Why We Garden: The Psychology and Philosophy of Gardening

Le_Jardin_de_Nébamoun.jpgIneni, architect to Pharaoh Thutmose I (d. 1492 BCE), had his garden painted into his tomb, along with a list of all the trees within it—presumably, so that they might be accounted for in the afterlife.

Ineni’s garden included:

  • 170 date palm
  • 120 doum palm
  • 73 sycamore fig
  • 31 persea
  • 16 carob
  • 12 grape vine
  • 10 tamarisk
  • 8 willow
  • 5 fig
  • 5 pomegranate
  • 5 garland thorn
  • 2 moringa
  • 2 myrtle

A grand garden of this sort symbolized control and mastery over nature, a haven of peace and plenty, of order and beauty, by which to project the status, power, and temperament of its owner. Other, more famous, examples include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Gardens of the Real Alcázar in Seville, and the Gardens of Versailles.

The garden could also have a religious or philosophical message or dimension. For example, the Old Testament’s four rivers of Eden are represented by four watercourses in Islamic paradise gardens, and four paths in Christian cloister gardens. The Zen garden, by hinting at hidden principles, serves as an aid to meditation about the true meaning of existence.

The Gardens at Versailles reflect a rationalist, Cartesian vision of God-given ideas and principles for the intellect to apprehend or recognize, whereas English landscape gardens are more in the empiricist mold, presenting nature as a stream of sensory experiences skirting across the blank slate of the mind.

In either case, the garden represents a taming of nature, from dark and deadly forest, or disease-infested swamp, to an extension of our living space: open and structured to still our minds, but retaining enough mystery to sustain our interest and even, perhaps, capture our imagination.

Individual plants too can have a meaning. English churchyards often feature yew trees, which are poisonous, dark, and evergreen, and symbolize both death and immortality. A yew tree is commonly found near the lychgate, where, prior to the advent of mortuaries, cadavers guarded by vigils awaited burial.

In the ancient world, the palm tree symbolized victory, peace, and bounty, while the cedar of Lebanon symbolized pride, majesty, and dignity. Both also stood for righteousness, as in Psalm 92:12: “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, grow tall like the cedar of Lebanon.” Today, Cedrus libani is the national emblem of Lebanon, and a symbol of the peaceful Cedar Revolution of 2005.

Trees can also be planted to mark an important occasion, which is why British royals are often asked to brandish a shovel. In a recent annual tradition, the Friends of my local park purchase a noteworthy tree and invite a dignitary such as the Lord Mayor to plant it.

Today, gardening is more popular than ever. According to the National Gardening Survey 2018, more American households (77%) are gardening than ever before. In the U.K. 87% of homes have access to a garden, and 27 million people report a personal interest or active engagement in gardening, even if it is only on a balcony.

Sporting replacements of the BBC’s flagship Gardeners’ World achieve only a third of presenter Monty Don’s usual viewing figures of almost three million—which, in the U.K. is many more people than go to church.

Community garden projects and ‘guerrilla gardening’ are on the rise, as are garden towns and villages. Two years ago, one of my neighbours organized for thousands of daffodils to be planted on a neglected and overlooked common, transforming it into a Wordsworthian idyll for the selfie generation. I wonder, do they know that ‘daffodil’ is Narcissus in Latin?

Gardening is more and more recognized, and even prescribed, for its health benefits. These include: increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness; improved sleep and diet (if you grow your own produce); reduced stress, anxiety, and depression; a greater sense of community and belonging; and better self-esteem.

You don’t even have to get your hands dirty: some of these benefits accrue simply from visiting a garden, or even just looking over one—although it probably helps to notice and mentally engage with the greenery.

Researchers in Korea randomly assigned hospital patients recovering from thyroidectomy to rooms with plants and flowers, and rooms without, and found that the test group fared significantly better, asking for less pain relief and requiring less time in hospital. So yes, it makes sense to bring flowers, and, at home, to have indoor plants.

Even street trees greatly benefit our health. An American study looking at the city of Toronto found that, for cardio-metabolic conditions (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity…), an increase of just 11 trees per city block compared to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000.

How might gardening help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.

In 1920, a mentally strained Ludwig Wittgenstein took up the post of assistant gardener at Klosterneuburg Abbey, explaining in a letter to a friend that he had been longing for “some kind of regularized work which, of all the things I can do in my present condition, is the most nearly bearable…”

Voltaire’s Candide (1759) is an attack on the highly abstracted, convoluted, and strained philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and famously concludes with the phrase “we must cultivate our garden.”

In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers describes this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or phenomenology, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”

Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees…

If gardening makes us feel better, it also makes us into better people. It is a moral education, a school of life, instilling virtues such as pragmatism, patience, perseverance, reliability, and humility, which then transfer out into other spheres.

In his treatise on agriculture (c. 160 BCE), Cato is quite clear that farmers make the bravest and strongest soldiers, and that, of all men, they are “the most highly respected, most stable, and least hated.”

In Plato’s Phaedrus (c. 370 BCE), Socrates compares the wise man to the good husbandman, who is careful to scatter the right seed in the right soil in the right season. Similarly, the good teacher is careful to sow the right words in the right soul at the right time. For Plato, the Divine Teacher, teaching is the gardening of the soul.

Building on these notions, Epicurus (d. 270 BCE) sought in his garden just outside Athens to return to an agricultural golden age of harmony, community, and self-sufficiency—to ground a flourishing life in the midst of a flourishing garden.

A garden is a microcosm of the outside world. Gardeners are acutely aware of the rhythms and cycles of nature: which flowers are in their prime, when to plant out the seedlings, when and how and how much it last rained. Just as music is time made audible, so the garden is “time made visible” [Clive James].

Winter is difficult, yes because it is dark and cold, but also because time is no longer structured by a succession of flowerings and fruitings. Time becomes amorphous, to be entertained and endured rather than savoured and celebrated like the season of magnolias, cherry blossom, rhubarb, plums, or chestnuts.

More than just keen observers of time, gardeners are real-life Time Lords, able to speed up time by working in the garden, and later to slow it right down by sitting back and surveying the fruits of their labour. Some gardeners are even able to step out of time altogether, working year round to create timeless moments of perfection.

But moments are all they will ever be. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?), but when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again.

In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

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