Sunday, December 14, 2008

Atmosphere and Mood in the Garden

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.


  1. I try hard to understand these uncomfortable feelings that may arise in an area where plants and wildlife are dominant.Husbands mother lives in Hot Springs Village Arkansas, surrounded by woods along with the obligatory golf courses and man made lakes. She insists on keeping a large well mown lawn around the house,keeps doors and windows firmly closed at all times. Seems snakes and spiders have her very afraid. But she takes walks quite often in the woods and says she loves living in the country (as she calls it).
    I have camped and hiked in very wild areas all my life.While cautious and respectful I am in awe rather than afraid or uncomfortable.
    Living in an unmistakably urban area the garden serves as a barrier as much as possible. Tall plants(and fences),narrow seemingly secluded paths,insects and birds all work to distance the intrusion of uninvited man.
    This seems so much more comfortable than enduring the glances of passersby or the constant comings and goings of neighbors.I had not thought that others might harbor fears, need to be reassured by an openness devoid of unknowns. It surely helps explain at least some of those widespread uninterrupted lawns.

  2. A beautiful blog, James. I have A Philosophy of gardens on my bookshelf, but it is still "in the queue." After reading your post, I'm inspired to move it up.

    Thanks for stopping by the Bike Garden and offering your take on the hefty price of dining in NYC.

  3. Gloria,
    I think my personal feeling of unease can be read as a sense of the mystery of the past and the unknown and the untold stories that lie there. I've never actually felt fear, other than when surprised by a turkey flying up to the tippy top of a tall white pine at twilight, or a great blue heron swooping unexpectedly over my head. I like to think the former inhabitants of this place are here in some way, watching, caring about what happens.

  4. Susan,
    A Philosophy of Gardens definitely is not an easy read, but it's certainly a rigorous and thoughtful attempt to answer the serious question of why we humans do this thing called gardening.

  5. I loved this post. When you actually take the time to ponder what it must have been like for families to try and make a living off of the land from total wilderness, it is a wonder anyone ever left Europe. In the South you also have to factor in the horror of slavery and repression into the landscape, and it might make you think all of our current economic woes are trivial. Trivial except for the fact that we have come so far, and are so interdependent that if we ever really fall it is going to be very bad.

  6. Les,
    I'm looking for sources to explore this past. I know at least one branch of my family have been rural, mostly very poor farmers going by 10 generations, but that history has mostly been lost. The novels of Charles Frazer (Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons) tell us something about that world. I'm sure there are many sources, they just need to be found. We need to understand how the world we have came to be.

  7. You've read David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous? This post was smattered with his thoughts on phenomenology.

  8. Thanks, Benjamin. You've sent me in search of David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, which I've never even heard of. Serendipity (I hope).



Related Posts with Thumbnails