VARIETY, they say, is the spice of life. That's certainly true as far as hobbies are concerned. Some folk collect stamps, others climb mountains, or do just the opposite and explore underground caverns. There's no end to the things people do in their spare time. Which reminds us of the ancient garden art of topiary - shaping trees in ways that nature never intended or, as some wit remarked, ``Leading nature up the garden path.'' Down the ages, kings and cardinals, statesmen and soldiers, have all found tree sculpture a fascinating hobby. It was Cardinal Wolsey who laid out the famous evergreen maze at Hampton Court, in England. King William III was another topiary fan and his royal gardens were full of fantastically clipped shrubs and bushes, while a group of ancient yew trees was carved out to form a complete summer house.
Topiary is one of the oldest of garden crafts and can be traced back some 2,000 years to Roman times, but it is believed to have been originated by the Chinese who, with the Dutch, are probably the most skillfull carvers today.
The art got its name from Toparius, a Roman gardener, famed for his skill at trimming box trees to give them the appearance of boats, animals, and geometric shapes. One of the most famous of all Roman gardens was that at Tuscany, belonging to Pliny the Elder. It contained hundreds of evergreen statues of fantastic design, including sentries mounting guard over evergreen initials of fair ladies, and a whole menagerie of weird and wonderful animal and bird forms.
The pride of Genoa in the 16th century was a clump of yews cut to resemble a flock of sheep, while in the background lurked a menacing horde of evergreen animals apparently just waiting their chance to pounce on the flock!
One of the greatest experts in tree sculpture was the famous French gardener Le Notre, who planned the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. His skill was such that he would even clip trees to represent architectural styles of different periods. A writer of the time declared: ``He can shape the lesser wood to the form of men armed in the field, ready to give battell; or swift-running greyhounds to chase the deare, or hunt the hare. This kind of hunting shall not waste your corne, nor much of your coyne.''
The topiary work at Levens Hall, near Kendall, England, must be seen to be believed. The trees represent not only geometric designs such as cubes and spirals, but objects such as boats, umbrellas, a giant cup and saucer, an Indian wigwam, and even a judge's wig so large that its hollowed-out interior is able to house a table and seats, and is, in fact, a living summer-house.
In the 18th century, topiary fell into disfavor. Poet and wit Alexander Pope was no lover of tree sculpture and poked fun at it with his skit ``Catalogue of Greens to be Disposed of.'' Here are a few of the ``bargains'' it offered: the Tower of Babel, not yet finished; St. George, his arm not yet long enough but will be in condition to stick the dragon next April; a pair of giants, stunted, to be sold cheap; a hog, shot up into a porcupine by being forgot a week in rainy weather; and many more aimed at ridiculing the art.
Pope and his followers almost shot the art to death, but fortunately here and there a few gardeners or country squires kept the art alive. Today the hobby of shaping trees in ways that nature never intended is fast returning to favor. Peacocks and spirals are still at the top of the charts, but one enthusiast now boasts of an evergreen railroad locomotive!