A Hymn of Praise
If we are to truly change how we relate to Nature, there is no better place to begin than in our own flower gardens, suggests Jeremy Naydler.
When, in 1890, Monet purchased the house and garden at Giverny that was to be his home for the rest of his life, one of the first things he did – to the consternation of his neighbours and friends – was to tear up the kitchen garden! He uprooted the fruit trees and bushes and ripped out the vegetables. But this was no act of wanton destruction: in their place he planted flowers. Despite the fact that he was someone who by all accounts loved his food and enjoyed long and leisurely gourmet meals, what was of paramount importance for him was to live surrounded by the beauty of flowers.
Monet understood something that people of a metaphysical disposition have always known: that what is of no use often has a higher value than what is useful. This is because when we regard things in terms of their practical use alone, their value is – paradoxically – degraded by being so closely associated with serving our needs. Precisely in so far as we regard things as instrumental to satisfying our needs, we tend to overlook another kind of value that pertains to them as well. Just think of the rose, and your appreciation of it has nothing to do with its usefulness: you appreciate it for what it is in itself. To the very extent that we restrict our valuation of something to what it can do for us, we tend to miss its intrinsic value. But when something has no obvious practical use to us, we are set free to recognise and appreciate its essential nature, irrespective of what we might gain from it.
Living in a world in which usefulness is the generally accepted measure of a thing’s value, one of the most heartening characteristics of the flower garden is that it falls outside the dominant utilitarian value system. When we spend time in a flower garden, we experience respite from the artificially stimulated needs and desires of the consumer culture. The flower garden is indeed a ‘useless’ place to find oneself, and therein resides its ability to lift one’s spirits. Every flower garden naturally tends toward becoming a sacred precinct; for once we step inside it our minds are also led into a different space. There is nothing there that we can buy, possess or make use of, but there is much that may cause us to stop still in wonder.
No one could doubt that the dominant utilitarian way of relating to Nature has brought us many material benefits, but it has also led us to the brink of global environmental catastrophe. Along with the many practical measures that need to be taken to avert the threat of widespread environmental collapse, a fundamental change of heart is also needed – a change in our way of relating to Nature.
There is nowhere better to begin than in our gardens. For here we can consciously implement a revaluation of values, through making a daily practice of the celebration of a non-utilitarian relationship to Nature. According to Gertrude Jekyll, the flower garden should be a “hymn of praise”. In the flower garden, then, each one of us can contribute to the creation of a counter-current to the collective view of Nature as no more than a resource to be pillaged. In nurturing our flower gardens, we take a stand against the hegemony of the pragmatic mind; we take a stand for Nature.
We do not need to change much of what we already do in our gardens in order to give critical impetus to this counter-current. The issue is rather how we do what we do. As is so often the case, the most important factor in bringing about genuine change is the kind of consciousness we bring to what we are already doing, so that our actions become infused with a different quality. The source of this difference in quality is our whole-hearted embrace of the ideals that we adopt, which guide and inform our practical gardening work. There are three ideals in particular that are the keys to how our work in the flower garden can contribute to the redemption of our relationship to Nature:
1) Gardening is a work dedicated to beauty. The first ideal is that through gardening we aim to bring more beauty into the world. With the enhancement of beauty affirmed as the central aim of gardening, the dominant utilitarian ethic that everywhere prevails outside our gardens is reversed within them. The flower garden becomes a utilitarian-free zone! Every tool that is used, every plant that is sown or put in the ground, every deed that the gardener performs, and every scratch, strain and sting visited upon the gardener in the daily toil of this work all serve the same overriding purpose of nurturing beauty.
If to dedicate oneself to such an aim seems perverse, then we would do well to recall that, traditionally, beauty was known as one of the Transcendentals because it was understood to be a divine attribute, or a divine name, along with truth and goodness. Beauty, truth and goodness have long been regarded as the three shining ideals that all human beings should try to live by. They are ends in themselves, not means to some other end. Once they have been attained, we no longer hunger for something else: as much as they are their own justification, they also provide a satisfaction that no material artefact or possession can give. To foster beauty in the world, even if it is in so humble a thing as a beautiful garden, takes us at least one third of the way, if not to God, then at least towards living a decent human life.
Many philosophers have said that a thing is beautiful if its outer form corresponds to or makes manifest its best inner potential. Most living organisms achieve this only imperfectly; but to the extent to which the ideal form is embodied in the individual organism, the latter becomes radiant with beauty. In the flower, this radiant beauty reminds us of the transcendent beauty of perfect geometrical forms. And this in itself is reason enough to grow flowers. But what makes the garden as a whole beautiful is the more hidden form of its best inner potential brought to fulfilment, and in so far as this is achieved a certain spiritual luminosity begins to pervade the whole.
2) Gardening is relationship to the spirit of place. If we garden with the conviction that our purpose is to enhance the beauty of a place, we soon discover that some of the things we do will ‘work’ and other things will fail. It often becomes necessary to put aside our own pet schemes and wishes for how we would like the garden to look, and selflessly to consider what is right for this particular place. When we do so, an important shift in our thinking occurs: rather than forcing the garden to conform to our wishes and designs, we relate ourselves to the unspoken wishes and clandestine designs of the garden. We begin to consider the garden as an entity in its own right, and in so doing we can find ourselves returning to the ancient notion of the genius loci, or ‘spirit of place’. This notion implies that the garden is not just a space ‘out there’ – it has an inner aspect too.
If we take seriously the idea that every garden has an ‘inner’ spirit of place, we then dislodge one of the cornerstones of the modern disenchanted worldview – which is that there is no such thing as spirit, let alone spirit in Nature.
And so, in cultivating the flower garden, we find that we are at the same time drawn into cultivating a relationship with the genius loci. Indeed, we cannot garden properly unless we develop a sixth sense for the ‘spirit of place’, which we learn to feel in the atmosphere that a garden has. This is because our actions can either make the garden more coherent, its atmosphere stronger, more joyful and celebratory, or they can have a devastating, wounding effect on the garden. When, for example, the gardener puts in a plant that lightens a dull corner, or softens a hard edge, the atmosphere of the whole garden can be enhanced. Equally, if the gardener puts in some shrub that doesn’t properly ‘fit’ the space in which it is planted, or takes out a venerable friend that has inhabited a particular spot for many years, the integrity of the whole garden suffers.
All sensitive gardening is a dialogue with the garden, or with the garden’s presiding spirit. The garden isn’t just a tabula rasa, or ‘blank slate’, with which we can do anything we like. As an entity in its own right, the garden has needs – in the sense of its best inner potential – that are precisely what the gardener is there to serve. And so we find ourselves respectfully asking, “What would like to happen here?” or “What needs to happen in this corner of the garden?” or “What is suggesting itself here?”
Viewed from this perspective, the gardener’s role can be understood as no less than to become the consciousness of the garden. By living with the garden over the seasons, we come to listen to what it is whispering to us. The garden is unconscious. It is in a dream, so we have to listen to its dream, and then make it real. This is the opposite of drawing up a plan in one’s office and imposing one’s favoured design on the garden.
3) Gardening is the re-creation of Paradise on Earth. This idea runs like a golden thread through the history of gardening. Paradise could be understood quite simply as a condition in which the divine is a felt presence on Earth. In the Paradise Garden, the veil between the sensory world and the spiritual world becomes more transparent. This can be experienced directly in the atmosphere that a garden acquires when a relationship is established between the gardener and the spirit of place. We then become more aware of the creative and formative energies of Nature, which stand behind what we see about us as the created or finished forms of all the plants and flowers that we can see and touch and smell. It is their very aliveness and their inner ‘luminosity’ that pervade the garden as a whole, attracting our attention to a deeper level of Nature than what is simply sense-perceptible.
The Paradise Garden could be said to have such an intensified atmosphere of aliveness and beauty that it becomes more than this particular garden that we are relating to and in dialogue with. It becomes something much bigger, more universal: Nature as a spiritual being, a greater spiritual presence that we become aware of in the garden. And to the extent that Nature’s spiritual presence can be felt, the garden becomes an icon, in the sense of a work of art through which the imperceptible becomes perceptible, and something transcendent is made immanent. In the garden, as in the icon, what is universal can become an almost tangible presence.
If we can work towards realising the ideal of the garden as a re-creation of Paradise, even if we are only able to manage this in a modest way in our own little garden, then we will be contributing to the healing of our world. For what is crucial is that we establish our gardens as sacred precincts in which the dominant secular and utilitarian mindset has no place, for here a wholly different way of relating to Nature is practised. In place of the utilitarian relationship to Nature, we cultivate a reverential relationship; instead of regarding Nature as there to serve our needs, we regard ourselves as there to serve Nature’s needs; and instead of Nature being a rather vague and sentimental abstract concept, in the flower garden we come to experience her as an enchanted, vibrant presence.