Did you hear about the Five Pillars of British Landscaping Empire during your religion classes?
To sort them by order of importance within the Holy Book of Grass: First is Grass. Second is pasture grass (this one comes with fences). Third is leisure grass. Forth is golf grass. Fifth is: you never have enough flowers & cute little benches on your grass.
Those five pillars are so spread out in almost every part of the world that you don’t even notice them anymore. British succeeded to convince you that Earth was born with cute little benches, ubiquitous green grass patches, lovely golf-shaped hills, messy-yet-ordered floral gardens and bamboo bird-feeders natively hanging on trees.
All countries colonized by the british empire carry the scars of this “religion” deeply embedded in their landscapes. This goes way beyond the simple fact of forcing grass to grow where it couldn’t. We are talking about the whole imperial ideology of shaping the surface of the earth to reflect a culture, a history, beliefs, a way to interact with the land, plants, animals and imaginaries. Its about shaping the ways people see their own land.
It goes with a way of life and a vision of the world based on 19th century ideologies. Here would be the real pillars of British Landcaping Empire, as concepts relying on each other to build a strong set of beliefs being projected on the land itself:
The Romanticism period starts in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Artists of that time, and mostly dutch painters, will give to nature a meaning it never had before. They will transform nature into a space where artist project their feelings and emotions. Nature becomes the canvas of the piece, as well as its main subject. Nature itself (biology) doesn’t matter. Nature becomes something crucial only because it reflects the artist’s soul and inner poetry. That’s also at that time that wilderness is invented. More important: the national imaginary will shape very strongly attached to this idea that nature (either rural, either wild) is a national property citizen of a country must defend at all cost.
How did that ended up getting us more grass patches? Well, nature is represented as “human friendly” on those paints. Its not actual wilderness, its more of a domesticated nature both poetic and easy to walk through. So, no deep dark bushes, no arid badlands, no wild waters. Only soft, pleasant smooth grass to picnic on. Deeply embedded in how nature should be shaped for humans needs conception, this lead to a certain way of landscaping public inhabited spaces (city squares where invented following the idea that a patch of grass in the middle of a dense city will make people feel healthier and cleaner). All “green spaces” you come accross in Europe and North America with grass patches, benches and carefully selected trees are from there.
#2 & #3. Private property & Farming
Private property is probably the most important ideological belief of western modern culture. Its invention comes along with the development of farming in the british Empire.
Private property has been invented somewhere between the end of middle age and the beginning of Renaissance. It reached its current power level during the Industrial Revolution that founded our world. That’s also the origin of the pioneer ideology shaping the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand national identities still today. That is: 1. Land is a gift of god man shall farm not to waste God’s gift (so we owe god to cut trees), 2. You are now part of a big institution called a state (with imperial ambitions) that owns the land and got it split into sellable pieces for you to produce some food, 3. In exchange for that production you sell, you have the right to possess everything else that land gives back, and the State is your guarantor no one will steal it. It’s yours.
To make it short: Farming implies sedentary lifestyle. Sedentary lifestyle implies neighbours. Neighbours imply boundaries (materialized by fences).
Pastures and fields will quickly count for more than 80% of the surface of England (that was initially all forests). In New Zealand, the latest country of the Commonwealth to be “discovered” and colonized by the british about 1,000 years ago, that proportion of forest had reduced of 90% before 1950.
Directly related to the notion of Private Property, “Home” is however more than just a synonym of “private”. With no equivalent in french for instance, that word is typically and culturally british. The Home is more than just the house. Its also the garden, the family, the country, God and the land. Its the set of cultural beliefs people are living for, the reason they are strongly attached to this specific piece of earth, for all this mean to them.
To make yourself at home, you not only have to build a house and to cut some trees around it, but also to take care of every single details of your environment. Inside, you carefully choose the colors, the arrangement of the furnitures, the matching of curtains with your table set. Outside, this need to appropriate and shape the environment goes through gardening: selecting flowers, trees, organizing patches, making some paths, spreading some benches on the grass, etc.
The british garden, both messy and very carefully organized, has become one of the most famous landscaping model that is being adapted in private and public spaces across all the western world.
#5. Exporting the british Ecosystem
Fulfilling the imperial wish of making the world a british heaven comes with transforming all other countries into an England fac-simile. As climate does not always allow british native plants to grow on other continents, some adjustments had to be made.
That implies watering like crazy to keep the grass green where its not naturally as rainy as England (Australia, South Africa, some parts of India, among others). That also means importing some invading species such as broom, used as an decorative flower in Western Europe, that turned into a invasive monster weed once imported to New Zealand (the yellow flowers below). The introduction of farm animals and predators, such as rabbit, sheep, rats, foxes and insects completely upset natural ecosystems to turn them into a wide England-like food chain.
Not only did the british colonization changed the face of economy, history and culture over the planet, it also changed its very face, accross a massive, imperial and uniforme landscaping entreprise that transformed our conception of what a landscape should look like.
- Four Fields by Tim Dee – review (theguardian.com)
- Homesick British put colonial stamp on India’s gardens (ndtv.com)
- Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- Historical Achievements and Contemporary Failures: The American Lawn (3quarksdaily.com)
- Why Does Your Yard Look the Same as Every Other Yard? (psmag.com)