Sociology in the Park

Today I went on my first French run. Embarking on my excursion I was apprehensive about parading my sneakered, heart-rate-elevated self around Marly-le-Roi, where I am staying this week; but, headed towards the park where my hostess Patricia suggested I exercise, I passed a field where a bunch of children were having gym class. Thus, I learned that French people actually do run (even if most of them are children), and my fears were allayed for the morning.

As soon as I had settled into my relief at being one of many runners (I encountered yet more sportifs, closer to my age, as I continued) I arrived at the parc de Marly. Upon crossing the threshold of the entrance, I had to stop for a moment to absorb the landscape in awe and perplexity. What struck me first was the series of trees that had been pruned into perfect, conical topiaries. These squat, elegant shapes were evenly spaced around an elongated hexagonal body of water that anchored the series of concentric hexagons of grass, paths, and trees around it.

All these hexagons comprised a vast, yet deliberately contained outdoor space. In various corners I found sculpture gardens, intimate sub-routes expertly engineered to lead the wanderer back to the central basin, and groundskeepers lodgings, the likes of which might comprise dreams of bucolic French living.

One path bordering the pool was lined with stands of long trees, closing the path off from the surrounding grass. On each side of the path, the trees drew upward from their straight trunks, branches arching inward to form one continuous arch, much like those in the cathedrals that abound here. Even the dappled sunlight peeking through the upper layers of foliage was reminiscent of the light that filters through stained glass windows into churches’ side aisles.

From the cathedral trees to the geometric precision, each meter of the park (note deliberate use of the metric system!) had been carefully conceived and manipulated, the space wrangled and submitted to human will. In the way that religions make sensible systems in the wake of universal uncertainty, the park made order of the wilderness.

Sensing the human will infused in this space in comparison to the unruliness of New England’s outdoor havens made me wonder what cultural statement this park was making. I felt awfully privileged—perhaps too privileged— to have this Versailles-esque setting as the backdrop for my daily sweating session. Running around one of the many concentric perimeters, I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the central trough surrounded by the conifer triangles; I was at once taken by its beauty and appalled at its excess.

In attempt to puzzle out my ambivalence, I thought about why I was so taken by this landscape, and where my accompanying discomfort was located. Here’s what I came up with:

France’s monuments and sprawling parcs were built more or less to demarcate French power; so, as a major world power, wouldn’t the United States logically have constructed a similarly impressive aesthetic culture? Mais non! The people who built these French landmarks—royal folks— were, in so doing, displaying their control over their surroundings, both to impress other nation-states, and to impress the weight of their power upon the lower classes in France. That is, these monuments indicated a class divide, and now are available for public use since the demolition of the monarchy and the rise of the middle class post-revolution (and the ensuing redistribution of royal property). The US, on the other hand, has always been middle-class heavy; we have never had kings to build big, beautiful things all for themselves (instead, we have the top 1% and their sprawling mansions). Our public spaces are publicly funded, and our Versailles gardens still belong to the super-rich.

So perhaps in Marly I felt like I was trespassing on private grounds. Given the current class segregation in the US and–surely– a deeply ingrained sense of Puritan guilt (Thank you, Massachusetts!), my combined awe and unease in the Parc de Marly are no longer surprising.

Through with my puzzling and physically back where I started, I realized an hour had passed as I heard church bells ring. I left the park, passed the pond-sized trough where Louis XIV used to water his horses, and chuckled my way back to Patricia’s. If only an hour on the elliptical were so illuminating.

3 thoughts on “Sociology in the Park

  1. Literally, this is my thesis topic! This week and last I’m doing reading into the history of colonial American gardens (very geometric and rigidly organized, in fact!) and the 19th century shift to public parks. Not at all France-related, but the more natural parks we have were actually born out of British garden cemeteries, which city dwellers reappropriated for picnics and hanging out. That trend came to the US (Mount Auburn Cemetery, etc.) and public parks began emerging.

    p.s. miss you lots, off I go to read “Landscapes of Memory: the Nineteenth-Century Garden Cemetery”…

    • Emma, that is thrilling! I might need to read all of your sources, and then your thesis. And then I think we need to make a trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery. Did you know that’s where BB is? Along with the rest of my maternal extended family. And probably me, eventually.

  2. Is it ironic that one of our most cherished monuments — the Statue of Liberty — came from presumably these same grandiose tendencies?

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