Gardens and the Art of Self-Reflection

Inspired by my recent travels in the UK, including several visits to some of its most outstanding gardens, I have been thinking about the role a garden can play in teaching us about ourselves in the world. A garden is a literal walk through a figurative world or perhaps it is a figurative walk through a literal world. We can never be sure. It is real but artificially designed. It is nature yet very much a manifestation of culture and values. There is no escaping culture in a garden, but it is the most direct reminder we have in the arts that human culture never escapes the contingencies of nature. They were designed historically to be that transitional space from the house and the surrounding wilderness, and in its most arrogant forms, it is an emphatic statement of the triumph of human conventions of order over the menacing unevenness of things, the entangled world of violent interdependence that has made life possible but which threatens our claims to human exceptionalism. In its more humble forms, it is a way of bowing the head to nature, of inviting the untamed world within a welcoming space of human dwelling.

A garden is the old-fashioned equivalent of the moving paintings we see adorning the walls of Hogwarts. It neither remains static nor fixed but shifts according to the weather and according to the position of the viewer as she wanders through its shapes and forms. You are asked to remain seated when at the theater or the symphony. You move through museums but the paintings remain two-dimensional and almost flatter you with the illusion of your centrality by following you across the room. You can enter the world of a novel, but this we know is a world conjointly built through words and our imagination, drawn perhaps from experience, from dreams, and intuitions but always only a virtual world. In saying this, I don’t pretend to a naive or simplistic distinction between what is “real” and what is “virtual.” I well recognize that all art challenges and questions those boundaries, but unlike a novel, a garden opens up the full range of senses to what is before us. It is tactile, olfactory, visual, aural, and gustatory. And of course, it has no plot that would conform to the shape of human expectation, even though it cannot, will not remain still. It moves on its own as we move through it, and the law of relativity would suggest that this then is a kind of staged illustration that the inner world of the mind and the outer world are always co-dependent but never co-eval. For a moment we are unable to see or imagine beyond what is, nor does it at first seem are we asked too. This is where gardens differ from other works of art. It doesn’t tell a lie in order to speak the truth, as we often say about art. Instead it merely exists, as is, and only asks that you exist with it, in it, of it.

But then why a garden at all? Why do we need a garden to ask us to do this? Why is this not the practice of daily life? What if we were to draw a line of string around a wild meadow or through a grove of wild trees? Would this not create a garden? I think it would. It is a garden the minute we say to the world: “Stand still for a minute, in that shape and form you are in within this designated space. Allow me to look at you. Allow me to see you as something seen.” As T.S. Eliot says in the Four Quartets, it is a convention of the imagination to see roses as flowers that have the aspect of being looked at. So the garden gives itself away almost as soon as you enter it, as a thing to be seen, to be reflected upon. So as you walk and try to exist within it, the garden begins to expose the work of the mind to the mind. And it begins to feel as if the world is not merely just there but that it is something else, something more. The trick here is that this insight, this glimpse of this something is only given to those who cease their yearning for another world long enough to see and embrace this one. So existence itself and thought, all that is wrapped up in the work of imagining ourselves and our place and purpose in the world, all our restless energy that makes it so hard for us to ever really and truly be where we are, this is our great distraction but, when allowed to rise quietly from and after immediate experience, becomes the great evidence of our belonging here and now on this earth. The sought for blessing of being able to return to the Edenic Garden is the prize only given to those who were finally made content with their present mortal and temporal circumstance in this place.

As we wander through the garden, we consider that the world is not as it seems, that all the world is what Shakespeare called this insubstantial pageant that will surely dissolve. There is nothing, in short, that can remain of this world, since nothing ever does. The perpetual solubility of things only signifies the ephemerality of what is. We are never in the presence of the world that is, only the world that was, or the world that we imagined we saw or experienced, or the world that is to come. But at least in a garden there is the prospect of facing up to these facts once and for all. And then of admitting the chief pleasure this then portends: you and I are caught in our bodies, limited by what we see from the front of our head, what our senses can bring to our puny and insufficient brains, and caught in time, forever saying goodbye to what we see only after it has vanished. We are perpetually delayed, always behind schedule arriving late, and so, as a comfort to ourselves, we make art and we make gardens to elevate the pleasure of walking to a spiritual plane, as if we have finally accepted our condition of having our feet perpetually attached to the soils of this planet.


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