This year’s post Bloom rest and resuscitation consisted of a ten day trip to New England, Massachusetts to be precise. I have been thinking and writing quite a bit recently about how it is possible to construct a potted social history of Ireland by looking at plants and planting trends. We can identify stark differences between periods, sometimes as symmetrically as the transition from one decade to another. Planting palettes have tended to be a reflection of how things are economically which in turn determines the breadth and diversity of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants to be found. That’s Ireland.
The same does not apply in the U.S. Think of Don and Betty Draper’s neighbourhood in Mad Men or the Revolutionary Road of the Richard Yates novel and subsequent film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Those suburban streets look the exact same now, fifty years later. The prototype of Levittown New York, built to provide affordable housing for the wave of GIs returning from World War II has not been modified to any significant degree in the intervening seventy five years. There is a timelessness to the suburban American street that is, frankly, weird.
Similarly the interior architecture remains untouched; the type and style of hardwood on the floors, the trim and paneling around doors and closets, the kitchen cabinetry. The Americans either got everything so right the first time round or prefer to pour their time and mental energy into areas other than home improvement. They have a model they like, one that works perfectly and one that they are happy to leave alone.
For those of us on this side of the ocean subjected, as we are, to constant torment from the likes of Kevin McLeod and Monty Don this seems plain strange. There is something profoundly incongruous about the Verizon dish on the side of a house from which you would not be one bit surprised to see Doris Day emerge. There you get mid twentieth century neighbourhoods with Buck Rogersesque broadband speeds, here we have twenty first century houses with Fred Flintstoneesque webfrastructure (You’re not familiar with that word because I just made it up).
In New England it is illegal for a nursery to sell anything other than a rhododendron, azalea, privet, juniper or hosta. I exaggerate of course, but it seems that way. The same arrangement of plants adorns the front of pretty much every house. Alongside the same configuration of bluestone paving and pockets of neatly edged and shorn grass tended to on a bi-weekly basis by Todd, the friendly local lawn care professional.
Back gardens are divided by six foot tall cedar stockade fencing. The fronts of houses typically contain no physical delineation, sometimes the odd “living” fence composed usually of , yes you guessed it, privet. Always privet. It’s in the by- laws. Still, on balance it’s hugely preferable to the dreadful, unplastered concrete block walls that we get here which, mercifully, over there are nowhere to be seen.
Transatlantic cultural cross pollination has always been a fascinating thing. Things tend to filter eastwards much quicker than westwards. We Europeans are much more inclined to jump on what is coming from America than vice versa. Garden design is a case in point. Here it has established itself as a creative discipline right alongside architecture and interior design and has been celebrated and promoted via big events such as The Chelsea Flower Show for years. Its most prominent practitioners are lauded and celebrated. The equivalent does not exist across the ocean, or merely does so in a very low key way.
We have developed a fixation on unearthing ways of exploiting our, mostly suburban, outside spaces that our American friends for the most part don’t bother about. Their interaction with nature happens in different , you could say more wholesome, ways. They hike and bike in their woods and mountains, they swim and fish in their lakes and rivers. I think they are more immersive than we are, that’s how they get their nature fix. Maybe they don’t need hanging baskets.