The garden is a palace of resistance against the frenetic and frenzied pursuits of modern life. In a time where so much of life is subordinated to the drives for efficiency and productivity, the garden provides a refuge, a sanctuary, where we can think different, act different, be different. So much of life is considered in terms of means and ends, reaching goals, hitting targets, beating KPI’s and other abstractions which pack our minds. The garden does not demand anything of us other than our most human and humble qualities: it only asks for our love and attention. Maria Popova writes,
There is something deeply humanising in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling.
To garden, or even be in a garden is to enter a sanctuary of the soft, sublime and subtle amidst a world increasingly harsh, rough and grey. The garden calls forth something, often buried beneath the surface, hidden but never extinguished, it calls for our humanity, to be one with the world in the most profound and meaningful of ways.
The garden is not only a place to be. It is also an ideal. The garden can challenge us to be more than we are. Much of the modern world is an exercise in submission. We bend/force/push/pull/twist/press/crush/mould so much of the world around us. But this is not possible in the garden. If a person does not do what you want, you may yell at them and they will yield. If a piece of wood is improperly shaped for the task, it can be cut to size. But one cannot yell at a plant and make it grow. You cannot decide what soil is right and expect the plant to thrive. You cannot simply ‘make’ the plant act how you wish. You may graft a plant, pull it with string, or trim it to adjust its shape. But you may only direct/bend/adjust a plant, you cannot dictate/demand/control it. As an ideal, the garden teaches us to have horizontal relationships based on equality, rather than vertical relationships based upon authority and submission. You simply cannot demand the garden submit to your will. You must work with it, responding to its needs. You must work through it, therefore, working with it, not upon it.
In the garden, it is not about you.
Gardening turns centripetal energy into centrifugal energy. The ideal of modern society holds the self as its central concern. So much of what we do builds up, cultivates, and reinforces the self. We live in a society obsessed with me. But in the garden, your attention, affection and energy are drawn outside of yourself. Here, the self is not the centre of existence, but a part of something bigger than itself.
The garden shows you that you are not always in control. When you plant a seed, you perform an act of faith. You put your hope in the ground and trust in the future. You may weed, fertilise, water, and care; but ultimately, you cannot control whether the seed grows into a healthy tree or not. Once more, the garden speaks “it is not about you”. The garden shatters our illusion of control and reminds us with a gentle whisper that we exist in relation to, and not over and above, everything else.
The garden provides us a moment to be in the world, rather than on it. So often we think of ourselves as separate from the world. Our language reveals this much when we speak about nurture vs. nature; or when we speak about going out or in to nature, or when we speak in the dead language of ‘natural resources’. When we kneel in prayer on the bed of soil and immerse our hands into the Earth to place the seedling, we are making real what was implicit all along: we are in relation to the Earth. The act of gardening reaffirms a way of living in and through nature, forgetting a concrete world that is paved and lumped on top of it.
The American poet Walt Whitman once wrote of trees as ‘the wellspring of wisdom on being rather than seeming’. Our life is an ostensibly endless whirlpool of simulations. Yesterday I came across some vegan cheese in the style of the fake orange cheese that comes in plastic packets. That fake orange cheese itself is severely altered/tweaked/changed from original cheese. What it was, was cheese pretending to be cheese, pretending to be cheese. What of the plastic plants adorning most cafes? Plants pretending to be plants. What about us, the masters of the simulacra? We are determined to appear what we are not. There are those who use certain words to seem intelligent, dye hair to seem younger, get plastic surgery to seem more beautiful, and wear fake smiles to seem nice. We are awash in simulations. Fakery is the only constant in a world of melted truth. We all try to seem like something we are not in our attempts to escape what we are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “in cities…one seems to lose all substance, and becomes surface in a world of surfaces”. But the garden is not this. It is a sanctuary of honesty in a false world. The tree does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. The tree simply is, in all its simplicity and humility. The garden is an honest place.