nurseries of the body – part 2

Vintage photograph of the Cloisters, NYC

Vintage photograph of the Cloisters, NYC

Guest Blogger:  Elizabeth Fowler

At Dumbarton Oaks I talked about the way that hardscape and plantscape combine to shape a special experience of listening. In the enclosed garden of a medieval monastery, for instance, you have an open green space surrounded by a covered walkway enclosed by stone walls (you can visit such a hortus conclusus transplanted to New York at the magnificent Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights). The acoustic situation there is what engineers would call horizontally wet but vertically dry. The stone surround is highly acoustically reflective, nearly 100%, which causes steps on the walkway to resonate richly around us with sustained sound. A nearly opposite acoustics pertains in the vertical dimension, because the sky has a reflectivity of 0% and allows sound waves to escape immediately, and plant matter in the center is absorbant but also whispers and rustles as it moves.

Bosco Shepherd

Il Bosco Della Ragnaia, San Giovanni d’Asso

If there’s a fountain, sound issues from it and reflects in little waves from the walls, distributed across the “garth” of the cloister. It resonates sonorously along the walkway and dissipates out above the courtyard, like smoke escaping through a chimney. The overall picture is of a sustained focus around and an outlet above: the acoustics of the space precisely echo a particular attitude or posture towards cultivated prayer.

Cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain

Cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain

So the very particular acoustic properties of garden conventions shape the experience of the user, and are a source for us in understanding the history of body techniques. Walking prayer and meditation evolved in concert with the enclosed cloister garden and engaged the acoustic resonance of the space, a kind of resonance that was very different than that of the church interior that lay behind the wall. The most intriguing thing I think I see fossilized in the remains of the cloister garden is this: that the place cultivates a moment of delay between sensory experience and the onset of meaning. Walking the cloister, you walk without a destination — on an infinite, square path. Listening, you hear a resonance to your side — sound sustained rather than immediately decaying. These practices seem to lay out a process of meditative thought that prolongs the moment between perception and cognition.

The Cathedral of San Giovanni in  Laterano, Rome

The Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome

I see traces of this practice of sound in many different versions of the enclosed garden: archaeological, literary, painted, woven in tapestries. In the case of Geoffrey Chaucer’s stories, for instance, the enclosed garden seems to be an instrument for producing the experience of sustained and deliberative thought — staying with a feeling or a scent or a vision for a while before you decide what it means. Allowing time for meaning to be debated, considered, to change. Mulling over things; walking them along without a destination. It may be savoring an experience, or it may be soothing pain. Chaucer calls this activity of the enclosed garden “roaming” and he shows a number of characters engaged in it as they suffer, desire, hope, grieve, and wander into and around walled gardens. I can see it in the very landscape architecture of the enclosed garden.


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