I’ve often thought my biggest hindrance to becoming a professional garden designer is my aversion to spending money, mine or anyone else’s. Consequently, I tend to filter out great-but expensive-ideas almost as soon as I’ve thought them, even at the risk of being penny-wise but pound-foolish. So it should surprise no one that I find The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents mind boggling.
I have no idea of author Francis Cabot’s net worth, nor whether he inherited most of it or single-handedly multiplied the family fortune. All I know is this guy has a lot of moolah, and he knows how to use it, at least from a gardener’s perspective. Les Quatre Vents has been in Cabot’s family for over a century, but he did not start his own work on the gardens until 1975. The estate, which is reckoned in square miles, not acres, would be squarely in USDA Hardiness Zone 3 were it not for the moderating influence of the St. Lawrence River, which is broad enough at that point to be considered an inland sea. Not the type of climate most people would consider ideal for creating a world-class landscape.
I should make that plural: landscapes. Rock gardens, Japanese gardens, woodland, perennial borders, potagers, orchards, magnificent views, intimate spaces–this place has it all. About the only thing missing is polar icecap and steamy jungle, but the rope bridges certainly lend that kind of tropical ambience. Yes, rope bridges. Two of them. If the height of the bridges is given, I can’t find it in the text, but this altitude-averse writer can attest it looks high enough. Cabot himself had second thoughts the first time he went across:
By the time I was halfway across, however, I was convinced that I had made a terrible mistake. The bridge swung in three directions at once–at least two more than I had bargained for. It not only swayed from side to side but the floorboards undulated along the axis of the bridge as well as wobbling alarmingly. It was terrifying and I found it impossible to look down into the ravine at the masses of large-leaved species, which was a principal reason for the exercise. Despite misgivings, once past the center of the span, the traverse became easier and the terror subsided. It was a real challenge, but a surmountable one, and in the best romantic tradition terror might as well be included in the range of emotions to be evoked by a journey through the elements in the garden at Les Quatre Vents.
(Excuse me a moment while I wipe the sweat off my palms.) This quote also illustrates the kind of “horticultural enthusiast” (as he describes himself) Cabot is. He’s not just after pretty pictures; he wants to evoke emotions.
Emotions and sensuality are what a garden is all about. We should be transported from our regular preoccupations. With an open heart and soul we can be receptive to the images, scents, sounds, spaces, and views that surround us, as well as to the touch of the wind and the rain, to the peace everlasting of the “genius of the place.”
What makes The Greater Perfection much more than a drop-dead gorgeous coffee table book is that Frank Cabot is much more than a rich guy showing off. He is a gardener, with a gardener’s desire to plant, grow, and make the world more beautiful because of it. In the text, he doesn’t just describe each area of the garden, he explains what kind 0f effect he was trying to achieve and how he went about it. You learn about his mistakes as well as his successes; you see what types of things inspired him and what makes him change his mind.
You may get a certain voyeuristic thrill seeing how one wealthy man attempts to achieve “the greater perfection,” but you will eventually realize that this book is full of lessons that can be applied to your own small plot and limited budget. Climate, as it turns out, is not much of a limitation. The Greater Perfection is about dreaming big, something every gardener can afford to do.