Years ago I created a nautilus-shaped garden in which I unexpectedly experienced the efficacy of gardening as therapy. Prior to creating this garden, I had been struggling with a problem that I could not seem to solve, and I felt stuck. It was spring, so I decided to spend time outside and make a new garden, hoping that this might provide me with a fresh perspective. I decided to make a garden shaped like a nautilus because I’ve always found its logarithmic spiral visually pleasing. Beginning at the perimeter of the nautilus, I worked the ground for several days, painstakingly tilling the hard, rocky soil by hand. As I worked, I often thought about my problem, sometimes feeling close to a solution, only to then feel farther away from one.
On the final day of digging, as I was standing on the last little island of untilled earth, I realized that I had dug myself into the center of the nautilus, which is both its starting and ending point. Strangely, just as I realized that I was at the center of the nautilus, I arrived at a solution to my problem. Moving through an archetypal shape, such as the spiral of the nautilus, and engaging in the physical (and metaphorical) act of digging, I had found my way both into and out of my problem.
As an archetypal space, the spiral represents both evolution and involution because it appears to grow outward from and inward toward its center. The spiral’s inward-outward ambivalence both confounds and comforts us because it reminds us that we never know what waits for us around the next bend, yet it reassuringly wraps our past experiences around us, like a snail’s protective shell. The spiral’s archetypal energy helped me to arrive at a solution to my problem because it required me to forge ahead into new territories of thinking, while simultaneously providing me with the protective wisdom of my past experiences.
Spatial Archetypes: An Interview With Julie Moir Messervy
After my experience in the nautilus garden, I started looking for ideas about how other natural archetypes could be used as inspiration for garden design. My search lead me to the work of acclaimed author and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. In Messervy’s book, The Inward Garden, she introduces the idea of landscape design as a personal exploration of how different kinds of outdoor spaces make us feel. Messervy identifies seven spatial archetypes, and associates these archetypes with emotions, ideas, and phases of life. She also provides suggestions for how her system of spatial archetypes can be used as a contemplative framework for garden design.
I interviewed Julie and asked her to talk about her system and how it translates into ideas for gardens and other outdoor spaces. Hopefully, her ideas will help you to discover what kinds of outdoor spaces your heart desires.
Organic Spa: Your system is based on seven types of landscapes, or natural environments, which you call spatial archetypes. These archetypes can be understood in a sequence that corresponds to certain phases of life, so let’s start at the beginning, with the first archetype.
Julie Moir Messervy: The first spatial archetype is the sea, which is about immersion, being within something, being surrounded. This spatial archetype corresponds to the mother’s body, to being in the womb, where we are submerged and protected. We experience this spatial archetype when we swim, soak in a tub, or stand in a shower.
But to work with the sea archetype, you do not need the sea or water. You just need to create the sensation of immersion. You could plant a wildflower meadow with a clearing just large enough to sit in, or plant a cozy area encircled by tall ornamental grasses. Think about what sort of spaces make you feel immersed and then try to create that sensation in an outdoor space.
OS: So it’s more about how the sea makes you feel than trying to create a representation of the sea?
JM: Yes, when working with these archetypes, you let yourself be inspired by the feelings and ideas that the archetype evokes. The second spatial archetype is the cave, which corresponds to newborns. The cave is about leaving our mother’s body and the sensation of immersion, but once we emerge, we are held close and tight. We are swaddled and have just a tiny, framed view of the world from our snuggly or crib. Ways we can invite the cave archetype into our gardens include building a little garden cottage, teahouse, artist or writer’s studio, playhouse, or even tree house. All of these create a sense of secure enclosure with a small view of the outside world.
OS: You mentioned a tree house as an embodiment of the cave archetype, but could a tree house also connect us with the sea archetype if a leafy canopy surrounded it?
JM: Good question. The archetypes often work in concert. So yes, a tree house that was immersed in a thick canopy of leaves could also invoke the sea archetype. The next archetype is the harbor. As we start to leave the mainland behind, our vision opens up and we begin to see what lies beyond. This corresponds to being a toddler. It is like sitting in the lap of a parent, held by secure, enclosing arms. It is a nested experience, in that we are embraced, but we now have an expanded view. This is the feeling we get when sitting in a big wing chair in a living room, a booth in a bar, or in a backyard surrounded by a fence. Most gardens already embody the harbor archetype, but you can really bring the harbor feeling into your garden by placing a bench in a location with a secure background and a good view. For example, locate a sitting area against a tree, shrubs, or fence—any sort of solid background, without any surprises from behind.
OS: So the goal is to feel like a curious, but secure toddler sitting on your mother’s lap, taking in the view?
JM: Exactly. But now the next archetype starts to challenge that sense of security. The fourth spatial archetype is the promontory, and this corresponds to the child. The promontory is a place at the edge that is still backed up by or connected to something bigger, to the mainland, to the parents. Think about the child starting to explore the world. She leaves the laps of her parents and wanders out to an edge, starting to explore, but still looking back, still connected. The promontory archetype is about edges and edge conditions. You can create this feeling with a terrace, a porch, or a belvedere (a gazebo sited to command a good view). The promontory archetype inspires us to explore the edge between inside and outside, between here and there. It should have a sense of excitement, of going beyond your comfort zone.
OS: The feelings you associate with the spatial archetypes bring back a lot of childhood memories about how different kinds of outdoor spaces make me feel. Do you think our early experiences of space stay with us throughout our lives?
JM: Yes, those first encounters and experiences stay with us, but then our needs for different kinds of spaces change throughout our lives. Now we come to the fifth spatial archetype: the island. The island is not at the edge of something bigger, like the promontory. It is entirely on its own. The island corresponds to the teenager. As teenagers, we start to experience the world from our personal perspectives. We start to spend time alone, apart. The vast space of the sea is between us and the rest of the world. We are sometimes surrounded by fog and invisibility. We need this space and privacy. We are tying to figure out who we are. Garden designs inspired by the island archetype include floating terraces, picnic areas on lawns, or floating beds of plantings. Island gardens should have low focal points. They are places to look at or be in that are surrounded by space.
OS: You started with the sea and one of your suggestions for exploring this archetype in the garden was to create a small clearing surrounded by tall ornamental grasses. Could this sort of clearing also be an island-inspired space?
JM: Yes, just as a tree house can connect us with cave, a clearing in a field of flowers or tall grasses can evoke the sea or the island. Of course, the sea and the island are closely connected in nature, too. So the sixth spatial archetype is the mountain, and it corresponds to early adulthood. The mountain is about gaining perspective. It is about having a broader view, being able to see the bigger picture. When designing a garden or outdoor space inspired by the mountain archetype, think about a high point with a view, a place where you can sit, think, and enjoy your expanding perspective: a bench at the top of a hill or a tree house. And finally, the seventh spatial archetype is the sky. This corresponds to mature adulthood, when you are ready to leave the familiar landscape behind and reach for what lies beyond. The sky is about enlightenment and letting your spirits soar. One way to bring the sky into the garden is with a reflecting pool, but you can also create a space with a clearing or opening that brings in a good view of the sky.
OS: I really like your correspondences between the seven archetypes and the phases of life. But I imagine that we are constantly encountering these archetypes throughout our lives as opposed to just once, as we sequentially move through the phases of life. For example, I would think that with every new beginning we in some way encounter the archetype of the sea.
JM: Yes, we are “in the sea” when we first fall in love, when we start a new job, or discover a new calling. During these new beginnings, we are immersed and surrounded and engulfed.
OS: So when we are thinking about these spatial archetypes, we should not limit ourselves to the archetype that corresponds to our age? For example, if someone is approaching midlife, he should not feel like his garden needs to be inspired by the mountain archetype, right?
JM: No, not at all. The motivation behind this work is to get people to understand that they need, long for, and are fulfilled by different kinds of spaces throughout their lives. And the spaces we need at any given time do not neatly correspond to the particular spatial archetype associated with whatever phase of life we are experiencing.
OS: So after a personal loss or a particularly difficult time, we might need the feelings of security and embrace provided by harbor garden? And perhaps a woman raising children and caring for elderly parents at the same time might need an island garden, in which she can have some time for herself and rediscover who she really is when not caring for others?
OS: Have you ever suggested that someone consider a spatial archetype that might help him or her to explore a more “suppressed” aspect of his or her psyche? For example, if you have a client who is a bit shy and tentative (preferring to stay in her cave), would you ever suggest a garden more inspired by a promontory, to perhaps bring out and nurture a hidden adventurous side?
JM: No, I let the client guide me. But what I have found is that people often do not want the same things in a garden that they want in other areas of their lives. They want the garden to satisfy another part of their personality, a shadow side.
OS: What is your favorite spatial archetype?
JM: It would have to be the promontory. I like to be on the edge. I get nervous when I’m not on an edge!
The Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS) creates landscapes of beauty and meaning for residential and institutional clients throughout North America. Ms. Messervy’s latest book is Home Outside: Creating The Landscape You Love. Please visit jmmds.com for design ideas, tips, and inspiration for your home landscape.