Loree, of Danger Garden, posted a comment and a link in Facebook a few weeks ago, to a story about a gardener in Australia and what gardening meant to him in the online Planthunter blog. It elicited an array of comments, both supportive and not. She posed the question, are the ‘best’ gardens the products of an ‘organic’ process, produced by the gardeners themselves, in intimate relationship with their place? Which raised the question, can garden designers create truly beautiful gardens for others on landscapes that they don’t have this personal connection to? Her question caused a flurry of comments, several containing a lot of emotion. Loree’s simple question produced a fair amount of ‘heat’. I found the array of responses, and the conflicts they brought to light, provocative and I think a lot of that heat comes from the fact that our modern society has become largely estranged from the natural living world. I spent quit a bit of time thinking about it. Below is what it prompted in me.
I retired from Parks after a career of mostly fixing and tweaking designs that I had nothing to do with, but ended up resposnisble for, tearing out neglected landscapes that had became grossly overwhelmed and out of balance by overplanted and aggressive plants, others that were lost to weeds and invasives, others still that were stomped out and abused by the public largely because of their siting and the public uses which they had to endure, a public that is often indifferent to the living world and its requirements and their resulting traffic patterns that designers thought that their massing could channel where they wanted. I did this while working within an organization that undervalued the plants and the horticulturists who cared for them….I was still able to create a few places that the public responded to positively.
After retiring a couple friends designed business cards for me and I thought I would add my own ‘shingle’ to the garden designers out there, but it didn’t work. I quickly realized that though I value my friends and social contacts, I am not equipped to work with people this way. Producing beautiful spaces for clients requires an artistic sense, which I have, an understanding of space and how people live and move within it, which as a long time observer I feel i have as well, a broad and deep understanding of plants that includes their aesthetic value but goes well beyond this including their relationships with those plants they share space with and the conditions on the sites themselves, something, hopefully as gardeners we all develop…and the ability to read and respond to the peculiarities and interests of the client, a skill that has remained undeveloped in me. I don’t really get people…which is why I got into plants to begin with.
I do understand that people will ‘respond’ to beautiful spaces, I used to see it every day in Parks, and that they may want to live within them, but I don’t think that many of them really understand what that means, what it takes to create and sustain such places and I never really figured out how to bridge that gap. Just as people don’t seem to understand how ugly, neglected, abused and poorly cared for landscapes and ‘waste spaces’ detract not only from the natural world, but from each of our own individual lives, they don’t seen to understand the role of beauty and the natural world in their own lives…how it’s absolutely essential to healthy human and community life. We seem to view nature and beautiful landscapes as luxuries, that only after we have met our basic needs, can we then consider adding back into our own lives….Beauty and health are intimately linked. They do not exist without each other, yet today they are, in a sense, outside of our everyday reality. Our lives are outside of the natural world. Our way of life is in conflict with nature. The natural world and beauty has, in our modern world view, become secondary. First, we must make for ourselves a life and secure it…only then will we begin to consider the natural/living world. Nature has become an ‘elective’.
Gardeners and garden designers don’t fit into the necessary framework of most people’s world…and because of this, the skills and values that go with them are held by a minority of citizens. Having a ‘green thumb’ has become an oddity, an archaic skill. What goes along with this are the ‘brown thumbs’ and the expectation that a dead world flows from the hands of so many others….This is the world that we live in today. Gardens and beautiful landscapes, nature and the diversity of life itself that it supports, have become more and more the exception, especially in urban areas, but not just there. As a people we don’t generally recognize our role and responsibility in this. And, it is not just the population that suffers from this disassociative thinking, our many institutions and governments do as well. Each of these have their missions, their purposes, and most of the time the land and landscapes they are responsible for are very far down on their list of priorities.
Garden designers, for me, have a larger role, beyond creating beautiful spaces for their clients and that is as mentors and educators spreading the ‘gospel’ of gardening, the stories of plants and their essential relationship with life on this planet. We cannot afford to have gardens which are merely ‘beautiful’. They must call us back. Our gardens are another way for us to access the world of nature, a way not readily available to non-gardeners unless someone is there to mentor them, to begin to teach them the language of life. If beautiful ornamental landscapes and gardens give viewers pause to consider the crises we have put the natural world into, and awaken them to their woeful state in our cities and so many communities and places we pass through, then good. Gardens can become their path of understanding to a more responsible relationship with the natural world…even better. Our gardens and landscapes are more than simple backdrops to our activities, their beauty and health are barometers of our relationship with the living world. Our cities and towns, the countless places we visit and utilize, the wider world and the systems that link them together, are in an increasingly desperate state, a state so out of balance that they can’t return without our informed and commited work. So many people today lack the vocabulary to see the extent of the problem, what our role has been as contributors to it, the absolute necessity for each of us to take responsibility for our own impacts in this and act both ‘rightly’ and honestly to do what we can. When we garden we begin to see these things, the place of nature and our role in it. We begin to understand that much of what is required of us is to simply ‘listen’ and stop doing the things that contribute to the destruction. So often these days we don’t see this. We don’t recognize that if we change the decisions which guide us, if we stop doing the things that are destructive or disruptive, if we keep our eye on the health of an organism or a system and ask what contributes to it, then we may find that small changes can make drastic differences. But first, we have to stop doing that which undermines the health and stability of a landscape…and, to do this we need to have the ‘vocabulary’ to help us see and understand the living world upon which all of us depend. Gardening and our gardens can do this.
I would ask that we see passed our differences, which are the best gardens and who are the best designers and take up the mantle of advocate, mentor and activist in the larger cause of life, health and the beauty that flows directly from it. Beauty may be the lure, but life is the larger goal. It is also important that we don’t become confused by the fashionable, because that will continuously change, distract us by its surface, leave us anxious and dissatisfied and perpetuate a continuous, and unnecessary, cycle of change, a change that comes form outside the place itself. Beauty can set us on a course to recreate the integrity, complexity, health, balance and vibrancy of life which is at its heart. I am talking about changing this world. While singular places of beauty can provide a necessary respite and refuge, what we really need to do is share this understanding and provide each other with the confidence to take action and allow beauty back into our world as a necessary and integral part of it. Beauty flows from the natural processes of life. When it doesn’t it is because we have disrupted those very processes and, if we are honest, we have to see that.