Review: Stone Garden at the Arboretum, Glasgow Botanic Gardens

Not too far from Great Western Road and a stone’s throw from the Ha’penny footbridge, is a gate to Glasgow’s only arboretum. Part of the city’s Botanic Gardens, it is easy to miss as it isn’t connected to the main park, but instead is accessible via Ford Road at the north entrance or via the Kelvin path. At the arboretum, you can view a diverse array of trees in the gardens’ collection, nestled between the meander of the Kelvin and the neatly arranged sandstone boulevards of Kelvinside.

As you enter the Ford Road gate, you see a superb sample of the garden’s tree collection. From an exotic American giant sequoia tree to more familiar horse chestnuts and European ash trees. You may also notice the Kirklee bridge ahead which is monumental in every sense of the word, made of thick slabs of sandstone, iconic columns and crowned with Victorian-style gas lamps. On either side is Glasgow’s coat of arms with the motto “Let Glasgow Flourish” very much at home inscribed above the vivacious dell of the river.

But amongst all the majesty of brick and branch, is a small stone garden. It sits on a small concrete embankment facing out onto the river, slightly down from the path. On it, there is a bench, railings and four stones set in the concrete. The material of the stones is beyond my professedly basic knowledge of Geology, but they are dark and hard, looking like they have been hauled out from the shallow riverbed on the other side of the railings.

The stones themselves are fairly unobtrusive.  Well-worn and craggy, they seem well-adjusted to their life out the water amongst the towering trees and imposing tenements, with one even sporting a faded graffiti tag. When viewing the stones, the eyes are naturally drawn towards the river which fleetly rolls over dozens of similar stones in modest white crests. They help centre the space, transforming it from merely a section of the path to a relaxing viewing area where both the body and mind are at ease.

The design of this area is reminiscent of a Japanese dry garden (commonly known as a zen garden), where rocks and stones are arranged with little or no plants to simulate landscapes. Indeed, one way to look at this garden is to see it as a miniature portrayal of the path of the Kelvin as it cuts between Glasgow’s sloping drumlins like Hillhead, Woodlands hill or Yorkhill, diligently finding its path out and into the Clyde.

Dry gardens are also considered meditative in nature, with many dry gardens being constructed in temples following the arrival of Zen Buddhism into Japan in the 12th century. In this perspective, the abstract aspects of the garden such as its stillness, the placement of the stones and the negative space around them, are all inlets to reflection and meditation.

Now, I know as much about Zen Buddhism as I do about Geology, but the point is that dry gardens like the one in the abortorium can incite a fascinating interaction between garden design, art, nature and spirituality, and they aren’t necessarily, well, just a bunch of rocks.

Louis MacNeice, in his poem: Sunlight on the Garden (1936), wrote:

“Our freedom as freelances

Advances towards it end;

The earth compels, upon it

Sonnets and birds descend;

And soon, my friend,

We’ll have no time for dances.”

MacNeice uses the phrase earth compels throughout his work, but in Sunlight on the Garden, he envisions it as an ultimate force that brings all things to an end: our freedom, our relationships and our youth. Watching the river Kelvin on a March afternoon, you can see the will of the earth, compelling the masses of meltwater from the Campsie Fells to surge its way through the city of Glasgow. It is hard not to think that this force is the same earthly power that pushes us irreversibly forward through life until, well, we’ll have no time for dances.  

With its proximity to the river, the stone garden focuses our attention not only on the force of the river but on the fate of objects at its brunt. The deep grooves and crevices of the stones are a testament to this onslaught, with each stone moulded by the current into the most aquadynamic form. For example, the tagged stone at the front has been sculpted into a tall pyramid, its sharpest edge jutting out into the imaginary stream that flows from left to right between the stones- just as the Kelvin does beyond it. The same applies to the stone on the right, which has been flattened into a miniature valley which veers off towards the bank, throwing the deflected water over its shoulder and away downstream.  In fact, when the Kelvin floods in winter, the stones are submerged again, and you can watch the murky water stream through the stones in much the same fashion.

These scarred stones remind me that people are also compelled to change in the face of forces they have no control over. Like stones in a riverbed, we face the relentless current of change, and our edges are ground down. Though we are not ground to nothingness. We are instead sculpted by change and our weakest parts fall away while our strongest parts remain. This felt most apparent when visiting the garden during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when almost all our lives were determined by events beyond our control. Despite that, many people experienced profound personal change- confronting harmful behaviour, losing touch with acquaintances and developing new outlooks on life. I think that I don’t only speak for myself when I say that after several years of stasis, I emerged carved like the stones, buffeted by change and unquestionably new.

While this journey felt long and abysmally lonely, the stone garden reminds us that enduring the constant flow of change is not an entirely personal journey. The four stones of the garden, while individual entities, are dependent on each other to deflect the full force of the current, working together to redirect it through narrow channels and off-ways, streamlining them as a collective. Out of the river, we see the intricate methods of symbiosis between the stones and how they are shaped as much by each other as they are by the current itself. 

The genius of the stone garden is in its stasis. Set within the dynamic landscape of the arboretum, it is static while the leaves bud and fall, crowds amble by and the river Kelvin perpetually rushes past. The stones, having been hauled from the river, are scarred by decades upon decades of erosion. Tracing your fingers across the deep-set grooves you feel the individual finite essence of the stone in the face of the earth’s compelling force. For me, these stones embody what happens when humans are confronted with the uncontrollable force of change, and the reactions we generate amongst its relentless cascades. Out of the river and suspended in time, the stones sit like four friends huddled together – carved by the relentless flow of the river, each unique, dependant and defiant.

by Luke Hills [he/him]


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