “non-controversial topic” for his paper: “Water in the Italian Garden: The Culture of Display and the Politics of Sensory Experience.” Tchkikine discussed how the Fascist dedication to building a united nation, extended to the making of gardens. This notion of Italian identity rested on the rational, the ordered and the geometric. As an example of the support this philosophy had, Tchikine cited the gardens promoted by several ex-pats. Edith Wharton, in her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, was Tchikine’s prime example of the “fascist” Italian aesthetic.
Barbara Burlison Mooney followed Tchikine. Her paper “Bearing to Your Senses Sweet
Sounds and Odors: Early Impressions of the Prairie Landscape,” could not have contrasted more with the previous speakers. Bird sounds of the American goldfinch, Whippoorwill, Great Horned Owl, Prairie Chicken and Rattlesnake filled the music room at Dumbarton Oaks. Her power point was a symphony of chatter and chirp, screaming and quacking. Mooney was the only one of the speakers that attempted to recreate the “vast ocean, teaming with life” one finds in the prairie. Her reading of letters from six different pioneers, who settled near the prairies of Illinois in the middle of the 19th century, advanced the theory that the culture you bring to a landscape subverts your reading of that landscape.
As the suffocating cacophony of monotone speakers continued, one voice stood out: Elizabeth Fowler. Her paper entitled, “Audio Delay: the Hortus Conclusus and Body Technique” seemed an impenetrable title. But, the title was the only part of Professor Fowler’s paper that was inaccessible. Fowler focused her attention the enclosed garden as a place for roaming: a tunnel of privacy.The cloister as a soundscape. The columns of the cloister are like telephone poles along a highway, slowing time and sustaining sound. As I listened to Fowler, I began to think of The High Line as a kind of cloister. Its’ linear form, its’ potential for roaming, its’ “walls” formed by the constant building to the east and west side of the former rail line. The High Line is a cloister for the 21st century. The form of the cloister may have been a medieval invention; the High Line is our cloister: creating a spiritual journey, sustained by walking and enhancing the appreciation of the senses.