Monday, February 22, 2010

Why do I garden? What's that, again?

The boredom imposed by our heavy snow cover is getting on my nerves. I've been planning changes for the spring--adding hornbeam (Carpinus betula) hedges and columns in my mind (above), planting a curved border of alder (Alnus gultinosa) and willow (Salix koriyanagi 'Rubikins') to screen the close-side view of our eight-foot-tall deer fence in an arc extending off the edge of the picture on the right, wondering how alder will take to hard pruning or coppicing (I chose it because it will grow in my extremely wet conditions), planning addition of extensive groundcovers of carex and low grasses. To what end all these plans? Why do I do it? Some practical reasons, certainly. Adding structure to contrast with and contain the wildness (aesthetic improvements), adding mystery by obscuring parts of the view, hiding an unattractive feature. Manipulation of the three-dimensional garden pallet. But this omits other important parts of the garden, at least for me.

A recent post on the Hegarty Webber Partnership blog, highly critical of those who think gardens must have a message, has been nagging at me. First I want to to say I only wish the American gardening scene entertained such a variety of ferment and conflicting attitudes toward gardening as we find in the UK, one aspect of which Lesley and Robert criticize on their blog. On this side of the Atlantic, we have a much more limited range of concerns--the predominant "how-to" approach to just about everything gardening, usually limited to the very practical (how to grow tomatoes, the seven best plants for a sunny border). Or to the politically correct:  the native plant garden, the sustainable garden; even some, not up with current trends, want to know how to make an "English garden," whatever that is. In the US, we're very message oriented in a different, much more limited way. Nothing too artsy, nothing too serious, unless you're vegetable gardening, truly a profound undertaking on which the fate of the world apparently depends.

In the UK, the range of discussion is much broader, though they have silliness too. Over there, all of this can become highly personal, emotional, even intellectual, and frankly I find that stimulating. Of course, the UK has gardening personalities in numbers that far outdo us; that adds an entertaining overlay of innuendo, cattiness, and backbiting.

But to return to the nagging thought spurred by the Hegarty Webber blog, I'm considering whether I should feel guilty that I want my garden to have a message, or more correctly, messages. Why do I spend all this time planning changes in the garden? Why do I garden?

I'm reminded of a meeting with several engineers a few years back. We were discussing a proposal for new work when, out of the blue, I said I'd rather be gardening. One engineer asked me, "Do you do flower gardening or vegetable gardening?" I had no answer. I don't define gardening in that way. I answered, "Ornamental gardening," but that really didn't close the gulf of misunderstanding that existed between us. I found it difficult to express my feelings about gardening.

So what have I been doing in creating a new garden in these wet woods over the past five years? I think, first, I've been making a place where I can indulge my delight in plants and the process of plant growth. I, like most gardeners, am profoundly affected by plants and am moved almost to poetry to see them piercing the cold earth, growing, blossoming in spring. You can almost feel it, can't you? The bud swelling imperceptibly, the haze of color tinting the extremities of the trees where they touch the sky.

Then looking at the landscape, seeing the world at that larger scale, where individual plants, the earth itself, blend into a greater whole, a new level of complexity governs. A landscape can evoke pleasurable memories and sensations, or unpleasant ones (think Auschwitz, for example). Landscape is the world in which we live. Of course, our perception of landscape is different to different times and cultures. In 17th century Great Britain, wild and mountainous landscapes were frightening and to be avoided. These are the same mountainous prospects the Romantics taught us to see as sublime. Landscape evokes thoughts of past engagement and travels to near and distant places, routes of travel, maps, the shape of the land, its folds and creases, what that shape suggests as metaphor, and what it says, scientifically speaking, of the ancient past, of geology, and of time, both eons and seconds, constant change, a rivulet that will become a river in thousands of years, the low angle of late sunlight on the trunks of the trees as darkness comes on at end of day. A whole range of sensations, memories, thoughts converge in the experience of a landscape. Some sensual and emotional, some intellectual.

We want to imbue this landscape with meaning as a way of understanding our world. It's easy enough to find glib meaning in the unattractive or outright ugly aspects of landscape, as in a highway strip mall on its way to economic demise, or any of the many aspects of ubiquitous urban sprawl, easy enough to interpret such changes as a sign of social ill or economic failure, perhaps a critique of unfettered capitalism.

As gardeners today, most of us seek out "pretty" aspects of landscape (I ignore for now those "artists" who engage with the un-pretty). Consider the High Line, the new elevated urban park in New York City. This is one interesting example because it was an ambiguous "object" that some liked very much and others wanted to demolish. The High Line is interesting because it changed what many would have considered a waste, derelict industrial structure into a world class park, one that has opened to almost universal approval. On first take, you might think the making of the High Line was an act of redemption, because to some it was not "pretty"; it was an industrial relic. But pretty is a relative thing. To many, including myself, it was a potent symbol and a testament to how nature quickly reclaims the works of man (a little of Ozymandius here:  "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"). Does the High Line have a meaning? Certainly. It's an urban pastoral. The abandoned elevated rail structure, simply because it was inaccessible and left alone, made itself into a wild garden through years of self-seeding and protection from disturbance high above the streets. Two men with vision and an organization capable of raising several hundred million dollars has, indeed, "redeemed" the High Line, but that redemption was really the prevention of its demolition and reconstruction as a safe, highly complex, and expensive urban jewel. But the amazing park that has emerged is nothing more than a refinement of what already existed (with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf, no less). So the High Line does have a meaning. But it's an ironic meaning, a retreat from the urban environment that created it, lacking the grittiness of the city in which it was born, elevated safely above the streets, with attendants and guards, with spectacular views, particularly at night, when it's safe as can be, unlike most big city streets. It seems we can find meaning almost everywhere we look.

I locate the garden somewhere between simple love of plants and the complex feelings we can have about landscape. The garden is a middle point, between the microcosm of the individual plant and the macrocosm of the landscape, and by extension the earth, the universe. In part, it's a place of protection, a safe haven, a place where "every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make him afraid." But it's more than that for me, and it failed to be that for many in the past. In fact, it has been the opposite. My garden is in a place where men, and women, witnessed struggle, failure, even genocide. The individual lives that ended on this land, the hopes and fears of the Native Americans who lived here, the hard lives of early white settlers can't be known specifically and in detail, but these people most certainly lived pleasantly and badly, and died, whether of violence, disease or old age, throughout these gently rolling hills. Not to recognize this is almost a desecration of the past. This is a place that has known pain and fear, and it is appropriate that a garden in this place gently remind us of that.

After this lengthy rumination, I must say I agree with much of what Lesley and Robert have to say in their blog post. They criticize those who say a garden must have a message, those who oversimplify in the name of belief, who aren't able to stop and smell the roses. A garden must first of all give pleasure. A crocus in blossom can just be a crocus in blossom. It doesn't have to stand for something else. But of course, it can. Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica, a classic of 20th century American poetry, comes to mind (yes, it really just popped into my head, its ending line). Just substitute the word "garden" for "poem" and you have it:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.


  1. I've read the Hegarty Webber blog James, and in a way it's like a good splash of cold water. At times simplicity and immediacy seem to leave the garden when competitiveness and conceit walk in.
    On the other hand, for many gardeners, their garden and their gardening have a personal meaning, as ineffable as it may be. And for others again, their garden/ing not only has a meaning, but it has a meaning that needs to be conveyed.
    Gardening can be just mucking about, or doing what the neighbours do, or refreshing yourself, or it can be a form of self-expression, essential for those who feel that way.
    I myself find both a great deal of meaning in my garden work and yet great relief that it's meaning is not what I'm necessarily aware of when I feel a spontaneous wellness within it.

  2. Thank you for the consideration you have given our post.

    James as ever you write so beautifully and evocatively of your landscape. I really sometimes feel I am out there amongst all those trees!

    People must be able to find their own meaning if they want to, or not, as they choose. Gardens really can be 'a broad church.' In fact the broadest of churches!

    Best Wishes


  3. Faisal,
    It is like a splash of cold water, isn't it? Competitiveness and conceit, yes, they can be the ruin of gardening and just about anything else. Living in NYC during the week, I see plenty competitiveness and conceit, especially in the art and fashion worlds. I imagine I've belabored this issue a little much. Since I've given up on religion, I suppose the garden is what I have in its place. I didn't even touch on many pleasures the garden gives me, the challenge of trying to make a garden in such hostile earth, the research and guessing games I undertake to find what will grow successfully here, and on and on. And the pleasure of just sitting still, though I find that's easier in the dark.

  4. Robert,
    Thank you for your comment and for the link on your blog. I agree, one finds what one needs in a garden. A garden should not mean, but be, to paraphrase MacLeish, and just being is enough, and meaning enough.

  5. James - I have enjoyed this response to Robert's post. When I read his post - it stayed with me, I felt I was trying to untangle a ball of yarn to sort out the questions the post raised in my mind - with little success.

    I think I will be returning to read this again ... and again

  6. James, you might have given up on religion, but I hope you haven't given up on the spiritual.
    I'm a very lenient sort of human being, but one thing that gets me when artists are derided - Ian Hamilton-Finlay's Little Sparta is truly astonishing to me - is this blanket of blandness/sameness/dumbness in garden design as in any other field of design that wants to make everything around us palatable, nice and easy to purchase.
    Around me there are uncountable numbers of uncared-for gardens, as there are, hastily assembled quick-fix gardens. Ordinariness rules. I don't know how others feel about this, but gardening, however simple it may apparently be, is a form of culture, and I'd go so far as to say it's a form of art, as much as photography and architecture are. So putting anyone down who has striven to express something unique and strangely beautiful and haunting is Philistine to me. I hate to say it, but there's a hell of a lot of rubbish out there in the comfortable suburban gardening world, and I'd far sooner stand beside anyone who sees things differently, even if their work is resonating with cryptic meaning, than someone who copies others.
    Cheers from Faisal.

  7. A poem should not mean but be! Yes! I wish my current advanced poetry students would get this, but, I think they are--through reading James Wright, W.S. Merwin, and Louise Gluck. I like what you say about the garden as a middle ground. It is a place of negotiation, either neutral territory or a no man's land ( I mean that literally and figuratively). It is a place for us to meet the fluara and fauna that is us. It is a realm of negotiaton. A balance. A third nature of some sort, or fourth. Absolutely. But does it have to have meaning? I tell my poetry students if a poem doesn't mean anything to you, if you don't click with it on a first read, move on to another. I feel the same way about landscapes (and most art). Still, this allows us the freedom to connect personally and deeply to something outside ourselves, and so know ourselves more. So when I hear people say they try to find meaning in a poem (or garden), treating it like some puzzle, I cringe and sigh and die a little inside. Just let it be. Just let youself be. Just let the world be so you are more you. If the artists did their job well, you will connect, it will resonate.

    By the way, did we ever discuss what carex your planting? I'm planning a 50 square foot carex bed, much to the chagrin of my wife. Out with the hosta and astilbe in half sun.

  8. Karen,
    Thanks for reading the post. I suppose it really wasn't so much a response to Robert's post as a rambling self-questioning and exploration. I know 1,500 word posts are not the appropriate length for blog content, but fortunately this medium allows that self-indulgence.

  9. Faisel,

    No, I haven't given up on spirituality. For me, that's an important part of the garden and thinking about gardens. I agree with you about the suburban blandness that pretty much covers the earth most of us know (though I realize those less fortunate (as in Haiti) might give everything for a bit of suburban blandness and normalcy). I've only seen Little Sparta in books, but it seems to receive such high praise from people I respect, I assume it is very special. Yes, we ought to celebrate those gardeners who try to do something different. But I do think there's a place for copying a really good idea when you see one.

    I hope you get a digital camera so we can see what you are up to.

  10. Benjamin,

    One thing has always bothered me about the MacLeish poem (which I love nonetheless). It's that, on the surface, it takes the form of an extremely didactic statement, almost a lecture, in total contrast with, and almost in total contradiction of, its meaning ("a poem should not mean/but be"). If the poem should just "be," then why the need to state that it "should not mean"? I try to take this as irony. MacLeish was an intelligent man so must have intentionally done this.

    But responding to your comment, meaning, if it comes to you, must spring from an initial appeal, from sensuous enjoyment. You're right, if it doesn't "click with you," move on. As with a poem or painting, you can't state, "This poem/painting means XYZ." Agreed. Why should a poem or painting be made if a statement of its meaning can substitute for the thing itself. I've always liked the line from Maryanne Moore's Poetry about "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." That kind of image makes you try to interpret, it's almost an invitation to exegesis. So I do think searching for meaning is a meaningful activity, so to speak/write. I don't think I'm disagreeing with you at all.

    My experience with Hart Crane's poetry is an example. When I first started reading his poetry, particularly the Voyages series, I had no idea what on earth they were about, I just knew I was in love with the imagery, the language, the music of the language, the sounds. (I did understand it was love poetry, but that's about all I understood, and that not clearly.) The initial appeal, the think that "got" me was the physical experience of the poetry, but I did benefit from reading critical appraisals of his poetry, and learning what in fact was the subject matter of the poems, and my enjoyment of them increased immensely.

    Same with a garden. Any meaning there won't come from a sign posted on a tree, but from a sensuous engagement with the experience of the garden, from contemplation of the experience it offers. I'd better stop this ramble.

    About the carex, I just ordered 40 "carnation" carex (Carex glauca 'Blue Zinger'). But I also have many native carex, which I wouldn't even try to identify. I'll soon do a post on a garden near me, at a great little nursery called Paxon Hill Farm, where Bruce, the owner, has used a variety of grasses and carex. He has used carex of different types in very interesting ways.

    I'm taking a risk with the Blue Zinger because I'm not at all sure it will look like a "native" plant, though I do think the Carex glauca species is native to our area. Being native isn't at all a requirement for me. I just think something that "looks" native will be more appropriate as a ground cover.



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