Detail from Garden at Arles 1888, by Vincent van Gogh, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. Photo by Corbis


The wisdom of gardens

Gardens expand our thinking. At times of crisis they console, school us in emotional generosity, and show us that life goes on

by Damon Young + BIO

Detail from Garden at Arles 1888, by Vincent van Gogh, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. Photo by Corbis

The doctor had a calm, sing-song voice. Every word was measured and mild. The only jarring note was sartorial: his navy blue striped shirt and gold cufflinks clashed with the Miami Vice pastels of my wife’s quarantined hospital room. As if he were casually pulling down options from a computer menu, the specialist told Ruth that she might die in the next few months. ‘If your liver does not repair, you might get hepatic encephalopathy. The toxins normally filtered by your liver might damage your brain. This might cause drowsiness or apathy. It’s likely you’d then fall into a coma.’

Tethered to the bed — Ruth by intravenous drip, I by her shaking hand — we sketched blueprints for a life beyond hers. We imagined surreal posthumous plans for child-raising, finance and romance. She wanted me to love again, she said, her cheeks wet. ‘But not right away.’ She laughed.

The phrase ‘life goes on’ is as vague as it is common. It has a sad absurdity to it. Our life did go on: there was still laundry to wash, dinners to cook, bills to pay. There was still the generosity (and sometimes frightened cruelty) of family. We wanted our life to go on. We wanted to leave the ‘sick country’ of jaundice, sanitised hand-kisses, and nurses in face masks, for the motherland of ordinary intimacy: of spousal tiffs and kids’ mess.

After a week, we did migrate. Ruth came home, but she was quarantined: a tightly shut bedroom door between the lands of sickness and health. And two lots of laundry, dishes, meals: one for each territory. At the end of every day, I’d put the children to bed and collapse at my desk. Instead of the manuscript I’d promised to my publishers, I had a double domestic ‘to do’ list.

One evening, towards the beginning of April, I was at my desk again. Exhausted and having just ticked off my daily tasks list, I propped my chin in my hands, and gazed, glassy-eyed, out of the window and into the garden.

What I saw was something new, a fat burgundy camellia blossom. The day before there had been no flower. Just the usual phalanx of waxy shields. Now there was this rich red announcement: autumn was here. The Melbourne summer — this drought we Antipodeans call ‘climate’ — had not been kind to the camellia. Too many days of baking heat, cloudless skies, and hot northerly winds had burned the leaves and starved the roots. No country for old trees. And just when this exotic émigré, thin and brittle, looked like it was done for, it marked the calendar and bloomed: big, fat flowers, right on the first day of the fourth month.

The garden offers a new kind of thinking — a necessary schooling in emotional generosity

It was a strange consolation. My wife was no less weak. My blood pressure no lower. But in the camellia, I discovered a world of silent profligacy — life goes on, it seemed to say, and indifferently so. Its blossoming suggested a universe of regularity, opposed to one of duty or responsibility. The plant did not care about sterilised cutlery or quarantined laundry. This clockwork-like thing was the antithesis of everything I was and felt. It was an invitation to a more anaesthetised life: to look at my own anxiety, and my wife’s pain, with an automaton’s eyes.

All gardens, not just mine, are rich terrain for philosophical and psychological fantasy. As fusions of humanity and nature, they are creations that reveal, literally and figuratively, what we make of nature. The camellia allowed me to ignore humanity and celebrate the ‘natural’, which at that time seemed an unthinking, unfeeling life. It represented my own longing to feel nothing. As my wife slept in her sealed sickroom, I needed this vision of a detached world, with its seemingly mechanical cycles.

The numbness did not last, though. I didn’t actually want it to. But it offered temporary relief from my cares and commitments. Human necessity was replaced with a necessity more ‘natural’ — in the deist meaning of the word, as in Alexander Pope’s ‘vast chain of being’, from his poem ‘An Essay on Man’ (1734):

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

Jane Austen, a keen fan of Pope (‘the one infallible Pope in the world’, as she quipped), discovered this deist consolation in her own Chawton garden. When Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that an apricot had been ‘detected’, this was more than mere trivia. It was the recognition that, beyond the knotted ties of family, or the labours of fiction, the universe was ticking away nicely. It was not interested in the price of fish, or the status of the novel. It was not — in my case ­— listening to prayers or bribes. Instead, like Elizabeth Bennet’s Pemberley, this is a garden that invited, not soliloquy, but silence.

Gardens shape our thinking and feeling. They offer not only floral beauty or shaded comfort, but also ideas. Many authors have sought, in parks and back yards, some intimation of the divine, or invitation to virtue. These intimations are as diverse as our interpretations of humanity and nature — to say nothing of variations in geography and climate, or temperament and mood. For example, while the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pathological selfishness leaves me cold, I can identify with his botanical curiosity. In his letters on botany, and in ‘Reveries of a Solitary Walker’ (1782), we see another side of Rousseau: less the paranoid misanthrope, more the Enlightenment naïf, holding back his egotism to better understand the needs of the sweet pea or daisy.

I do not have Rousseau’s botanical mania, but the fascination is familiar: peering inside the shaft of the peace lily’s white bract, and trying to fathom its reproductive secrets. Where is the ovary, exactly? And why there? Why a spadix – a column covered by spiky florets – instead of a normal flower? And what is the small white flange at the spadix’s base? These questions asked me to put aside my human requirements and wondering, and explore those of the plant. It is a lesson in patient analysis, but also in a kind of generosity: imagining life other than my own.

I needed less of this virtue while Ruth was ill. Harassed equally by domestic chores, children’s demands, and my own horror, I craved a break from human intimacy. I discovered, in the camellia’s blooms, a brief break from obligation and emotion.

But Ruth is now recovered: her skin’s yellow has faded, her strength almost returned. And with this release from her dependence comes my familiar egocentrism: the covetous kid within, who mumbles ‘me, me, me’. I start to think less of others, and more of myself: my deadlines, antsy longing for solitude, and the grey zone between need and want. Because of this, the garden no longer needs to numb my sympathies as it did. Instead, it has become a necessary schooling in emotional generosity. This is the commitment, identified by Iris Murdoch, to really see beyond myself. ‘Goodness is connected,’ writes Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good, ‘with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness’.

If the garden cannot make me ‘good’, it is an invitation to be better

This means being more sensitive to the signs of flourishing in others. I stop walking to the front door in the midsummer’s scorching heat, reverse my steps, fill the watering can, and give the tomatoes a drink. Not because I want to eat them, or because their death is my failure, but because their browned, wilted leaves pull me out of my own longing for air-conditioned comfort. I might be dehydrated and grumpy — everyone is in Melbourne’s January heat. But it will not kill me to spend three minutes watering the dry, powdery garden bed. The stakes are higher for the poor fruits and vegetables.

The garden has become an opportunity for me to expand my sympathies; to think and feel, as did Rousseau, of the demands of alien life. If the garden cannot make me ‘good’, it is, in this, an invitation to be better. And if not better, then at least less conceited about my own achievements or craving for control and mastery. The morning glory vines slowly cracking the window frames of this study; the couch grass invading the asbestos-sheeted greenhouse; the Salvia reaching out across the porch. All examples of human contrivance being continually undermined.

This was the writer Leonard Woolf’s outlook, too. An avid gardener, he nonetheless wrote that in fact ‘nothing matters’, by which he meant that no achievement had any divine guarantor. No achievement was destined for immortality or eternal reward. The struggle to maintain some civilised order in the household was mirrored in statecraft and psychology: unrest and insanity were never far away. Woolf saw this, not only in the rabid jungles of Sri Lanka (where he was posted as a colonial administrator), and in his Sussex garden, but also in the mind of his beloved wife, Virginia. ‘Everyone,’ he wrote in his memoir Beginning Again (1964), ‘is slightly and incipiently insane.’ The point can be generalised: everyone is also slightly and incipiently ill.

In Woolf’s vision, the garden is no easy consolation, but is instead a private reminder, a way to recognise the limitations on all human enterprise, and a caution against false expectations for worldly perfection and control. The comforts of a silent camellia might blunt this truth, but they cannot — and ought not, for the sake of a more lucid life — remove the thorns.