Friday, April 29, 2011

See the garden?

I’ve always found reading a book to be a much richer, more multi-layered experience than seeing a movie of the same book. The inner vision of the mind’s eye is an altogether different thing. So the following text from Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison struck a familiar cord. At the least, it’s food for thought. Maybe you’ll agree there’s more to it than “meets the eye.” (Yes, this is my second post quoting from this book.)

My Rosemont garden on a foggy morning

… a garden is a place where appearances draw attention to themselves, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily get noticed, no matter how much they may radiate or beckon the eye. Where appearances recede into the depths of space and time even as they come forward to stake their claim in the phenomenal realm, they make special demands on our powers of observation. That is bad news for gardens, for nothing is less cultivated these days in Western societies than the art of seeing. It is fair to say that there exists in our era a tragic discrepancy between the staggering richness of the visible world and the extreme poverty of our capacity to perceive it. Thus even though there are plenty of gardens in the world, we live in an essentially gardenless era.

I don’t know how to phrase this without sounding curmudgeonly, so I will simply assert as a matter of fact that among the young people I encounter on a daily basis—and I encounter quite a few, given my profession—most are much more at home in their computers, or in the fictions and skits that reach them on a screen, than they are in the three-dimensional world. In fact I have the impression that a great many of them no longer see the visible world at all, except peripherally and crudely … 

[However] … it is not a question of generational deficiency but of epochal transformations in the framework in and through which the world reveals itself. The basic inability to see a garden in its full-bodied presence is the consequence of a historical metamorphosis of our mode of vision, which is bound up with our mode of being. For as our mode of being changes, so too does our way of seeing. The faculty of human vision is not neutral. It is as subject to the laws of historicity as are our life-worlds, our institutions, and our mentality…

In human beings the loss of eyesight does not necessarily entail a loss of vision. Vision sees cognitively and synthetically; it apprehends things in organized dispositions and meaningful totalities. This is another way of saying that human vision is above all a way of seeing ... 

… we live in an age, then, whose dominant perceptual framework makes it increasingly difficult to see what is right in front of us, leaving a great portion of the visible world out of the picture, as it were, even as it draws the eye to a plethora of pulsing images.


  1. I agree completely with Robert Pogue Harrison that the art of seeing is less cultivated these days. There are very few disciplines in which we are taught to see: indeed, the only ones that leap to mind are art, and I would say some branches of science, in which observation plays a key role.
    Most people (and I admit this is a very broad generalisation) seem to be capable only of seeing the bigger picture OR the micro details.
    I think this is particularly true of gardens, where non-gardeners will tend to take in the general effect, but not analyse what creates that effect, and gardeners will tend to spend time looking at the individual plants.
    However, I don't quite agree with Professor Harrison about young people. I think their capacity for perception is perhaps directed towards things of which he "disapproves".
    It's very sad that in Britain, the study of art has been downgraded by the top ranking universities. An art A level can preclude you from entry to, for example, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh and many other universities. They see it as a non-academic discipline.
    Yet at the same time, my son, who is studying art, was viewed with great suspicion by his art college because he had science A levels - they thought this might mean he was "academic" rather than "creative".
    The education system here - I don't know about America - is so busy trying to funnel people into specialisms and thence into jobs, that there seems no room for what I consider to be key skills - perception, analysis and critical thinking.

  2. I don't even know that it's the education system. My feeling is that the cause is something much larger than that, some major cultural change that has taken place right under our noses, and we're too close to it to see it. But the point in regard to gardens, at least for me, is that we can reap rich reward if we can see not just with the eyes, but with an inner vision that makes seeing a creative act.

  3. And yet every single one of my writing students, no matter the age, writing fiction, poetry, or memoir, constantly use ONLY the sense of sight in their writing, completely ignoring the other senses... let alone the act of reflection and echo that comes from experiences any sense at all. But maybe in the end, it's a similar symptom as you quoted above, come from the same source. Cell phones are out the second class is over, people bow down as they walk texting, seeing their phones outlined only in a concrete frame, listening to their ipods, tuned out from the world except for the realization that the sun seems warmer now, it's windier....

  4. We plant 3 bulbs, and we see a drift, a stream. Then we are disconcerted when the camera shows us - no drift, no stream, just a ratty bit of green.

  5. What constitutes a well-rounded education becomes increasingly more narrowly defined as rote learning rules the day. And now electronic distractions press in from all sides. But I feel optimistic that garden-making has a brighter future than, say, painting, not only because it does engage all the senses, but because how we think about and make gardens now revolves around so many important issues that are on everyone's mind. Innocuous pleasure gardens only for pleasure's sake are a thing of the past. We need gardens for cooling houses, carbon sequestration, containment of water runoff, etc -- at the same time making them as inviting as it is within our individual power to do. That is the law of historicity we are now subject to, and I think young people intuitively get this. Whether these future gardens will favorably compare aesthetically to historical gardens not subject to modern considerations, such as dwindling resources and climate change, is an open question -- but I think they will. A vast, interesting subject. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  6. Not commented for a few posts, but enjoyed, just the intensity of work at the moment!
    Loved seeing the context of your garden.
    Loved the earlier quote.
    This one reminded me of learning to draw and how that makes you physically observe acutely, select the elements or characteristics that are important to you. It is partly a time thing and a mentally open condition and an awareness of all such other things as history, literature, geography which really makes you see!
    Thanks for this

  7. I see said the blind man....Quite a few thousand members of the 'seeing' public have visited my garden 'wigandia' and i have spoken to quite a few of them and listened to as what they have seen. The greater majority seem to see plant lists..a lesser amount see certain combinations and use of...others see the 'rarer' plants and just a few see or are capable of articulating their thoughts about what they see of the whole.
    My 'seeing' intention was to blur the overall design and content intentions to enable ALL elements to appear as one and have endeavored to minimise 'horticultural' display parameters to allow the seeing of 'whole' over individuality.
    I cutely name this vision the 'blurred crusade'!
    As an end note I have found that older (I am almost 58) women in particular..the ones most likely to have failing eyesight are those who 'see' way more than the rest and sometimes enlighten me as to certain subtle visual events I may not have consciously 'seen'.

    Wm Martin

  8. Benjamin, yes, but their behavior is really a symptom of something larger ... I think. The times they are a changin.

  9. Diana, yes, when it doesn't lie, the camera does some truth telling.

  10. Denise, the utilitarian aspects of the garden are, to me, peripheral to the garden itself. But perhaps you are right, and these things will bring people in, and then they will discover deeper significance.

  11. Robert, the analogy to learning to draw is an interesting one. I can't draw, but I try to from need, and I see the process does focus the mind on what is important including the broader cultural, historical, etc. themes.

  12. William, yes. The people who can't see the whole for the parts. They miss the point entirely. I sometimes think people with little garden experience have the more appropriate reaction.

  13. Yes yes - I agree - there's something very suspicious going on behind this accelerating dependence we're developing with technology. Our ancient need to tinker with our tools has been rapidly mutating into something else in the last hundred years or so and now our tools are starting to tinker with US in unprecedented ways. There's an increasingly strong subconscious drive in mainstream human culture that appears to be conspiring to push us further and further away from Nature. But why? What's behind this? What can we do about it? Personally, I think it's naive to think that our gardens can do anything to sway anyone who isn't already attuned to seeing them, someone who's learned to see them for wants to learn to see them for whatever reason.

  14. Peter, I agree. We can't change minds or history or culture or the future. But there is a certain knowledge or experience we can try to keep alive among the few.



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