The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener by Ronald Lee Fleming

Ronald Lee Fleming’s The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory (GILES, 158 pp., $39.95) is a unique, delightful, large-format book about one man’s desire to create a natural place to hold human memory. Fleming, who served as a Special Forces intelligence officer in the Vietnam War, made a career change late in life from law to urban planning. Over the past two decades he raised three children on his own while creating a full-scale memory garden at his home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Fleming visited and studied narrative gardens around the world—gardens designed to invoke a landscape of place memory. Places to explore (and possibly come to grips with) different facets of human history. He decided he wanted to create his own place that would engage the mind as well as the eye in anchoring and honoring family memories. He tells that story—about family and place—in this book

While Fleming was inspired by historical gardens in England, Scotland, Italy, and elsewhere, he knew his was going to create an American garden “reflecting the experience of an American family.” He began to include artifacts of the American experience, such as a cloth cap of an ancestor killed in the Civil War and the image of a buckboard from the Oklahoma land rush.

Fleming says he designed the garden in a manner intended to tell stories. “We aspired,” he writes, “to tell stories that demonstrate what had shaped our very desire to create a garden realm.” He uses objects to enrich the story of a place, eventually creating a garden in which physical structures become part of a larger mental landscape populated with lost friends and war memories.

The garden includes two teahouses, a cabana, a guest room, a gazebo, and a library. And it evolved into a space that could be open to the community. Along with 15,000 daffodils, the garden includes groups of trees, a waterfall, and carved stonework that combine to create balance and symmetry. This was all the result of twenty years of planning and building.

There are powerful images in the garden that tell Fleming’s family’s story, including vignettes depicting ancestors that connect his family to experiences from colonial days to the Vietnam War’s 1968 Tet Offensive. That includes an overturned automobile representing a near-fatal accident.

Fleming and his garden at his Newport, R.I., house in 2013

Fleming was originally drawn to garden making partly as therapy as he continued to deal with difficult memories from the war. One especially troubling experience was witnessing a “picturesque and tranquil Vietnamese village transformed by an American bomber into a shattered ruin.” An area of the garden contains a tribute to Vietnam War veterans whom Fleming considers to be “delayed casualties” of the war.

Most of those who visit his garden don’t come to connect with his family memories—or even their own—but to make music, dance, and otherwise engage in general merriment.

Fleming hopes his beautifully illustrated book will encourage readers to create their own historic gardens. Assuming you have the property, if this book doesn’t inspire you to do so, then nothing will. Take some time with this one.

–Bill McCloud