Reach for the Sky Garden

We had our fist field trip from college today. Sally is a former student and is now in charge of the wall garden at Liss Ard Estate near Skibbereen. It was not the best of days as although the rain was soft it was persistent and the grey light was not the best backdrop for viewing gardens but we are hardy horticulturalists and a spot of drizzle wasn’t going to dissuade us, especially after spending most of the morning staring at a computer learning word processing.

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Sally’s Walled Garden

Liss Ard is a country house surrounded by 163 acres of grounds including a wall garden, forest walk, lakes and the famous Sky Garden. The house was built in 1870 and is a fine example of Victorian architecture totally lost upon us as we gazed up at the tall beech, oak, chestnut and cypress. The wall garden would have once been fully cultivated and supplied the house with food for the table. Sally has almost half of the original garden cultivated which is impressive in only the couple of years she has been working on it and the restaurant makes full use of having their own fresh selection of vegetables available. Like most gardens this time of year the veg supply is on the decline but even so the lettuce, beetroot, kale, cabbage and various other brassicas were still showing green among the immaculately kept square beds

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One of my favourites Verbascum, common name mullein

Sally guided us around and comprehensively answered all our enquiries showing the same level of enthusiasm us plant nerds have and I was delighted to see so much companion planting with marigolds, chives and nasturtium adding colour to the lush green veg. I was also please to hear that it is a chemical free zone, netting protected the leafed veg from the pernicious cabbage white butterfly and Sally hand picks and squishes the caterpillars that make it through to their prize.

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After the veg tour we headed off through the woods spotting a variety of fine examples of trees including a purple weeping beech, sweet chestnut and a very large Western Red Cedar, ferns and mosses were in profusion as we dropped down to one of the ponds and to the entrance of the Sky Garden. The Sky Garden was designed by James Turrell, I hadn’t heard of him before but I am assured he is considered the greatest American Land Art Artist. Thanks to Wikipedia and Sally’s guided tour I learnt that Turrell obtained a pilot’s license when he was 16 years old and later, registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he ended up flying Buddhist monks out of Chinese-controlled Tibet, for years he restored antique airplanes to support his “art habit.” He was sent to prison in 1966, when he was arrested for coaching young men to avoid the Vietnam draft. As a pacifist I have taken a liking to this man.

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As an artist Turrell is perhaps best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater. He acquired an extinct cinder volcano located outside Flagstaff, Arizona in 1979. Since then he has spent decades moving tons of dirt and building tunnels and apertures to turn this crater into a massive naked-eye observatory for experiencing celestial phenomena.

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In 1992 he came to the Liss Ard Estate where he designed and oversaw the giant earth and stonework which has crater at its centre. A visitor enters through a doorway in the perimeter of the rim, walks through a passage and climbs stairs to enter, then lies on the central plinth and looks upwards to experience the sky framed by the rim of the crater. “The most important thing is that inside turns into outside and the other way around, in the sense that relationships between the Irish landscape and sky changes.”

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Photo courtesy Liss Ard Estate https://www.lissardestate.com/

To be perfectly honest I had no idea what to expect and before going through the stone door way and through the tunnel l felt a huge anticipation and reverence, it reminded me of visiting Newgrange or a similar ancient monument and it gave me the impression of travelling through a birth canal and up into the light.

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It is impressive but I can’t help feeling I would have been more impressed to have been faced with the crater walls covered in wildflowers, I am a plant nerd and there was only grass. The circle of sky above may also have been more impressive if the sun was out and it was blue or even at night when you could lie down and gaze up at a perfect circle of a star filled heavens. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to visit this almost secret space and I loved the stone gateway at the top of the steps leading down to the crater and having the opportunity to visit Liss Ard was brilliant, an instillation of this nature will appeal more to some than others I may just be one of those others.

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