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The View From Federal Twist: A Clearing in the Woods

Ahead of James Golden’s talk with Dan Pearson on 2 November, here he shares an extract from his new book ‘The View from Federal Twist’, published by Filbert Press. Set on a ridge above the Delaware River in western New Jersey, Federal Twist is a naturalistic garden with loose boundaries that integrates closely with the natural world surrounding it. In this extract, James explains the vision behind his garden in the woods:

The terrace on an autumn day

The setting

When we moved to a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I knew only a naturalistic garden would suit the place. With a long, low profile, deep overhanging eves, generous use of wood, an unobtrusive, simple, temple-like structure designed to leave a light footprint on the landscape—all suggestive of a Japanese influenced aesthetic—the house would set an informal, wildish style for the garden. Even the road name, intriguing because of its unknown origin, added a hint of mystery, as did the location, hidden amid woodland cloaking the hilltops above the Delaware.

On a first visit with the real estate agent, as I looked out through a wall of windows across the back of the house, the view gave me pause. I saw below an unkempt wood of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)—a tangle of vines, trees and dangling, dead limbs. Not promising for a garden, I thought. Looking back, my decision to make a garden here seems not entirely rational. I still don’t fully understand my acceptance of this very un-gardenlike place as my garden destiny (I wouldn’t make another). I do know it had much to do with the house, which clearly would be integral to the garden. The building had an intimate relationship with the place, even in its unkempt state.

Although it sounds pretentious, ‘vision’ seems the most apt word to describe my realization of what the garden might be.

I was quite taken with that rather magical idea of this house set amid a garden, and I decided to accept it all—the good with the bad. It led me to create a garden totally different from anything I’d imagined.

Making a clearing in the woods

Over that first winter I waited, anxious to get the junipers cut and make a clearing to let in light. It was a snowy winter and rather pretty (snow hides a lot). We didn’t have a deer exclusion fence then, so I could wander far out into the woods on adjacent land, look back toward the house in its snowy scene, and imagine what the garden could be with all that space available to me. I was standing on preserved land I didn’t own; although I couldn’t cultivate it, the land would remain forever green, so I could ‘borrow’ its expansiveness for my garden. I would have to garden a clearing in the woods—a much smaller space—and rely on the surrounding forest to give the garden breathing room.

The clearing borrows views into the surrounding woods. The hill on the other side of the Lockatong Creek valley is just visible through the winter-bare trees.

A clearing in the woods is an archetypal American landscape that came into common use in the 18th and 19th centuries. Open sightlines near the house were needed for security and protection. Such isolated landscapes are still popular for the seclusion they offer. It’s a richly symbolic landscape type with deep emotional and historical associations, not just in the United States but also elsewhere; the clearing in the woods is ubiquitous in literature, legends, and stories in many cultures going back to ancient times. Nevertheless, it has become a particularly American landscape, not because the type doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world, but simply because our country—in spite of our ravenous culture of suburban development—has many forested areas left, certainly in comparison to Europe. You might think spatial constraints would limit gardening possibilities. Over the past 15 years, I learned that isn’t necessarily so; a woodland clearing offers surprisingly broad capabilities for play of the imagination.

The clearing gives a sense of protection. You are closed off, at least visually, from intruders. This provides a sense of seclusion and comfort during the day and in good weather. But at night you may feel isolated, alone, vulnerable, and unprotected—a feeling I’ve frequently experienced in my own garden. Such feelings, when used to intensify emotion, can deepen the experience of the garden. You just have to allow that gardens are not all sweetness and light; they also may have a darker side. As in Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Vittorio De Sica’s great film of the same name, they can be places of great sadness, anguish, and fear even in the midst of joy.

Such solitary settings are rather common in films and fiction; they easily evoke strong moods and are effective settings for many different kinds of stories. You don’t have to look far to find emotional linkages to literary, folk, or past cultural uses: a formal council of Native Americans, a classic American outdoor worship service on a Sunday morning, a happy family picnic, a celebration—or darker stories of a gathering of witches in the night, a meeting place for slaves planning escape, a lynching; any number of secret ceremonies or emotion-laden events come immediately to mind. But such scenes don’t need to be specifically referenced. Unless that’s the intent—as Ian Hamilton Finlay used the French Revolution and even specific individuals in his garden at Little Sparta in Scotland—my preference is to leave ambiguous hints and suggestions, and let details be heard only as indistinct whispers.

The view out from the woodland into the sunny center of the garden —a classic example of prospect-refuge.

The clearing in the woods is also a classic prospect-refuge setting because it meets the need for both a view out (prospect) and for safety (refuge). The trees and shrubs bordering the open clearing create this environment, which human beings (and many other animals) find so desirable. The house is a refuge looking out onto the sunlit garden, as is the view out from the shade of the woodland garden into the prairie, or the views from any number of quieter niche areas you can retreat to. Many of the chiaroscuro lighting effects to be found in the clearing are also textbook examples of views into light from dark, shady places; they embody the very idea of prospect and refuge.

James Golden will be in conversation with Dan Pearson at the Garden Museum on Tuesday 2 November. Tickets to attend in-person are now sold out, book to watch the live stream online here.

The View from Federal Twist is out now.

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