Sunday, December 14, 2008
This is something I've taken a while to admit to myself. The atmosphere of my garden isn't an entirely comforting one.
The winter view is dominated by natural woods on all sides. There are pleasant attributes - at this time of year, I can just make out the outline of the ridge across the small Lockatong valley, which gives a sense of expansiveness; as the sun rises early morning light pierces the woods horizontally, enflaming the tan foliage of the beeches; flowering panicles of grasses catch the changing light in a sensuously enticing way; ice and snowflakes on the pond make a pretty scene - nevertheless, in my garden I often feel a slight discomfort, a frisson of unease, as if there were some one or some thing watching.
I understand the fears of early American pioneers, who needed to clear the land around their houses for safety - a deeply ingrained habit that has merged with other influences, ranging from the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing to the American desire to conform, to be accepted, to "fit in" - resulting in the safe, boring, uniform suburban landscapes of empty lawn the vast majority of our population seek out, even enforce by covenant and law. (What hidden fears and desires lie beneath this "pursuit of happiness"?)
What I'm saying is that engagement with one's garden is not always a "happy" thing. Dealing with feelings of unease, failure, fear, however slight, or perhaps more troubling emotions, is part of the gardening experience. All is not sweetness and light. Melancholy, regret, sense of loss may even be intrinsic to certain places.
I've been reading David E. Cooper's A Philosophy of Gardens, in which he argues that the atmosphere of a garden isn't attributable to its natural and manmade features, but to what certain phenomenologists call a "field of presence." Call it mood.
The mood of my garden is not a reflection of the psychological and historical influences in the world at large. The economic disaster we are in, the anxiety we all share about the future, the rise of extremism and terrorism certainly affect my psychological state. But the mood of the garden is a different matter, affected by, but not entirely attributable to, the state of the world or "the human condition."
The opening photo is of the decaying home in which my mother and her large family lived in the early 20th century. She was born there in 1916. My sister and I recently found the remains of the house just off a dirt road near Singleton, Mississippi. It's hard to imagine a happy family life in such a place, but of course this was a country home that teemed with life. I heard the stories from my mother before she died. The feeling this ruin evokes is what I'm getting at.
This sagging house brings to mind the poverty-haunted settlers that must have struggled to farm this rocky, wet, sloping land I now call my garden. I believe something of that spirit from the past still lingers here in the abandoned stone rows that are mute testimony to long days of hard labor, in the abandoned fields long ago returned to forest, and in the derelict dams and millworks in the ancient creek below the garden.
When we visited the decaying house in Mississippi, I found a large trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata) in the front yard, with recently fallen orange fruit scattered on the ground and several small seedlings rising through the leaf mould. I brought seed back to my garden in New Jersey, where I hope to plant them in the spring.