Et in Arcadia ego

First edition

“Arcadia” is prefecture on the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. “Arcadia” has connoted the picture of a pastoral paradise since at least Roman times. “Arcadia” was the name given to Atlantic North America by Giovanni da Verrazanno, which by the 17th century had lost an ‘r’ and become “Acadia” and was applied to French colonies of maritime Canada. Arcadia is a play by Tom Stoppard, written in 1993 and revived last year.

In Stoppard’s play the landscape of Sidley Park, a country estate in Derbyshire, is a topic of conversation and its re-design in the early 19th century is an important element in the plot and also a symbolic dimension for the play’s discussion of reason and emotion, and the relationship between time and history. The action of the play is split in alternating scenes between 1809 and 1989. In 1809 landscape architect Richard Noakes attempts to convince Lady Croom to abandon the order of Classicism for the pastoral disorder of Romanticism. Lord Byron, who would eventually be regarded as a major Romantic poet, is a guest at the estate, there to visit his school chum Septimus Hodge, who is the tutor to Lady Croom’s brilliant daughter, Thomasina Coverly.

Production without landscape

In 1989 landscape historian Hannah Jarvis attempts to uncover the identity of the “hermit of Sidley Park,” who dwelt in a picturesque feature that was part of Noakes’ new design. Bernard Nightingale is a scholar looking to uncover the truth about a veiled period of Byron’s life. Much has changed in the intervening 180 years and yet many things are the same. Noakes landscape design is still there and so are the Coverlys. The mathematical genius of Thomasina Coverly—she is in the process of explaining chaos dynamics to her tutor when she dies at age 17—is inherited and passed down to Valentine Coverly, a mathematical biologist. Gus and Augustus Coverly are played by the same actor in the play, which dramatizes the continuity created by one family living in the same place for over two centuries.

It is telling that Thomasina is the one member of the Coverly family who approves of Noakes ideas for the landscape. She is the embodiment of progress, understanding concepts of physics decades before they were explicated and making lateral connections effortlessly between academic fields. Her understanding the inevitability of change through time, for all thing to decay and pass away, leads her to reject the geometric Classicism of Sidley Park’s Georgian landscape and Newtonian physics, neither of which acknowledges the arrow of time and its consequences. Stoppard is asking us to pay attention to what changes and what stays the same through time. Individual characters in the play die, but their essence lives on either genealogically in the case of the Coverly clan, or dynamically as the characters of 1989 act out human struggles that parallel those of the characters in 1809. Hodge is in hot water with poet Ezra Chater for writing a scathing review of his latest poem. Nightingale is on Jarvis’s bad side for penning a similarly negative review of her last book. But while Chater challenges Hodge to a duel, Jarvis actually agrees to cooperate with Nightingale (to a degree) in their overlapping scholarly pursuits.

Bawburgh Hall and slipper chapel [4566] 1960-08-01
Norfolk folly at Bawburgh Hall
The hermitage of Sidley Park, which comes under the general description of “a folly” in the picturesque landscape designs of the early 19th century, was meant to be a fake, like all the false Roman ruins that littered these Romantic works. One of the most affecting notes of the play is that Hodge, the resolute Classicist by training and Romantic by inclination and association, ends his life as a real hermit in the hermitage, vainly trying to apply the rules of Classical mathematics to the completion of the unfinished chaos equations left behind by Thomasina Coverly.


Non-native Sons Welcome

When we stopped mowing our lawn three years ago, we were hoping that the grass would be gradually replaced by flowering meadow plants. To some extent this has happened. Boneset and joe-pye weed appeared in one spot during the first year. At least five different species of goldenrod became well established immediately. More surprising was the sprouting of two small clusters of sensitive fern. But the grass continued to dominate the area and some pesky invasive species like lesser celandine also began to spread.

Forget-me-nots and mustard in the meadow.

So we decided to urge old-field succession along by introducing plants and planting seeds. The former has been more successful than the latter. My wife decided that she would rather see Echinacea (coneflower) out in the meadow than in beds near the house, so we dug them up and replanted them out there. They are very hardy and have seemed quite happy.

This year we made the same decision about the black-eyed susans. They had begun to take over one of our beds, so I dug them up in large clumps, taking the soil and roots together, and stuck them in holes in the meadow where I had removed clumps of grass. I made sure to water them immediately and also planted them just before rain was forecast. Their natural hardiness and the timely moisture have caused all of the transplanted clumps to barely miss a beat.

Very happy black-eyed susans

We have also begun to move shrubs into the meadow from elsewhere on the property. We’ve decided to fix our meadow at a stage equivalent to between five and ten years following the abandonment of an agricultural field.

Because we didn’t begin with the relatively blank slate of tilled earth, it has been necessary to do all the planting. The grass is tenacious. A butterfly bush that we transplanted seems to be struggling, perhaps a bit more exposed to the weather than is optimal for it. In its former location it had always died back somewhat in previous winters, but now it seems to die back right to the roots before re-sprouting in the spring.

Very unhappy caryopteris.

Two Caryopteris shrubs that we moved last fall have had different fates. I put the smaller one, which had been shaded by a sugar maple that we recently had taken down, in the lee of the house in an area marked by seeps. It transplanted well, leafing out quite completely this spring.

We put the other, larger Caryopteris near the butterfly bush. Like its neighbor the Caryopteris experienced a lot of die-back this winter, either because of the shock of being transplanted—it is about twice the size of the other one—or because of the wind that moves over the hill and through that part of the meadow.

This spring I moved a Potentilla bush that has been bugging me since we moved in. Someone stuck it right at the corner of two walkways at the foot of the front steps. It was the paragon of “in the way.” I moved it about four feet to a place between two paths in the meadow and it seems to anchor the space well and moreover seems to have suffered not one whit.

Seeds that we have sown in the meadow have not germinated well. This is partly because we have left them lying around too long before planting them. We carried around some lupine seeds from friends in Maine for years before scattering them here. Only one plant came up. But all packets of wildflower mix state clearly in the planting instructions that they should be sown on a tilled field. The germination rate is probably much reduced by competition with existing plantings with well-established root systems. Seedlings may even be getting shaded out. So in the near future I’ll be renting a rototiller.

Non-native euphorbia

It is perhaps noticeable in the list of plant names above that we are not attempting to create a meadow of native plants. All the herbaceous plants I mentioned are natives to North America (although not necessarily this region), but we have also dug up ragged robin, a European import, from a local roadside and added it to the mix. In addition, we planted non-native Euphorbia and forget-me-nots, daylilies and ornamental poppies, and all of the shrubs are aliens.

This approach admits a certain amount of resignation to our position in a village surrounded by an agricultural landscape. The numbers of non-native species that populate a disturbed landscape like this—it has been farmed continuously since the early 19th century—are large and not likely to be excluded no matter what measures we take.

Restoration ecology of the type invented by Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s is a noble and necessary undertaking. For one thing it preserves natural ecosystems that are in danger of being eliminated by invasive non-native species. But such work is best undertaken on a larger scale (than our 3/4 acre village lot) in order to have buffers between the non-native ocean and the native embayment established with great effort.

We are primarily looking for a panoply of color that unfolds through the season, exclusion of the most invasive non-natives, and to shave a hour a week off my time behind the mower.