Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed nthposition.com. I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.

 

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.

th

 

In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.

 

Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”

 

Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.

 

Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.

 

He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.

 

Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.

 

We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.

 

We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Sparrowhawk

On St Stephen’s Day, I awoke to see a sparrowhawk perched regally, and not at all discreetly, on the roof of one of our bird tables.

It stood, as if posing for a textbook illustration. I called the children. One came and then ran off to get “something to take a photo with. ” I tried to get her to stay and enjoy the moment.

It flew onto the boundary wall, where it perched equally comfortably, flying off before any photo could be taken.

No other birds were seen for quite a while.

Ember Days and nature connection

Today, Friday and Saturday are Ember Days. I had never heard of these (though “embertide” rings a faint bell) until I came across this tweet

In a way Fr Schrenk explains it well in this thread so unroll it for the full explanation, or look here or here. Essentially, Ember Days are 3 days in an “Ember Week”, which occurs four times in a calendar year and mark the commencement of seasons. The December days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St Lucy’s Day (13th December)

They are marked by practices such as fasting and abstinence, though specifics seem a little different depending on the online source.  One site I came across suggested “minor” fasting, ie one full meal and two light meals (which sounds closer to a healthy intake than to a fast to me) as well as marking the day with appropriate prayer.

Traditionally, clergy were ordained during Ember Weeks.

 

 

“Ember” is not a reference to fire but a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora meaning “four times.” In Irish, they are Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth  – “days of the four times” – which preserves the sense of the Latin.  Ember days seem to have got a little more attention in recent times as a form of collective repentance related to recent crises in the Church. 

Separate from any theological or ecclesiastic practice, I am struck by the wisdom of observances that are tied with the cycle of the seasons and thereby of growth, death and renewal that follow the year. And I am struck by the wisdom of periods of restraint in consumption (which is what fasting is, as opposed to self-punishment) and of contemplation that relate fundamentally to the changes of the seasons. It is a cliché to bemoan the overcommercialisation of Christmas but it is salutary to recall that Advent was supposed to be a time of reflection, self-denial and preparation.

It seems a pity that the Ember Days practice has fallen into disuse in general. And again separate from any specific religious belief or affiliation, one wonders if the practice of Ember Days did help to connect people with the progress of the seasons (and if their abandonment is yet another marker of disconnection with nature) and whether for this reason observance of Ember Days is due a revival.

“Swallows”, George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a poet who writes both children’s and grown-up verse. His book “How To Be A Tiger” neatly shows how ostensibly children’s verse can be as valuable as adult-orientated work

One highlight: “Swallows”:

Hustling on the wing

all billow and swoop

Laughing as they go

Pouring from the sky

In one vast troupe

They fly tails forked

Suddenly uncorked.

Meet the dung cannon, the cabbage parachute, the crystal brain , the mousepee pinkgill, the midnight disco, and the scurfy twiglet

All the above are fungi, as I have discovered from reading John Wright’s  “The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names”   When I was a medical student I did sometimes wonder if the many many more obscure bits and pieces of human anatomy could be given more homely names than flexor pollicis this and gastrocnemius that. I don’t think so anymore, and this passage from Wright helps illustrate why:

 

I took the trouble to familiarise myself with Latin names, so, perhaps rather churlishly, I just tell people to buckle down and learn them too. However, I have been slightly thwarted in my evangelism. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 introduced the requirement that all UK species in need of protection have a common English name.*While nearly all British plants and large animals were possessed of one, most fungi were not, so the British Mycological Society set about creating ‘common’ names for all but the most obscure.2 Some of them put my own inventions to shame. We now have the dung cannon (Pilobolus crystallinus), the cabbage parachute (Micromphale brassicolens), the crystal brain (Exidia nucleata), the mousepee pinkgill (Entoloma incanum) and, my personal favourite, the midnight disco (Pachyella violaceonigra). While I don’t mind telling someone that the little mushroom in their hand is called Tubaria furfuracea, I do feel embarrassed when informing them that they have a ‘scurfy twiglet’. There is nothing particularly wrong with these names, but they lack the weight and authority that comes with long usage. Also, I don’t think they really help: if people are having difficulty with names, the last thing they need is a whole new set of them. In my opinion, it is simply not possible to make up common names and expect them to become a useful currency.

Long Live Latin  indeed.

Shrewstruck

From “The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names” by John Wright

 

It may sound extraordinary, but until recently the shrew had a most fearsome reputation. The creature’s bite was likened to that of a spider – araneus in Latin. Both Aristotle and Pliny wrote of its venomous nature, and this belief continued down the centuries, gaining momentum as time went by.

 

The general feeling was summed up neatly by the Reverend Topsell in his seventeenth-century History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents: ‘It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but, being touched, it biteth deep, and poisoneth deadly. It beareth a cruel minde, desiring to hurt anything, neither is there any creature that it loveth, or it loveth him, because it is feared of all.’

Not that an actual bite was considered necessary for the shrew to do its evil work. Elyot in 1538 wrote: ‘Mus Araneus, a kynde of myse called a shrew, whyche yf it goo ouer a beastes backe, he shall be lame in the chyne’. ‘Chyne’ here means ‘spine’, so it would have been a calamity if it were true, which, of course, it was not. Horses were considered particularly vulnerable, but it was not just dumb beasts that were at risk.

Although there is much to be feared in the modern world, one threat at least is no longer a burden, and anyone attending the doctor’s surgery complaining of being ‘shrewstruck’ would not be received sympathetically. This fictitious condition was the result of having a shrew ‘goo ouer’ some part of your body, causing pain and even paralysis. Fortunately such imaginary ailments respond well to imaginary remedies.

Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne reported the destruction by a pious vicar of a much-venerated ash tree. The tree – a ‘shrew ash’ – was relied upon as a cure by the village people, who pleaded in vain for its survival. To make such a tree, a hole was drilled into the trunk, then a live (and very unlucky) shrew was placed into the hole and incarcerated there with a wooden plug, to the accompaniment of appropriately dramatic incantations (sadly lost to history). The branches were then available to be ‘applied’ as a cure, although precisely what this entailed is not recorded. With so many fine details forgotten, should you ever imagine that you have been ‘shrewstruck’, you will be in no position to imagine that you are cured.

Nan Shepherd on going barehanded and barefooted

From “The Living Mountain”:

 

The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. When I was a girl, a charming old gentlewoman said something to me that I have never forgotten. I was visiting her country home, and after lunch, going for a walk with her niece, I picked up my gloves from the hall table where I had laid them down. She took them from me and laid them back on the table. ‘You don’t need these. A lot of strength comes to us through the hands.’ Sensation also. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers, the delicate tickle of a crawling caterpillar, the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind—nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as for the eye.

And for the foot as well. Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion since Jeanie Deans trudged to London, but no country child grows up without its benediction. Sensible people are reviving the habit. They tell me a tale up here of a gentleman in one of the shooting lodges who went to the hill barefoot: when he sat down for lunch the beaters crowded as near as they dared to see what manner of soles such a prodigy could have. But actually walking barefoot upon heather is not so grim as it sounds. I have covered odd miles myself here and there in this fashion. It begins with a burn that must be forded: once my shoes are off, I am loth to put them on again. If there are grassy flats beside my burn, I walk on over them, rejoicing in the feel of the grass to my feet; and when the grass gives place to heather, I walk on still. By setting the foot sideways to the growth of the heather, and pressing the sprays down, one can walk easily enough. Dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth; so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it, like food melting to a new flavour in the mouth. And a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment.