Gardening soul

Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition', like his 'Forests', is a penetrating exploration of how a particular aspect of our world has been seen down the ages and how that seeing reveals key aspects of humanity and how it has changed from place to place and from time to time.

It begins with the most famous garden of all: Eden and suggests how Eve's eating of the apple was not a rebellion from a perfect state but an escape from a state too static, fixed, in which it was impossible to realise human(e) possibility. The core of this possibility is the ability to practice 'care', the ability to take a set of given conditions and navigate with and through them to achieve a dynamic, living reality, part shaped, part given, always vulnerable yet one's own. In fact, a real garden, actually loved and known, shaped by one's own hands. One that is always learning from the past and open to a challenging future.

The essay goes on to explore the ways in which 'the garden', real and imagined, has interacted with key moments of our unfolding culture and what it might reveal about humanity within that culture.

Of the two best chapters, the first is a defence of Epicurus who famously retreated to a private garden but not to cultivate that narrow hedonism with which he has become fixed in the modern mind but to practice the arts of friendship, gratitude, patience and serenity that would allow a person to face their mortality equitably and live a good life before that. It was a 'retreat' that was a political act - consciously taking oneself out of a given situation, the failure of Greek politics - to revaluate values and propose not 'a solution' but ways of life that might point to better possibilities in time.

The second is an exploration of the garden with relation to Christian and Islamic views of paradise. The latter place is concrete, realistic, a place of serenity and reward, a reward that can be continuously enjoyed. It is relaxing. The former is depicted only by way of analogy and metaphor, eluding description and is a place of renewed ecstasy where there is no completion only the prospect of further joys. It is restless.

In Islam, paradise is the Garden of Eden, reimagined. In Christianity, famously in Dante, Eden is a place one returns to (after purgatory) only to leave in a leap towards the ever receding fulfilment of the heavenly. God is all present in an Islamic paradise of fulfilled desire. God remains the target of desire in a Christian heaven.

Is it possible, Harrison speculates, that Islamic discomfort of 'the West' is not of our professed values but of our fundamental restlessness, of ever wanting to be somewhere other that, from an Islamic perspective, can only be evidence of a fundamental inability to be 'islam' - surrendered to the ever present God?

This thematic, however, is amplified throughout Harrison's text - the garden as a potential antidote to restlessness, providing an option for care within a nurturing environment, and our inability to recognise it fully, being deeply attracted, yet increasingly elusive, as we nurse our 'lack' and try to fill it with distraction rather than attractive activity, with consumption rather than care.

Harrison begins quoting Voltaire in Candide, the famous last line, that we should cultivate our gardens as the most meaningful response to the world's chaos. Three centuries later it continues, suggests Harrison, to be sensible advice. For in gardening is an ethic of recognising limits, postponing complete satisfaction as you advance modest goals in the face of the world's uncertainties. Not an 'heroic' ethic but maybe a liveable, sane one.


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