Atmosphere in the dying garden

Last photos, taken November 13, before a small snow and plunging temperatures. Winter arrives in another month, but the last few days have felt like February. I’ve been reading about atmosphere and mood, but I’m not sure it’s possible to put a name to what I feel in the garden. Perhaps it’s too personal, perhaps it lives in the body and can’t be described in words. Consider this–though the subject is literature, I think the experience of the garden is relevant. The text focuses on the German word Stimmung:

“I would like to propose that interpreters and historians of literature read with Stimmung in mind …


To gain awareness and appreciation of the different significations and shades of meaning that Stimmung conjures up, it is useful to look at the various clusters of words that translate the term into other languages. English offers ‘mood’ and ‘climate.’ ‘Mood’ stands for an inner feeling so private it cannot be precisely circumscribed. ‘Climate,’ on the other hand, refers to something objective that surrounds people and exercises a physical influence. Only in German does the word connect with Stimme and stimmen. The first means ‘voice,’ and the second ‘to tune an instrument’; by extension, stimmen also means ‘to be correct.’ As the tuning of an instrument suggests, specific moods and atmospheres are experienced on a continuum, like musical scales. They present themselves to us as nuances that challenge our powers of discernment and description, as well as the potential of language to capture them.


I am most interested in the component of meaning that connects Stimmung with music and the hearing of sounds. As is well known, we do not hear with our inner and outer ear alone. Hearing is a complex form of behavior that involves the entire body. Skin and haptic modalities of perception play an important role. Every tone we perceive is, of course, a form of physical reality (if an invisible one) that ‘happens’ to our body and, at the same time, ‘surrounds’ it. Another dimension of reality that happens to our bodies in a similar way and surrounds them is the weather. For this very reason , references to music and weather often occur when literary texts make moods and atmospheres present or begin to reflect upon them. Being affected by sound or weather, while among the easiest and least obtrusive forms of experience, is, physically, a concrete encounter (in the literal sense of en-countering: meeting up) with our physical environment.


Toni Morrison once described the phenomenon with the apt paradox of ‘being touched as if from inside.’ She was interested, I imagine, in an experience familiar to everyone: that atmospheres and moods, as the slightest of encounters between our bodies and material surroundings, also affect our psyche …’ — from Hans Gumbrecht (2012-10-03). Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature (p. 4). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.


More on this later.




































































































































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38 thoughts on “Atmosphere in the dying garden

  1. Your garden has a depth that moves me every time I see it in person or in your images.

    Is that a Zenobia with the brilliant color? I didn’t know they did that. I would have guessed blueberry but this looks smaller than the giants skirting your garden.

  2. Paul, I think you’re one of my few friends who would recognize a Zenobia. Yes, you’re right. It does this intense red thing late every autumn. A fabulous shrub. Wish I could find more of them.

    1. I think I do, Anne. I believe you used the word “dialogue.” I’d say I’m trying to understand the relationship with the garden. Perhaps kinship is a better word. And you used the word “worship.” I wonder in what sense you mean it. I’ll have to read your piece in The Telegraph again. I’d say yes to that too, in the sense of communicating in a way that it may not be possible to put into words. A more bodily response through the senses and mind, and soul–should there be such a thing. As to the photos, there is the practical choice of documenting the changes in different weathers and seasons, also “opening the garden” without actually opening the gate. I know one should actually visit gardens, but many of us have to rely on photos when the visiting isn’t possible because of distance. I could go on. Your piece sets me thinking. Thank you. I enjoyed it.

      1. It was the best I could do by way of describing how it feels. (worship) Though sounds awful taken out of context.
        We’ll talk about it one day! (though maybe some things are so intimate you have to write about them….) XXxx

        1. Oddly, I’ve never thought seriously about why I take so many garden pictures. I use them in talks and for our website, but that’s not what drives me. Your article helped me understand that, for me, it’s a treasure hunt. I can’t stand the thought that I’ll never see the gorgeous sight in front of me exactly the same way again. It may only be by chance that I stumbled onto it and I don’t want it to be fleeting. I want to luxuriate in it, revisit it, roll around on it and sometimes learn from it. I am filthy rich in garden images and often feel a little guilty that I hoard them rather than share. It’s one of the reasons I admire garden writers – they care enough to do the extra work required to share. Thank you both for sharing.

  3. Yet another plant to look up on the internet, and find out I can’t have it, Zenobia. Quite lovely though. Honeycup, I am assuming that it smells like honey when in bloom?

    Thank you for taking pictures of your garden and opening your gates. It is very true that most of us will only see these gardens through the generosity of pictures. I am planning a trip to England (Kent, and Sussex) for 2016, so I will get to see some of the great British gardens, but you can’t cover them all in one trip, and I think that will be my only time. I rely on the pictures.

    1. Lisa, We’re hoping to take a long visit to the UK and The Netherlands this summer. I’m still planning how to choose what gardens I want to see. My list, of course, is far more than we could possibly do. I want to see gardens in Kent, Cambo and Little Sparta (and others) in Scotland, Rousham, Hidcote, and on and on. The logistics and numbers are daunting. But I want this to be a pleasure to, not a frantic rush from garden to garden. I’m paralyzed with the choices. But I agree, most gardens I will never see except in photographs, so we have to accept photography as having some validity.

  4. You may be surprised how many gardens you can see; England is small and many of the great gardens are very close together. I know you are very knowledgeable but if you want any advice you can always email me. your garden is looking better than I ever remember. Has the extra light after the hurricane made as much difference as you thought it would?

    1. So far on my list are Sissinghurst and Great Dixter (of course). I was given a suggestion of Goodnestone Park and the Salutation in East Kent, and West Dean, Perch Hill and Pashley Manor on the east side. I also don’t want to get too overwhelmed running everywhere. I would be interested to hear James’ list.

      1. Lisa, my list has about 80 gardens right now. I’ll post it when I get it within reason. I want to see gardens from Cambo way up in Scotland, and Little Sparta, of course, all the way down through Wales and Across to Kent, and up to Essex, for Beth Chatto. Rousham, Hidcote, Stowe, etc., etc. etc.

  5. Glad Paul asked, as I’d have assumed the flaming red shrubs were Itea virginica — which does really well here despite the soil not being quite as moist and acid as the Itea might prefer. All I’d ever heard about Zenobia had to do with the powder-blue leaves in spring and summer; now it turns out to have flamboyant late color, too? Sadly, it sounds as if Z’s are even more insistent on acid soil and some moisture, so the often steppe-like conditions here pretty much rule it out.

    1. A Canon Rebel with a good lens (24-105mm). I want to upgrade to a new Canon with a full frame sensor. Probably the 6D. This lens is good quality and macro to zoom. I got a sale price on it, but it’s still rather expensive.

        1. I have a second camera. A small rather expensive Sony, similar to the Panasonic, and I like it. But for best quality and images full of information for post-processing, I’d go with a DSLR. And I think if a choice has to be made between camera body and lens, the lens should be the best quality possible. But I’m certainly no expert.

  6. Hands down the best time of year. Your garden continues to show us all that the a garden never dies, never stops, never ends — that’s a life lesson with experiencing all year round.

      1. If only everything died as attractively as those Silphium leaves! Mesmerizing dark spirals against the glowing grass.

        James, what is the shrub/tree with the soft orange-y berries (seen against evergreen foliage in the 20th photo)?

        1. Nell, it’s a winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), but I don’t remember the cultivar name. Most of them are red, but there are several orange berried ones. I rarely see them available except by mail order.

          1. Thanks!

            Just saw at the Tidewater Gardener’s (and in a comment of yours further along) that I’d misidentified the very tall, sculptural, twisty-leaved perennial as Silphium perfoliatum — which I know can also be a dark structural presence in fall and winter, but isn’t quite this excellent.

  7. The Zenobia is gorgeous. What is the big brilliant yellow shrub and the plant with the corkscrew stems (it’s in the picture with the chairs, among others)?

    The fall color in your garden and the light in your pictures is beautiful.

    1. I think the yellow shrub you’re referring to is Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’, the Japanese Fantail willow. I think the plant you’re seeing is Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, but it actually had strong straight stems. It’s dried leaves give it that corkscrew visual effect. It’s available from some nurseries, but be warned it self-seeds a lot.

  8. Your garden moves me in all seasons, but this time of year most of all. Perhaps it tugs at my heartstrings as I, too, am growing older and look at life and death with greater compassion than I once did. And perhaps because I am older I appreciate the “atmosphere in dying” in a way I could not comprehend before. There is a quiet beauty, even breathtaking, in this subtle but striking sight of the remarkable process of life and death, once youth now decay. There are lessons to be learned from these life cycles we witness year after year. Here your stunning photos of plants are especially poignant as you highlight the grace of their dying. It’s hard for me to separate self from the feelings your photos emulate. Thank you for your artistic eye and tender spirit that you share. Thank you for opening that door to this “atmosphere” and my heart.

    1. Thank you, Maude. What you write about is just what I want to explore in the garden. I greatly value your words. I’ve found it very hard to write about emotion and atmosphere, and Gumbrecht seems to have found a way, if not to name it, at least to outline the process of experience in the garden becoming emotion.

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