Wednesday, 22 June 2011
The garden and the gardener
Let's start this essay by considering various types of garden design.
If you look at European gardens, and at Italian and French formal garden designs of the Enlightenment period in particular, the position of the gardener in relation to the garden is clear: the gardener is a force competing against nature, taming nature and forcing his geometric designs upon the garden. The gardens of Europe's palaces look like small cities made of grass, plants and trees.
In Japanese gardens, on the other hand, the gardener sees himself as a part of nature. He is, as it were, another plant, albeit one with no roots in the ground, and with the intelligence to influence the balance of the garden as a whole. His culture is not distinct from nature, it is a part of nature, just as the ability to grow flowers and live out a symbiotic relationship with bees is part of nature.
As a result of this difference in outlook, many Japanese gardens are naturally harmonious, created with a deep knowledge of how plants grow naturally, and working with this natural growth, rather than against it. Over the long term, they're not trying to break out of the shape they've been designed in, because the shape already took their growth into consideration.
Just as it is easier for a woodcutter to cut a piece of wood going along the grain than against it, so it is easier for a gardener who understands each plant's growth pattern to bring out the emergent harmony of the garden.
Japanese gardens make gardening look easy: they look as if they just grow themselves. Some Japanese gardens designed during the Edo period are still growing today in the way they were designed to grow, with garden maintenance seen as a complementary action, for example, to plant seeds being blown by the wind.
This difference in relationship between garden and gardener is fundamental when considering the vast ecology that is a nation. The "European garden" type of state assumes that the nation itself is a chaotic entity that must be tamed and subjected to various forms of pressure in order to ressemble anything like an 'ordered' garden. The "Japanese garden" type of nation design, on the other hand, works with the nation's intrinsic growth properties.
It's interesting to see that many of our ideas around the nation state originated roughly at the time of the Enlightenment, the age when our gardens started taking on the shape of cities, straight and square. Many of our constitutions have changed only superficially since then.
The central and all-encompassing role of the state in France, for example, hasn't been questioned much since the days of the Enlightenment, which is why we still constantly see politicians of all parties behaving like dictatorial gardeners hectoring their gardens into shape.
What they seem not to realise is that - in our nation/garden metaphor - it's the plants themselves we're supposed to be designing our gardens for.
Posted by Gallé