‘Leaping the Fence’: A taster of the forthcoming Special Issue of Environment and History on Parks and Gardens

The first issue of next year’s Environment and History will be a Special Issue on Parks and Gardens that emerged from the 2015 ESEH conference in Versailles. What follows is the introduction to the issue by editors Karen Jones and James Beattie.


In this special issue on garden and environmental history we venture into the relatively untrodden intellectual no-man’s land between two areas of academic enquiry that are both focused on the natural world yet typically patrol distinct turf boundaries. James Beattie sets out some of the core issues under review in our first paper. He points to the ways in which garden historians have tended to remain in the comfortable corral of horticulturally-tended space, while environmental historians have preferred to emphasise the ‘bigger picture’, long-term ecosystem changes and spaces ‘out there’. As Beattie points out, a brief scan of the back issues of Environment and History, along with other journals in the field, reveals a distinct paucity of coverage when it comes to gardens.

This special issue – which grew out of Environment and History sponsored panels at the European Society for Environmental History 2015 conference (held, rather appropriately, in Versailles) begins to redress this balance. In fact, as Beattie and others in this collection recommend, there is much to be gained by taking a leaf out of early eighteenth century garden designer William Kent’s book and ‘leaping the fence’ between garden and environment. This intellectual barrier is especially evident when it comes to elucidating the complex tautology of environmental values and cultural practices. Accordingly, by looking at nature both material and imaginary (what Beattie calls an ‘ecocultural approach’) we find much of shared interest, debate and reflection in the well-worked ground of the past. Beattie’s case for academic cross-fertilisation is fleshed out in a survey of twelfth-century China.

From here, we move to twentieth-century Australia and the various challenges its garden designers faced in seeking to establish ordered space in an urban, sometimes temperate climate. As such, the second paper from Andrea Gaynor provides an excellent case study of the value of bringing ‘macro’ concerns familiar to environmental history into the localised ecology or micro-environment of the garden. Her focus on the ‘relationships between people, plants and invertebrates’ presents a view of the city as a vibrant, teeming, complex multi-species community and also usefully destabilises the categories of cultivated-controlled (urban, modern) space and a nature ‘out there’ (wild, iconic and unmediated).

Our third paper, by Karen Jones, remains in the cityscape to trace the ways in which health, wellbeing and medical metaphor were deployed in campaigns for nineteenth-century park creation. The park (or the public garden) provided a physical and conceptual terrain on which various constituencies for reform and public could congregate, converse and conserve, based on the notions of healthy and unhealthy space in a metabolic cityscape. Our fourth paper, from Clare Hickham, finds a longer ‘tail’ of medical discourse in the botanic gardens that became popular in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. Also telling is the fact that the bucolic visions of the 1800s park and garden designers creating rus in urbe are now being validated by environmental and social scientists who confirm the value of green space in making cities ‘liveable’ in terms of both human health indices and markers of biodiversity.

Transforming ‘grey’ into ‘green’ denotes a pressing concern for an increasingly urban 21st-century world and yet remains curiously beneath the radar in contemporary policy discussions of resilient and so-called ‘smart’ cities. This evolving narrative – the corpus of the park idea – is updated and refined by Alan Tate in his paper. Illuminating the value of cross-disciplinary conversations between historians and landscape architects, Tate’s contribution is especially pertinent in its focus on design and aesthetics (something which historians, as a breed, are more tentative in discussing as compared to, say, science or cultural life), as well as thinking usefully about thematic categories and broad trends in the visual cultures and management impulses of park landscapes.


Our last two papers point to the valuable endeavour of approaching garden history as what Duncan Campbell calls a ‘contact zone’, as well as to the diversity of experiences of gardens and landscapes (especially beyond Europe and North America) well deserving of dedicated treatment. In his contribution, Campbell looks at the intersection of garden and book history in terms of shared space (most private gardens of China had libraries) and intellectual cross-fertilisation: itself an important reminder of the narrative tracks connecting physical and literary space. For our final paper, meanwhile, the focus is on biography and the useful ways in which individual testimony can help unpack the broader landscape of garden history in terrains rather more familiar to scholars in the field. As Daniel Rinn shows in his survey of American horticultural specialist Liberty Hyde Bailey, the philosophical underplantings of garden terrain presented their own ‘puzzle’ to match organic tangles. Accordingly, by extrapolating on the visions and achievements of individuals and their campaigns of horticultural improvement we learn much about the imaginative and practical landscape of garden history and our entangled attitudes towards nature.


In sum, then, this issue offers a collective call to ‘leap the fence’ and connect environmental history to those disciplines and areas of historical enquiry which have long held much in common but which have been artificially divided by tradition, proscribed research trajectories and extant historiography. While landscape and garden historians in recent years have vaulted the figurative ha-ha to wander the meadow of environmental history beyond, a corollary journey from the ‘outside in’ has been rather less common. Of course, the coverage offered in this Special Issue is far from definitive – we provide a snapshot of people, places and plants – but the evidence here suggests an expansive and fruitful terrain of park and garden history across a range of disparate global geographies with discrete and particular stories to tell. That said, the broader message here is one of convergence: of possibilities for future cross-pollination, disciplinary synergies and discourse-crunching across landscape boundaries and time zones.

Each of the papers raises questions of fundamental relevance to environmental history – of the constructing of bodies (rhetorical and physical); how spaces are made and maintained; how ‘green’ fits in the modern and post-modern urban landscape; the place of experts and advocates in disseminating environmental knowledge; and the complex intellectual demarcations of landscape types in our philosophising on nature. The ‘Spatial Turn’ which the historical canon has been lately embracing may be hardly ‘news’ to environmental historians well used to considering the material and imaginative terra firma on which human (and other species’) actions play out, but it remains useful, on occasion, to step back and ‘see the wood for the trees’. What the borderlands terrain of environment and garden history provides is a fresh testing ground, a place of experiment and encounter that helpfully challenges our preconceptions, tropes and categories of analysis, especially in terms of reminding us of the importance of scale to the questions we ask and our application of discrete environmental values and aesthetic codes in talking about spaces ostensibly ‘wild’ and ‘tame’. William Kent hit upon something critical when he advised garden designers to leap the fence. Historians, as it turns out, are well advised to do the same.



The editors would like to thank the contributors and reviewers for all of their hard work. As well, James acknowledges the support of a Writing Fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center, Ludwigs-Maximilians Universität, Munich, during preparation of his paper and the issue. All pictures in this blog post are public domain images.


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