Cover image for The wildest place on earth ; Italian gardens and the invention of wilderness
The wildest place on earth ; Italian gardens and the invention of wilderness
Mitchell, John Hanson.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Counterpoint, [2001]

Physical Description:
xii, 194 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Merloyd Lawrence book."
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
SB457.85 .M58 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A journey to uncover the essence of wilderness, by one of this country's most original nature writers. In five previous books, John Hanson Mitchell has explored small local landscapes to ask the larger question of what it means to be living on earth in our time. In his newest exploration he sets out from the convoluted paths of a traditional hedge maze in his own garden to find, in the civilized and ordered gardens of Italy, the inspiration for the painters and conservationists who shaped an American concept of wilderness. While searching for wildness in today's crowded, smog-filled wilderness parks, however, he is pulled inward and toward home, back to what Thoreau called contact: an abiding, enduring, and daily connection with the world of nature. Throughout this quest are the observations, the wit and the aura of magic that have endeared knowing readers to the work of this natural historian.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In a vibrant blend of personal anecdote and fresh historical interpretations, nature writer Mitchell offers stimulating observations about unexpected connections between garden design and wilderness preservation. After realizing that a vacation-style "wilderness experience" didn't satisfy his need for a "life in nature," Mitchell turned to gardening. He soon developed a fascination with hedge mazes and labyrinths, ancient emblems of humanity's connection to the earth, and the Italian Renaissance garden, a "model of divine order." Gratified to discover that he was following in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century American visionaries Emerson and Muir, Mitchell discerned that their appreciation for the gardens of Italy, supremely gracious manifestations of civilization, contributed mightily to their perception of the spirituality of nature and their pivotal roles in establishing a tradition of American wilderness protection. As for Mitchell, he revels in the fact that wildness, the "life-sustaining current," flows just as gloriously on home ground as in a remote forest or desert and has come to prefer the quiet of a garden to the clamor of car-and tourist-filled national parks. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Mitchell (Ceremonial Time) opens this lush, labyrinthine book with his long-ago encounter, in the American desert, with "a wildman," "who claimed you could live forever in the wilderness with two or three milk goats and a working knowledge of edible plants." The younger Mitchell embraced this philosophy, but, ultimately, it was in "the most thoroughly transformed landscape of all, the hedged terraces, all‚es, pathways, pools, fountains, and hidden rooms of what was left of the old Renaissance gardens of Italy" that he "rediscovered that old sense of goatly wildness." From the great mazes of ancient Egypt to the 12th-century hedge maze where Henry II's wife murdered his mistress, to the construction of his own backyard maze and tea house, Mitchell explores the wilderness of the human imagination and "the undiscovered country of the nearby." Three of what Thoreau would have called "clews" to Mitchell's project keep cropping up: first, Thoreau's idea of "Contact," or oneness with nature; second, the contrast between conceptions of true wilderness "as a separate place" with "a certain aura of power or ability to bestow information or insight" and the construction of the garden; and finally, the beloved demigod Pan, who physically embodies both the untamed forests and deserts (his goat half) and sculpted gardens (his human half). Part travelogue, part garden history in the tradition of Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens, this poetic little book traces the transportation of humankind to the wilderness and the transformation of the wild into rich human habitat. (Apr. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Prologuep. xi
1. Contactp. 3
2. The Great Forestp. 12
3. The Garden in the Woodsp. 23
4. In a Green Shadep. 45
5. The Genteel Romanticsp. 70
6. Italian Reveriesp. 90
7. Into the Wildp. 104
8. The Italian Debtp. 123
9. The Cathedral in the Pinesp. 138
10. The Fate of Earthp. 151
11. Backyard Serengetip. 173
Epilogue: The Persistence of Panp. 187