Ask any gardener. We’ll tell you that gardens are real enough–made of tangible living material and soil. But they are also products of the imagination, like any art form. And they are cultural products. Just compare the typical American garden–diverse, open, slightly wild–to the gardens characteristic of (in order of increasing formality) England, France, Italy, or Japan, respectively. Each culture imbues its gardens with its own peculiar approach to managing reality.
Because, after all, that is what a garden is–managed reality. A constant balance between the natural and the synthetic, between what we infer the natural world to be and what we want it to become. Between the ungraspable chaos of the natural universe and the aspirational coherence of our human minds. I am convinced of this–that human perspective strains inexorably for coherence, for a universe ordered in ways that facilitate, or cultivate, or assuage, human existence. The human order, if you will.
Books on gardening make this doubly obvious, whether they are technical manuals, artistic journals, biographies or fiction. Humans attempt to order the natural world through gardens, making that world comfortable, practical, attractive. Literary accounts of those attempts are, in turn, efforts to create an order, to make gardens and gardening coherent to projected readers. We gardeners want the rest of the human order to apprehend how we strive for an ordering of nature. Capische? Comprenez-vous? Get it? (I don’t know how to say, “understand” in Japanese.)
Here are three wonderful examples. First, Old Herbacious, by Reginald Arkell, a 1950 fictional biography of an English orphan who matures, eventually, to become the head gardener of a noteworthy English country estate. The protagonist, Herbert Pinnegar, corresponds to the realist hero, a thinking individual defined by his consciousness, transformed by a “journey,” (in this case, his hands-on education) to become the salvation of his native world. That native world is represented by the garden–by the ordering of nature specific to the economic and cultural order of early 20th-century England. An order encapsulated in the manor house, its grounds, its owner and its myriad dependents. The reader is guided to seeing the world through the Edwardian gardener’s eyes and sensibilities–to apprehending how that specific cultural hero aspires to make that world cohere. The text that guides the reader (and, to a degree, also creates the reader) is an additional layer in the complex but formal labyrinth that aims to produce order from chaos. Or chaotic order, as all labyrinths (including garden labyrinths) strain to produce. And the text too is culturally specific, a very English variation on the realist novel.
Second example: Our Life in Gardens, the 2009 memoir of Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, a gay couple turned professional garden designers. Their internationally renowned Vermont property is the culmination of a shared life that, taken out of the context of gardening, would be simply, incomprehensibly weird. They start out in a Boston apartment packed with a bizarre collection of tropical and temperate plants (native and exotic), bulbs, trees, and chickens. Yes, chickens, plural, in a Beacon Hill flat. Over several moves they pursue their twin obsessions of plants (mostly ornamental) and livestock (mostly winged) in an initially spontaneous but increasingly informed and rational way. Eventually, the fascination matures into expertise. They build an extensive garden and ancillary farm, together with a joint career and a domestic life, all of which grow together into a coherent whole. Their world becomes a garden; their garden becomes their world–professional, domestic, emotional, spiritual. The book itself is organized garden-wise, each chapter devoted to a plant species, type or manner of cultivation. These chapters are ordered alphabetically (that is, by gardening standards, randomly), so that the garden itself is what gives the volume coherence. Agapanthus, Annuals, Arborvitae, Artichokes…my favorite chapter is “Primroses.” Japanese primroses, actually, pictured in the above photo, which are very close to my emotional, spiritual and autobiographical center. Some day I may tell you why.
The third example: Dame Penelope Lively’s last book, her 2018 memoir, Life in the Garden. Reviews of this book were mixed; some critics found it to be meandering, aimless and inchoate. But if you read the book as you would read a garden, it’s perfectly coherent. It layers different “species” of writing and reading, sometimes clearly ordered, sometimes iconoclastic and challenging, and occasionally punctuated with delightful surprises. Dame Penelope discourses on gardening as personal memoir, as history, as social commentary, as technique, as literary criticism and, overall, as philosophy of life. The practice and theory of gardening simultaneously infuse her way of reading and her way of living, and reliably create order out of chaos, just as gardening is meant to do. For example, she reads Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a difficult and seemingly disordered modernist novel, through its gardening references. (Woolf and her husband were devoted and highly accomplished gardeners.) Sure enough, considered that way, the novel begins to make sense. This is largely because Lively demonstrates gardening’s “ambivalent relationship with time.” “A garden is never just now;” she writes, “it suggests yesterday and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress.” Just like a Woolf novel. In other words, gardens mirror human beings’ ambivalent relationship with time. By imposing our “reality” of time on world with no innate chronology, gardening makes that world readable to us. The same is true for all types of order and legitimacy, embodied in weeding: “…we wage war on bindweed, that most tenacious and ineradicable perennial ‘weed,’ but actually, to look at, convolvulus is just a small white form of the morning glory, and, if annual and more genteel in behavior, we would probably cherish it.” Also like a novel by Woolf, who was so attuned to the dilemmas of social order and legitimacy.
So yes, gardens are real because, as Lively tells us, they are a symptom of our need to anthropomorphize the world we exist in. Their constituent elements exist objectively, but as organic wholes gardens exist because we make them–with our hands and eyes (and noses) and in our imaginations.
In the end, if you love to read, how can you not love a garden?