Back in Edinburgh, I know someone who is partial to a little sculptural clipping in his garden. You know the sort of thing: clipping the privet into gently undulating waves, softening the usual straight lines and sharp angles of hedges and herbaceous borders. When I lived in York, in the North of England, the university at Heslington had a whole lawn of huge yew or juniper trees (something of that ilk) that were clipped into a variety of asymmetric shapes that I always thought looked like giant chess pieces. In Geneva, in the Jardin Anglais beside the lake, there is a famous clock made entirely from flowers, now often copied throughout the world. You might be someone who dislikes clipping, pruning and contorting plants and shrubs into contours, patterns and forms that defy their natural way of being. Why go to all that trouble when nature does it for you? And I agree; left to its own devices, nature’s shapely designs cannot be surpassed. There is no greater beauty than that which Mother Nature serves up of her own accord and trying to tame her can often lessen her grandeur. Nevertheless, whilst I wouldn’t have the patience for it myself, doesn’t everyone enjoy the novelty of a little topiary now and then? So, when AC invited me to a Canadian exhibition of planted sculptures, elevating topiary (she promised me) to a level I could not imagine, I accepted her invitation in a flash.
Ottawa and Gatineau are conjoined twin cities and the fissure in the join is the Ottawa River. Although twins, they speak different languages as the river is the dividing line between Ontario and Quebec. We crossed into Francophone Quebec and found our way to Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau where the collection, entitled ‘Mosaic Culture’, was assembled. This part of Canada used to be dominated by the native Algonquin tribe and an interpretive board at the entrance told of how fitting it was to have displays of the Algonquin culture in a spot where, in the past, they gathered for social and religious reasons. I still didn’t quite know what was in store for me, but soon this sign would make sense. Passing through the ticket barrier we arrived into a fairly standard park with a pleasing aspect looking back across the water to Ottawa – Parliament Hill and the Alexandra bridge with its recognisable steel truss cantilevers. However, an otherwise ordinary park had been transformed by forty or so massive figures, animals and objects all fashioned from plants, flowers and grass. It was extraordinary.
There were red foxes twice my size, tails all planted with wispy red glass. There were puffins from Newfoundland, a howling wolf, snowy owls and a polar bear from way up north. There were horses – four times their normal size – running through meadows of orange poppies and Black-eyed susans. There was a pair of giant herons, an orca whale, and a Nova Scotia fisherman pulling lobster pots from a planted sea. There were beavers, porcupines, turtles and muskoxen – whose long grassy hair I so desperately wanted to stroke. The beaver tails, oxen horns, puffin beaks and most of the animals’ eyes seemed to be moulded from resin, but otherwise, every scrap of them was growing. There was a stunning tree whose branches were shaped from 56 birds – all of them protected; on an international red list because they are endangered. There was a depiction of the story of the raven and the moon – the brining of light to the earth. All in all, 5.5 million plants were used for colour, texture and shape; all planted into steel structures and held together with a planting membrane. The effect was stunning.
Daughter of Prince Edward Island, Anne Of Green Gables, could be found sitting on a trunk, carpet bag on her lap, bonnet on her head. A Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, sat high in the saddle bearing a flag. An Algonquin tribesman was paddling his own canoe while, nearby, three Algonquin women were making a canoe from planks of birch. There was a ballerina, who rotated in a slow pirouette as if she were on a jewellery box. Next to her, a giant cellist and a similarly outsized grand piano. I was moved when I came upon the sculpture entitled, ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’: a massive cloaked figure, down on one knee, holding a staff and planting an oak sapling. It was a powerful image of simple humility depicting the story of the shepherd named Elzeiard Bouffier who slowly, systematically and patiently turned an arid stretch of land in the foothills of the Alps into an expansive forest.
I saw her as we approached the end of the meandering lap of the park, standing still to take her in from a distance before I got any closer. AC smiled and leaned into me. “I had the same reaction last year when I saw her for the first time last year. Isn’t she breathtaking? Calming? Powerful?” She was all that and more. Mother Earth, Gaia, Pachamama, Mahimata: call her what you will, she is universal and the notion of her transcends nationalities and all ages. The biggest of all of the exhibits, she rises head and shoulders from the earth and embodies serenity: eyes closed, lips soft and hair of all colours flowing back into the earth. Her hand is held aloft from a pool of water, and from the waterfall pouring from her palm, an eagle drinks. She is the basis for everything: living beings, plant life, minerals, textiles, food, and all that we had seen that day. Mankind might think we can tame her into submission, but I left with the resounding message handed down from the Algonquins and before: Mother Earth is very much in charge.