By Jeremy Naydler
(This article first appeared in Watkins’ Mind Body Spirit magazine, issue 30, May (Summer, 2012)
When, in 1890, Monet purchased the house and garden at Giverny, one of the first things he did – to the consternation of his neighbours and friends – was to uproot the fruit trees and bushes and rip out the vegetables. But this was no act of wanton destruction: in their place he planted flowers.
Monet understood something that people of a metaphysical disposition have always known: that what is of no use often has a higher value than what is useful. Flowers have no obvious practical use to us, but this means that we are set free to recognise and appreciate their beauty, irrespective of what we might gain from them. So often, when we regard things in terms of their practical use alone, their value is – paradoxically – degraded by being so closely associated with serving our needs. We miss their intrinsic value.
The flower garden, in contrast to the world of getting and spending, falls outside the dominant value system in which usefulness is the generally accepted measure of a thing’s worth. The flower garden is indeed a “useless” place to find oneself, and therein resides its ability to lift our spirits. When we allow ourselves time in a flower garden, we experience respite from the artificially stimulated needs and desires of the consumer culture. There is nothing there that we can buy, possess or make use of, but there is much that may cause us to stop still in wonder.
In flower gardening, we have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of a counter-current both to the consumerist mentality and to the collective view of Nature upon which it depends: that Nature is no more than a resource to be exploited for our benefit. There are three ideals in particular that are the keys to how our work in the flower garden can contribute to the redemption of our predominantly utilitarian relationship to Nature.
The first ideal is that through gardening we bring more beauty into the world. With this as the central aim of gardening, the dominant utilitarian ethic that everywhere prevails outside our gardens is reversed within them. The flower garden becomes a utilitarian-free zone! Every tool that is used, every plant that is sown or put in the ground, every deed that the gardener performs, and every scratch, strain and sting visited upon the gardener in the daily toil of this work, all serve the same overriding purpose of nurturing beauty.
What makes a garden beautiful is when its best inner potential is brought to fulfilment, and in so far as this is achieved a certain spiritual luminosity begins to pervade the whole. If we garden with the conviction that our purpose is to enhance the beauty of a place, we soon discover that some of the things we do will “work” and others won’t. It often becomes necessary to put aside our own pet schemes and wishes for how we would like the garden to look, and selflessly to consider what is right for this particular place.
Rather than force the garden to conform to our wishes and designs, we relate ourselves to the unspoken wishes and clandestine designs of the garden, and in so doing we begin to work with a second ideal: to garden in relationship to what the ancients called the genius loci or the “spirit of place”. Thus we may find ourselves respectfully asking: “What would like to happen here?” or “What needs to happen in this corner of the garden?” or “What is suggesting itself here?” By living with the garden over the seasons, we come to listen to what it is whispering to us. The garden is unconscious. It is in a dream, so we have to listen to its dream, and then make it real.
The third ideal runs like a golden thread through the history of gardening: it is to see our gardening as the recreation of Paradise on Earth. Paradise could be understood quite simply as a condition in which the divine is a felt presence on Earth. In the Paradise Garden, the veil between the sensory world and the spiritual world becomes more transparent. This can already be experienced in the atmosphere that a garden acquires when a relationship is established between the gardener and the spirit of place. But the Paradise Garden has such an intensified atmosphere of aliveness and beauty that we find ourselves relating not just to this particular garden but also to a greater spiritual presence pervading its atmosphere: Nature as such, vibrant, creative and nurturing. In the Paradise Garden we experience Nature once again as an enchanted presence, the garden less as merely a leisure area and more as “sacred precinct”, and our gardening itself as a sacred art.
Jeremy Naydler is a professional gardener who holds a doctorate in theology and religious studies. He is the editor of Goethe on Science and the author of Soul Gardening, a volume of poetry, and The Future of the Ancient World: Essays on the History of Consciousness. GARDENING AS A SACRED ART by Jeremy Naydler, published by Floris Books, paperback (119 pages, with 51 illustrations) is available from Watkins bookshop online.