Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Philosophy of Gardens by David E. Cooper

We all - certainly most of us - take joy in observing the first golden shoots emerging in spring, in planning aesthetic improvements for our gardens, in contemplating the garden at twilight, some of us may even enjoy weeding.

I'm convinced that gardening is much more than that, that in fact it is preserving knowledge and ways of being in the world that are in danger of being lost.

This isn't a review, only a brief note to say that I just finished this not-easy-to-read-but-certainly-worth-it book by David E. Cooper, a Professor of Philosophy at Durham University in England. David Cooper was featured speaker at one of the recent Vista lectures at the Garden Museum in London. I listened to the podcast of the lecture with interest, and to the prickly, engaging question and answer following it. The book is about the meaning of gardening; why we do it.

We do it for many reasons, of course, but apparently no one has attempted a rigorous analysis of this question, at least not in the last couple of centuries. I understand I'm probably among the small minority of American garden bloggers and blog readers who might have sufficient interest in this question to read Cooper's book. I recommend it to those of you who share that interest. You may want to try the podcast first but, frankly, I found Cooper's manner of presentation a little off-putting, certainly highly academic. The book itself, though demanding, offers greater rewards.

Why do we garden? Out of context, the answer is a little bare so I make no attempt to paraphrase it, only saying this book gives answers to the question of "why The Garden is distinctive and why The Garden matters."



  1. This afternoon I started wading in to Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. I think the question is not Why do we garden? It's why do we read these tomes about why we garden when there are glorious coffee-table books that we could flip through?

    Seriously, I'm going to check out the podcast.

  2. I think it's in our nature to seek out meaning, so we do these things that seem like work and play at the same time. Of course, we need some pretty pictures (or other kinds of relaxation) in between. I ordered Harrison's book after I started A Philosophy of Gardens, and now it's waiting on my bedside table. Now I have to decide whether to read it next, or take time out for a novel.

  3. You got me. I'm gonna order it. My book is due to my dissertation committee in two weeks, but I might find something intersting to add to my "chapter" on what gardens are, what they mean, et cetera. Though, I must say, I've found more insight from books not billed as explicitly as the above in their meaning.

  4. Cooper does make the point that his title is "A" not "The" Philosophy of Gardens. I hope you enjoy it, or at least find it useful. Good luck with the book/dissertation.

    David Abrams' The Spell of the Sensuous just arrived this week. I ordered it at your suggestion. I've only glimpsed inside it, but I imagine you will find the style of A Philosophy of Gardens rather (extremely?) dry in comparison.

  5. James--Indeed, I am finding Cooper's book dry, but still very interesting. I've read maybe a 100 books this year on gardening design, theory, philosophy of nature and religion in nature, and more lyrical stuff like Abram. So what I'm saying is one needs a good mix, but I am especially drawn to what Cooper has to say about what gardens are and Asian design, as I see a lot of this, in some respects, to Oudolf. If you get into Abram, and want something a bit lighter and more lyrical, Stanley Kunitz's The Wild Braid (mix of his experiences in the garden and his poetry) has greatly impacted this poet / gardener. Not sure if I've mentioned that one before. So many glorious books!

  6. Benjamn,
    Cooper's assertion that gardening and garden making is an epiphany of co-dependence between the "ground" of all that is - which I interpret as god/God in whatever way you conceive it - and human creativity is an appealing one. So far, I've had a hard time connecting my experience with that idea. I think I have to read his book again to try to follow his arguments leading to that conclusion. I may be misreading, but I understand this as a rather mystical concept.

    Is it James Alexander Sinclair who says, "After all, it's only gardening"?

    I'll try Kunitz. Or rather add him to my list. I almost had him as a teacher years ago while briefly seeking an MFA in poetry at Columbia. Unfortunately, I ran out of money before I got to that point.

  7. Oh no, don't go down that 'it's only gardening' road. It's great to take gardens seriously - they have so much to offer the heart, the senses and the brain. We can't all be dim!
    XXXXX Anne (

  8. Ahhh the heart.the senses and the brain..'only' is just a sloppy word in this instance but probably a putdown too! In this day and age few of us are 'allowed' to do anything unless it conforms to good business practice (earns money) and contributes to the servicing of mortgages..this brave new world has little time for garden frippery or any of the arts beyond the mainstream (read formalized) 'social' arts. ('comprehensive'garden makers are increasing seen as doddering fools .
    Martin of Wigandia

  9. I think we can only hope to keep it alive, to keep the idea of the garden alive, for a future time when it can grow again. Something akin to preserving genetic material for future generations. You're right, the business people see us a doddering fools. It's all they CAN see.



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