Sunday, October 18, 2009

Death and Happy Talk

A dreary few days of rain is doing its bit to spoil what's left of melancholy autumn. The sun will certainly come out again and play across the dying garden, reviving opportunity for more uplifting views of autumn brew shot through with glittering shafts of light. But all that's left in my cold, wet clearing in the woods will be the textures and foliage colors of a flowerless season - quite unlike the late show of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

Frankly, I tire of pretty pictures and happy talk so prevalent among American garden blogs; I think this has more to do with American culture and its denial of the facts of life (of sex, death, suffering, rot and dissolution, take your pick) than with gardens or gardening, which can be and often are routes to deeper understanding of our place in this universe. Instead, we find art talk in design magazines, craftsmanship as commodity (very expensive, that garden bench, at $7000 per), white gardens, blue gardens, rose gardens, "English" gardens, and, lowest of the low, the pristine desert lawn and Disneyland.

The focus of American culture on the frothy and the superficial, even the seeking after "sustainability," which has long ago been co-opted as yet another commodity, as has "organic," doesn't cure cancer, stop wars, end child slavery or work to prevent any of the many other horrors we wish to hide from our eyes. In spite of our diversions, we all ultimately find a path to realization of our own physical end. It's considered bad taste to write about sadness or the darker side of life, though that seems appropriate to our time.

Around the corner from us, a man has put out a sign announcing he's a landscaper. The bank at the front of his house is covered in black mulch. He planted a few perennials, sun lovers, in deep shade (they died), and at the side are several large, complicated, expensive machines for moving earth and carrying heavy loads. What does this landscaper cultivate? Certainly not life.

A first step to taking gardens seriously is to allow in the full range of human emotions. Until we begin to do that, gardens will continue to be relegated to the "hobby" category by the cataloguers of our lives. Gardening will remain a harmless diversion ... so long as the plants don't get too high.


  1. Splendid insight,sir.

    Age has that effect, doesn't it? Things tend to happen with or without our permission and certainly our approval is superflous in any case.

    There was a Saturday morning lawn and garden show several years back on my old radio station. The two hosts, Jim and Jim, had a wonderful care prescription for Bradford pear trees that echoes often:

    "One cut, ground level."

  2. Peter,
    Thanks to you. I expected a negative reaction to this post.

  3. nallasenyt,
    There's no denying reality. Jim and Jim must have been wise men: great advice for the Bradford pear. What a waste of good tree space. At best, they look like architectural symbols for trees.

  4. I read this post earlier and decided to hold any comments until I read it again. I don't disagree with you at all, but am surprised you courageously put it on the table. This culture loves its hamburgers, but refuses to peek through the slaughter house window.

    Les @

  5. Maybe you need to come hang out with the California garden bloggers. This time of year we're all happy about the start of the rainy season after our summer dormancy (a golden sort of death?). Though you're probably right, everyone should take a turn at being goth. Only agapanthus blooms 12 months of the year, and everyone hates (or should hate) agapanthus.

  6. Les,

    I'm not against anyone blogging about what ever they want. I just wish more gardeners were concerned about gardens in a serious way, maybe as works of art, as philosophical statements, as monuments or memorials to something, as models for working "in tune with nature," as many other possibilities - not just as diversions from reality. We need a less limited vision of what a garden is and can be.

    I used to think my garden was my own little "paradise," my own little peaceable kingdom safe from the world. I liked to quote this oft cited passage from Micah:

    "Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation and never again will they train for war. And each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid."

    Needless to add I don't think that now.

    Now I see the garden as a place full of all kinds of emotions, certainly not as a refuge from the cares of the world.

    Yes, as you so aptly put it, we like our hamburgers, but we refuse to peek through the slaughterhouse window.

  7. Ryan, I'm fascinated with your climate, and the opportunities to grow an entirely different flora. I'd even be glad to grow agapanthus in my garden, but it would rot.

  8. A garden is not a refuge. Hell no. I thought this two years ago. I'm in warp speed when it comes to my garden, and my spirit in it. If anything, the garden is where the darkest, deepest, true-est part of myself comes out. If I'm interrupted when I'm really into cutting or digging, I yell--at my wife, who interrupted me. Not good. Out in the garden I swear. I get angry about a cliched student. I remake what I should have said to someone. I am desparate in the garden. In mid summer I come inside hot and tired, and, well, frisky. But nothing happens. In the garden I go out peaceful and excited, but come in perturbed at the rabbits eating asters or grasshopper eating every freaking leaf. Nothing happens. No, this garden is most certainly not a hobby, nor is it a refuge--it's a mirror reflecting me darkly (Annie Lennonx line?) showing what I need to work on, fertilize, cultivate, or simply remove. Problem is, I bet I won't do anything about any of it. Thank goodness it's fall and I won't have to face myself for a few months. (did I go on to long?)

  9. I look forward to March when I'll burn what I can and cut down the rest, leaving a flat expanse with a small curved pond and a few stone walls - pretty much a blank slate with simple geometric shapes. A ritual cleansing before the inexorable, stimulating, beautiful, frightening growth starts again. I like the "mirror reflecting me darkly."

  10. And yet . . . your garden (and mine) is about as beautiful as it possibly can be in the midst of all this winding down (your photos are gorgeous). My garden puts me in mind of the essential facts of life, the growing up and marrying and living and dying (to borrow from Mister Wilder; aside—just saw the wonderful production at Barrow Street Theater: GO.). It is not easy for me (much as I would like it to be; or at least a little easier, please!). And it is not quick; I am constantly reminded that I'm not going to be around forever.

    Which brings me to my own personal lament about the current state of the culture: the emphasis on instant results and easy enlightenment. We're all very glib.

    Great post, James. I'll be circling around your thoughts for a long while.

  11. J -
    How apt the reference to Thornton Wilder and Our Town. I want my garden to acknowledge the life that has gone on here before, not as an idealized past, but real past lives in all their specialness and roughness ... sort of a memorial, new life springing from the old. I'm not sure why; perhaps because I grew up playing in cemeteries and find their melancholy greeness conforting. Thanks for the recommendation too. I vaguely remember reading about the play, but hadn't paid a great deal of attention. We plan to get tickets now (if not too late).

    We both seem to share a necessity for slow gardening. Living in the City and getting to the garden only on weekends, there's little other option. It takes time. If only enlightenment - and garden making - were quick and easy. But then we wouldn't care as much.

  12. PS You do know that the honouring the landscape and the past of the site is what the Veddw is about, James? We really must meet!

  13. My post just went missing! Try again:
    James this is amazing, and so right. I tweet (put the link to this up on Twitter) and have been depressed by the remorseless grins of garden people's avatars, esp from US. Same meaningless grins demanded by the media of all garden writers, commentators etc. Is systematic of what you say.

    Please can I have this for thinkingardens? I would love also to include your very impressive commentators - would love to engage them too with thinkingardens - but could only do that with their permission.

    You have made my day, my week, you keep me going.
    XXXXXX Anne

  14. This is an interesting and impressive post. I came here via Anne's recommendation and am so glad I did. I garden both to keep in touch with the moment and to have a stake in the future, but always with a sense of how transient life is. This makes me sound either pretentious or miserable or both and I hope I am neither, certainly quite cheerful by temperament, just not an ostrich! Thank you for this post.

  15. Anne,
    I expected to have rotten tomatoes thrown my way when I pressed the "Post" button, but I've found the opposite. Certainly, you can use this as you see fit. If I can help with commentators, let me know. Most of them I know (virtually) because I follow their blogs.

    I'm also very familiar with Veddw's homage to the landscape and it's past inhabitants.


  16. elizabethm,
    I share the concern about feeling pretentious, but the nature of most US gardening blogs creates that context. I like pictures of pretty flowers too, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And I wonder why so many commentators have absolutely nothing to say, but say it anyway. There's a lot of silliness out there. Silence is often the best response.

  17. I am, as usual, late to this particular conversation. Gardens to me, are a reflection of larger issues both in my as well as in the larger cultural scheme of things. Birth-life-youth-aging-disease-death are all part of making a garden. Over the past 10 years gardens in America have become just another thing to be bought boxed up in high price tags and pretty wrappings. Most have done little to connect people to the land and the larger picture of who we are and where we live. As you have eloquently said, even with the dire state of the world, most garden blogs don't even begin to address the big picture. Perhaps we are more afraid of finding out who we really are than we are ready to admit. Thank you for making me think.

  18. Susan,
    Thank you for taking the time to participate in this discussion. In our "pursuit of happiness" we tend to ignore, even make unconscious, what we don't want to see. I sometimes wonder if Thomas Church's "invention" of the 20th century residential garden hasn't led us into a dead end, at least as far as gardens are concerned. I don't mean to besmerch Chruch's name ... in fact, I see him as a great artist. But in turning the garden into an outdoor room for living, in making it an extension of the house, he gave our capitalistic culture the opportunity to pervert his innovative vision, giving us instead play areas filled with garish colored plastic structures, expensive outdoor kitchens, lavish dining rooms. In that process we lost psychological depth, mystery and sense of place. We're left with space full of acquisitions, stuff, things. As you say, perhaps we're afraid of finding out who we really are.

  19. Hmmm, I thought I commented on this post, but it seems to have gone missing in action. Ah well, basically it said "Ditto."

    But...I like rain. Have to, you know.

  20. Susan,

    Did google burp? I think we all need to be wary of cloud computing.

    I like rain too, just not on weekends, which is the only time I can garden. Need to plant bulbs this weekend. Rain predicted - after a work week of sun, of course.

  21. Very good stuff James.
    I am on a similar wee track... My garden is a celebration of the many plants grown throughout Australia's short history (does that make it historical!!) I also weave in the social and cultural diversity of my region and also have endeavored to sympathetically address the near genocide and certainly cultural genocide of this regions original native area most white people do not want to know about and it makes for interesting grimaces when I try to explain what I am trying to say...many many other things at play too..the list would be long and indeed as long as a book!!
    It is about the past the present and some say the future..all done with due regard to NOT squadering materials as the many gardens are want to do..yes sustainability can be a reality.
    “Embark on a garden with a vision but never with a plan."
    Ian Hamilton Finlay.
    Best Wishes William Martin

  22. Most gardens I see are simply outdoor decoration. What's not generally understood is that the earth and the plants and the life we are involved in, in what we claim as our property, need to be honoured and loved. We need to build gardens that best express natural forces, not use these natural forces to declare our control. I love 'View from Federal Twist'.

  23. Mount Wren,
    We are of similar minds on gardens. I'm intrigued by your idea of a fictional garden (I looked at your blog). Please give us more. I've beeen thinking this fall that my garden resembles those Japanese fields of miscanthus I've seen in photographs. Mine is a natural garden, in its method and process certainly, a garden that "goes with the land," but not at all a native plant garden (though there are many native plants). The miscanthus, of Japanese origin, love the conditions here and are probably its most prominent feature at this time of year. Natural forces determine the process of the garden, but my interventions keep it a garden. Of course, I'm part of nature too.

  24. The title of your essay caught my attention and I'm glad for the opportunity to have read it.
    I'm one of those upbeat American gardeners whose embraces both the happy talk and the natural progression of dying and transition. I view it as just a fact of our being.
    Perhaps it is because I garden in temperate California (where apaganthus bloom all year round) or that I am a Buddhist or that right at this very minute I am celebrating the life and death of a family member who had 90 beautiful springs, summers, autumns and now she walks in last season of winter.
    It's a beautiful thing this life, for some it comes complete with burgers, organic sustainable gardens , Disneyland, over the top outdoor kitchens and the simple pleasures of a small vegetable plot.
    For others it is the simple act of holding hands and sharing a tin cup half full with clean water.
    Regardless, it's not what we begrudge against one another or envy others for what they have and we have not.
    It's about how we care for one another and enjoy the pleasant pursuits while we have the opportunity to do so.
    It's raining here in Northern California and I couldn't be happier.

  25. Willian Martin, as long as a book indeed. Your garden (though I have seen only photographs) seems to embrace the world, and should have a book written about it. To those who don't know it, go to

  26. Michelle, you are a beacon and we need beacons. I can't share your optimism. Rather, I CAN share it, just not all the time. The vast American "lawn culture" is doing tremendous damage, as one example, and in this case live and let live just isn't acceptable. It harms us all. I enjoyed Susan Cohen's interview with you on ThinkinGardens.

  27. James,
    I just found this entry while looking at the ThinkinGardens site. This a excellent piece. Your writing has inspired me to go a little deeper and take more risks in my own writing. Not sure you will find this comment but here it is. Thank you.

  28. Thank you, Michael. It seems more Americans are using the ThinkinGardens site. That's a good thing, I think.



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