Folklore and Forest Fragments: Reading Contemporary Landscape

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  • While contemporarylandscape and gardendesign in Quebec is resolutelyattuned to Western design practice,it is also firmly anchored in its localfolklore and landscape setting. Thehard granite base of the LaurentianShield, covered by the green blanketof the boreal forest, inspires our col-lective memory as it does our senseof well-being. It represents a vastunknown territory, a seeminglyunending source of useful materials,a refuge for flora and fauna, a shel-ter for human settlement and asource of artistic inspiration andexpression. Above all, the forestexcites our imagination.

    The rivers that flow throughthe Precambrian Laurentian shieldserved as the pathways through theforests of the New World and as theonly gateway to the interior of thecontinent. From the vantage pointof mountain heights, discontinuous

    views of the vast forest floor revealeda fresh and wondrous wildernesswith a diverse and rich array of floraand fauna (Figure 1). JacquesCartier first observed this forest set-ting from the summit of Mont-Royalnear the Indian settlement ofHochelaga, later to become the Cityof Montreal:

    On reaching the summit we had aview of the land for more thanthirty leagues round about. Towardsthe north there is a range of moun-tains running east and west (theLaurentians), and another range tothe south (the Appalachians).Between these ranges lies the finestland it is possible to see, beingarable, level and flat. And in themidst of this flat region one saw theriver extending beyond the spotwhere we had left our long boats.At that point there is the most vio-lent rapid it is possible to see, which

    we were unable to pass. (Burpee1946, 3031. Translated fromPerrault 1996).

    This description of the New Worldparadise, both Arcadian and sub-lime, continues to serve as a framethrough which the forest is per-ceived, portrayed, and appreciatedby those who inhabit it. The chal-lenges inherent in the conservationand use of the forest domain havehelped shape the intellectual frame-work and the values of the peoplesof Quebec, much as it has in othercultures at other times.

    The Brothers Grimm consid-ered the forests of Germany as sym-bolic reserves of popular and oraltraditions. Their fairytales weredesigned to tap the vital reservoirsof culture and memory of the past,and to illustrate the values of thecommon folk not the rulers; theways of life not of war and con-quest (Harrison 1992, 165). In the

    Landscape Journal 23:204 ISSN 0277-2426 2004 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System Jacobs 85

    Folklore and Forest Fragments: ReadingContemporary Landscape Design in QuebecPeter Jacobs

    Peter Jacobs, FCSLA and FASLA, isProfessor of Landscape Architectureat the cole darchitecture depaysage, Universit de Montral. Hehas been an Invited Scholar andVisiting Professor at the Universityof British Columbia, HarvardUniversity, and the Technion(Israel); and has taught in schools ofarchitecture in France, Italy, Spain,and Columbia. He has served asChair of the EnvironmentalPlanning Commission of the IUCNfor twelve years, and more recentlyas Chair of the Senior Fellows,Dumbarton Oaks program ofLandscape and Garden Studies. Hisprofessional work focuses on land-scape and urban design and on thesustainable development of the arc-tic communities and landscapes ofNunavik, northern Quebec.

    Abstract: Whether intentionally or not, several young landscape designers in Quebec,Canada, have made use of the folklore and the fabric of the boreal forest as a metaphorthat informs their project proposals. Recent designs for garden festivals in North Americaand Europe, projects for urban parks, and even town plans have been inspired by a con-cern for the future of the forest regime, a concern for its health, an appreciation of itsbeauty, and an understanding of its fragility. As a consequence of the hard graniteLaurentian shield in Quebec, most of this forest regime is accessible only through the net-work of rivers and streams that serve as the highways of discovery and use of the forestlandscapes. A number of contemporary landscape and garden designs are discussed withreference to the emotional forces that inspire a profound attachment to the forest thatmany call home. While these projects stretch the limits of our idea of the garden and oflandscape process, they are warmly embraced precisely because they capture the essence ofa landscape setting that resonates in the collective soul of the population to which theyare addressed.

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  • German Romantic imagination, theforest had both genetic and sym-bolic connections to memory andwisdom.

    In Israel, the drive to embracethe forest as a national emblemis charged with emotion. YaelZerabavel (1996) relates how treessymbolize the beauty, purity, andmagnitude of nature, while plantingtrees leads to the redemption of theland, a means of reintroducingnature into the landscape. Forestsredeem the fallen from oblivion andthe land from affliction; the forestserves as a living memorial for thedeada symbolic continuity fromthe past to future. An ancient forestcreates ties with the past, new foreststhe promise for the future.

    Yet forest precincts have alwayssuccumbed to our appetite fortheir resources. Plato decried thedeforestation around the hills ofAthens, observing that as a result ofnaval battles of conquest and com-merce, forests became fleets, sink-ing to the bottom of the wine-darksea. Later, the clearing that shel-tered the first inhabitants of Romeon the Capitoline Hill long ago lostits limits, and from its wide open eye

    one can see today not only the ruinsof a great ancient city but also thoseof an even more ancient forest(Harrison 1992, 55).

    In Renaissance England, therole of conserving the forest was aroyal prerogative and responsibility.John Manwood (1592) wrote, A for-est is a certain territory of woodygrounds and fruitful pastures, privi-leged for wild beasts and fowls of theforest, chase and warren, to rest andabide there in the safe protectionsof the king, for his delight and plea-sure (72). The Royal Hunt enacteda ritual that affirmed the role of themonarchy in protecting wildlife bysubtracting vast reaches of woodlandfrom the public domain. In short, ifthe forest ceased to be a sanctuaryfor wildlife, it was no longer a forest.Curiously, both the forest and thechurch of the time performed thesame or similar functions; that ofgranting refuge. In some cases, thesanctity of the forest was used as abase from which outlaws, such asRobin Hood, would operate to

    address the abuses of the monarchyand to re-establish the rule ofnatural law.

    William Gilpin also bemoanedthe fate of the beloved English for-est, subject to the woodsmans axeand the navys seemingly insatiableappetite for mature timber. FrancisGeorge Heath (1887) observedfrom the growing shadows of thenineteenth century English city:

    Greenwood shade, over large areashas given place to hot and dustystreets. Railways, mines, and manu-factures have obliterated, allaround us, the forest lawn, redo-lent of the perfume of wild plants;the forest heath, empurpled withthe bloom of heather, or goldenwith flowering gorse; the wood-land copse and ancient statelygrove which sweetly strained themusic of the winds. (vi)

    In the New World, where forests stillcovered about 35 percent of theUnited States and even more ofCanada, Gifford Pinchot (1905)affirmed, Next to the earth itselfthe forest is the most useful servantof man. Not only does it sustain andregulate the streams, moderate thewinds, and beautify the land, but italso supplies wood, the most widelyused of all materials (7). Yet at thesame time, C.S. Sargent, an equallydistinguished forester, observed wehave wasted in less than a centuryenough forest to have supplied forall time a considerable part of theworld with lumber (Sargent1896, 11).

    Forests everywhere continue toshrink at alarming rates, subject tosignificant loss as a result of tradi-tional practices of shifting cultiva-tion and the gathering of fuel wood,as well as contemporary indus-trial practices related to uncon-trolled logging and opportunisticdevelopment.

    To feed and shelter the growingcommunities of the world and tocontinue to support economicgrowth, more land has beencleared for cultivation in the past100 years than in all previous cen-turies combined. More than 11million hectares of tropical forestsare destroyed annually. As a directconsequence of this destruction,

    86 Landscape Journal

    Figure 1. La Mauricie National Park, Qubec, Canada. (Photograph by Parks Canada)The viewshed included in this image includes approximately 400,000 hectares (1,000,000 acres),the minimum extent of a wilderness landscape where little or no discernible human impact hasoccurred for a period of 50 years or more.

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  • between 10,000 and 100,000species are reported to becomingextinct each year. ( Jacobs1990, 75)

    Canadas ancient Boreal forest, aten-thousand-year-old ecosystem,is the largest wilderness forest inNorth America, yet more than50 percent of this territory is regis-tered in industrial forest tenure.Conservation groups argue that oversix hundred thousand hectares ofthe Boreal forest are cut each yearand that over 90 percent of this log-ging is subject to industrial clear cut-ting (Stark 2004). Sadly, one of themost significant stretches of thenorthern Boreal forest, in Quebec, issubject to encroachment from allsides (Figure 2). Only very recentlyhas a government commission beencharged with the mission of deter-mining the extent of forest lossesand the means of calculating itspotential yield on a sustainable basis(Francoeur 2004). One hopes thatthese and other urgent measures arenot too late to maintain a viable for-est regime.

    Interestingly, action has re-sulted not so much from an alert orvigilan