Professor Transforms Garden into Celtic Myth at England's Westonbirt Festival

A magical landscape inspired by Celtic culture is one of 13 gardens selected for the Westonbirt Festival of The Garden this summer in England. The "Otherworld Garden" is the creation of Mira Engler, associate professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University.

More than 200 garden designs from throughout the world competed for a place in the prestigious Westonbirt, one of three major international garden festivals. Engler's is the only entry from the United States to be selected.

An estimated 130,000 people will visit the festival, June 4-Sept. 12, at the National Arboretum, Gloucestershire. Gloucestershire is located in the history-rich Cotswold region of southwest England.

The designers received $24,000 for plants, materials and labor for their gardens, which they installed in May. The Westonbirt Festival of The Garden is known for displaying innovative and experimental garden plans. Designs are chosen for their originality, strength of design, use of materials, wit and inspirational nature.

Engler approached her 'Otherworld Garden' as a cultural artifact. She reached deep into the enigmatic Celtic symbols and myth that permeate the Cotswold to tell a narrative in the landscape. "I'm always searching for narratives to understand how the landscape was shaped. We need to decipher these narratives, reveal and add to them," Engler said.

"Landscape architecture isn't only about making pretty places. It's also about making meaningful places," she said.

Engler's garden uses mystical imagery and rugged local materials to articulate the spiritual connections of people to nature.

The 6,000-square-foot "Otherworld Garden" straddles an open meadow and an old forest. A raised limestone path spirals across a blanket of purple, salmon pink and blue ground cover, leading visitors from the lightness of the field to the darker woods.

An erect stone near the spiral bears an inscription from the "Battle of the Trees," a poem by the 6th century poet, Taliesin. The quote is written in the ancient Ogham language.

"It describes trees coming to life, becoming warriors," Engler said. "Many people here are familiar with the mythology and ideas of pagan religion, which has an emotional connection to nature."

The spiral path connects the clearing to the woods, which Engler and English sculptor John Packer transformed into a world of wonder and imagination. Giant figures-- animals and other mythological beings seem to rise from the land and emerge from the trees. The sculptures are gabions, mesh-wire cages shaped into creatures that are a paradox of familiarity and strangeness.

"The images for the sculptures are from ancient artifacts. They're recurring images in the culture and built environment here," she said.

The sculptures include Greenman--the spiritual manifestation of trees, Helm--the helmet of a Celtic warrior, cauldrons or sacred vessels, a ram-horned serpent and Sheela-na-gig, the guardian of the otherworld and the spirit that gives and takes life.

With climbing plants and ferns partially covering some sculptures, the figures also resemble the ancient, regional tumuli mounds where fairies were once believed to live, Engler said.

The cauldron gabions also hold stones that visitors are invited to take.

"The festival's garden designers are asked to design gardens that give visitors 'ideas to steal.' I thought that was an unusual way to put it. I fixated somewhat on that expression, and turned it into a feature of the garden. People will literally have something to take away with them—a stone," Engler explained.

She chose stones to reference the limestone walls that the Cotswold is known for.

"They have amazing limestone walls that are built using a dry technique—they're made with no mortar, the stones support themselves," she said. "The idea is that the earth is moving. So a dry stone wall settles with the movement of the ground, while a mortared wall ends up with cracks. It's a very organic approach."

Visitors can stamp their stone with a letter from the Ogham language that represents the name of one of the nearby trees. "The main 20 letters in the Ogham alphabet are also names of 20 trees that were sacred to the druids," Engler explained. "It's the idea of the integration of culture and landscape. "The spiritual connection of the Celtic people to nature, which recognized the essential aliveness of nature, is the inspiration for my garden. Their myth of the otherworld offers a landscape narrative of intense emotions and aesthetics," Engler said.

"We usually erase these stories, or we don't know them at all. But a garden is physically and spiritually alive. It's a riddle to be deciphered."


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