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Nature Aroused
The 11th International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire.
By Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

The garden and the erotic are locked in an inseparable embrace, where nature and culture conspire to tempt, seduce, stimulate, arouse, or inflame our mind and body. Our responses span the range of human sexual conduct, from the amorous, romantic, and tender to the sensual, libidinous, and carnal.

Jérôme Galland / Aleph
Jérôme Galland / Aleph

Western garden history begins in Eden, where the garden and sexuality are intertwined in the creation story. In the Bible's Song of Songs, body, garden, and landscape are metaphors for one another. The Song's hortus conclusus, the locked garden, was an inspiration for medieval gardens, both sacred and profane, that oscillated between the virginal, white, pristine love of the Mary Garden (in homage to the Virgin Mary) and those dedicated to earthly delights and the lustiness of a "Garden of Love." Basic texts in garden history, such as the Romance of the Rose by Guillame de Lorris and Jean de Meun, are testaments to this duality. In modern literature the garden is often an erotic enclave, a site of seduction and romance.

In discussing garden meaning in 1988, Robert Riley noted, "We should bring back sex, which... seems to have been missing from the garden for too long." Eroticism in the garden was the 2002 theme of the 11th International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France's Loire River valley. The 30 gardens presented were chosen from more than 450 proposals. (The numbers are a bit confusing since a selection of gardens from previous competitions still remains.) The format is given. Each garden is constructed within the bounds of a shield-shaped, 250-square-meter hedged enclosure, originally designed by Belgian landscape architect Jacques Wirtz.

Three themes predominated in responding to this provocative topic: the various relationships between the body and gardens, the role of sight, and the sensual quality of both gardens and erotic experience.

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