Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a garden. What do you see?
Are you surrounded by towering trees, light peering through the canopy as shadows of leaves dance at your feet? Are you under a solitary sycamore, grasses swaying in the breeze as clouds race overhead? Perhaps you are upon a porch overlooking a vast collection of flowers on a light rainy day.
Are you sitting, head level with your surroundings? Maybe you're standing to see as far as you possibly can. Or perhaps you're lying on your back, viewing the world from the perspective of the plants themselves.
But most importantly, how do you feel?
Humans have quite a history with gardens and how they can act as a connection to the world around them. How a garden makes one feel is an integral part of why people take the time to work and maintain these spaces. While reading, I found that even though humanity's collective approach to gardening does change with time and culture, there is an underlying theme to our desire to garden.
Let's take a little journey together and rediscover the garden.
History of Connectedness Beyond
Even since humans became the Earth's dominant species, we have been in search of meaning. While humanity may not have been gardeners for this entire time, our desire to tend places of significance is an old one. Before we tended our own gardens, our ancestors were apt to find places of natural beauty, of seemingly high significance to their understanding of the world. These places were often regarded as sacred and people would tend to them as their own. While not a space our own yet, humanity sought this connectedness by tending shared sacred spaces.
As humans progressed, and we became self-sustaining, gardens turned to being created rather than found. These constructed areas were often still places of worship, but also extended to places of thought. Being able to place yourself in a space where you could consider yourself and the world became a large part of gardens popping up throughout society. Or rather, throughout high society. Concepts around temple and scholar gardens appear across civilization, albeit in significantly different forms.
Enter the industrial age, and humans begin moving to early renditions of urban centers. The need to be self-sustaining becomes a decision, rather opting to depend on the output of others. Despite there being no need to tend land personally, humans moving to these urban centers still chose to maintain gardens. This is the rise of the pleasure garden, an expression of artistic creativity. While still potentially a space for thought, that general mentality was lost with the Renaissance. The primary connectedness at this point is to one of status.
Domain All Your Own
Time marches ever onward, yet we see many people finding themselves tending gardens of their own. This has happened in many ways, spanning from the rise of suburbs, urban parks, and community gardens to botanical gardens, arboretums, and forest preserves. Each of these offers people a potential means to interact with nature in a personal way.
What makes our current times interesting, arguably more interesting than times prior, is the sheer chaos around us at all times. We still have to deal with the unknowns our ancestors dealt with on a natural scale, but humans have built upon this planet abstractions to understand as well. We interact with the Earth in ways never imaginable by the humanity that came before us. We collectively have a greater understanding of our planet than any who came before us.
Yet I am not collectively humanity. You are not collectively humanity. What we as a whole understand, individuals do not. Individuals get swept up in the chaos of understanding we have lasting effects on our species and our home, yet do not know all of what they are. In our vast understanding, we have an immensely greater unknown always accompanying it.
To that extent, a garden is a small space you can understand. You help build it and care for it such that you can survey its entirety. While you don't necessarily know all of why it does what it does, you have a certain influence over it. Never complete control, but a definitive influence. You can see how you effect this domain on your terms. And this is soothing to our minds and our very sense of self.
While gardens have traditionally had a strong tie to building a connection between humans and nature, that doesn't wholly speak to the concept of the garden. The feeling of uncertainty and being carried by the whims of reality doesn't contractually require a connection with nature to resolve. Nature just happens to be something humanity is generally familiar with. It's something we've lived alongside for our entire existence and we are as much a part of it as it is something we benefit from.
The core of the garden however is one of existence.
We can read about how we fit into our world all day and we'll get some idea of how we fit into it, but tangibly playing in that space is something unique to the garden. Being situated within the environment, touching it, smelling it, seeing it, witnessing it, those are all aspects of the garden. When we use nature as our bridge, gardening is a natural vehicle to crossing it. While we never really cross the bridge, we are suspended between our chaos and our reality. And in that space, humanity gets a sense of meaning. It's a haven we can cope with and attempt to understand our existence within our greater space.
Many Bridges to Connection
Plants aren't the only bridge to this connection, however. Humans have built much on this world that can serve as a space for understanding how we fit into our planet. From Asian rock gardens to Islamic carpet gardens, we have seen examples of the inanimate giving humans a meditative space throughout history.
Really, a garden is simply a haven amidst chaos. A place to feel your existence. A place to understand yourself and your surroundings. Nature just happens to be a highly compatible bridge for us to feel that understanding, but your garden may take a different form.
Perhaps your ideal garden resembles the functional beauty of the gears in a clock or built upon the scent of sawdust in a well-worn wood shop or the acoustic soundscape of a symphony orchestra. Maybe it is as our ancestors, a natural area for you to influence and grow. Humans simply enjoy the tangible aspect of understanding on a scale personal to them.
So I invite you to find your garden, your personal scale. The world we live in is doused in chaos. We could all use a little tangible meaning to ground ourselves on this river we ride together.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Harrison, R. (2010). Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. [Sydney, N.S.W.?]: ReadHowYouWant/Accessible Publishing Systems.
Mehta, G., Tada, K., & Murata, N. (2012). Japanese Gardens: Tranquility, Simplicity, Harmony. New York: Tuttle Pub.
Cock-Starkey, C. (2017). The Golden Age of the Garden: A Miscellany. La Vergne, UNITED STATES: Elliott & Thompson.
Hunt, J. (2015). A World of Gardens. Reaktion Books.
Kay, J. (2021). Garden in a City: why do we garden?. Retrieved 31 January 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/21/garden-city-why
Industrial revolution — the good garden. (2021). Retrieved 31 January 2021, from http://www.thegoodgarden.com/early-days-1-1-1
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