The Past, the Present and the Garden

In Richard Glover’s latest nonfiction, The Land Before Avocado, the late 60s and 70s – a period we often look back upon nostalgically – is dissected and exposed. Side by side with the now revered cultural symbols of the period – the flares, surfie culture and lack of helicopter parenting, Glover reminds us of the fact that women’s rights had a long way to go (rape in marriage was still allowed; no fault divorce didn’t exist and women in the public service got the sack as soon as they got married); homosexuality was outlawed; and students still got the cane at school. Glover’s point – albeit argued comedically – is that nostalgia for the past is inherently a rose coloured glasses affair – that we sweep over the detail, the imperfection, and muse upon it so generally that the present cannot compete with what was. Glover is not alone in his critique of nostalgic inclination. Today, we are encouraged to be present and mindful in order to function as enlightened thinkers. To dwell in the past, many of us believe, is a surefire way to miss the gifts of the now.

But what if we are nostalgic for a garden, for a species of plant, and for a moment in time associated with either? And what if this yearning informs and inspires the gardening we do in the present? Surely this a comparatively innocent form of wistfulness – to plant tomatoes because the fragrance reminds us of our childhood spent with our grandfather’s suburban crops, to allow that olfactory experience to briefly transport us back to a simple and meaningful moment in time – is this not an unobjectionable act?

In his book, Philosophy in the Garden, Australian academic and philosopher Damon Young writes that a garden “…is intellectually stimulating in its own right, because it is a fusion of two fundamental philosophical principles: humanity and nature. Like the English ‘yard’, they refer to enclosure, which requires two things: something to be cordoned off (nature), and someone to do the cordoning (humanity)…every garden is a union of this kind: nature separated, bordered, transformed by humans”.

Young points to the fact that while a garden certainly can be defined as nature, it differs from the wilderness – from nature left to its own devices – in that it is owned and purposefully moulded by the human hand. Hence, it is arguable that a garden cannot possibly be exempt from the forces of nostalgia, from a reverence of the gardener’s past – one’s proclivity to garden surely has been informed in some respect by their previous interactions with gardens and their makers. In this way, sentimentality is an inherent creative driver for the gardener whose hope may not be to recreate or re-live what once was but rather to pay respect to it in the present, to allow their memories of a garden or a plant and the emotional story that accompanies it, to have a place in the now. Gardening is thus an opportunity to make sense of who we are, to help us create a concise narrative of ourselves, to provide a place in our new lives for the stories – big and small – of our past.

However, in many ways, and in alignment with criticism of nostalgic inclination in general, a garden is not a suitable place to exhibit one’s nostalgia. We can only garden in the now, with the aim of establishing future growth. We may have fond memories for a garden of our past, but a garden will never allow us to replicate another, it will fight a sentimental gardener with all its might to be itself, to bloom and die in its own time, to grow as it pleases, as it must. A gardener who works against the natural inclinations of their plants is fighting a losing battle.

One who seeks to impose a glorified image of what has once been upon a living, growing, breathing, responsive landscape is arguably disrespecting nature’s fluidity and its potential.”

Young’s philosophical reflections provide a helpful summation of the shades of grey of the influence of memory and sentimentality on the gardener. He notes that the garden can – and perhaps should – be considered as a dualistic landscape. It is, at once, an absorber and reflector of the emotive forces which may inspire its cultivation and moulding, its purposeful and meaningful tending; and also an entity of its own, still elemental, still part of the wildness of wilderness, still a holder of its own secret knowledge of growth, beauty, provision and decay. As Young notes: “These riddles, nature and humanity, combine in the garden. Because of this, it has particular philosophical currency. It can bankroll cosmological and existential ideas, can become invested with historical values, political ideas, domestic rhythms. It is nature humanised. But we also see something beyond ourselves: a hint of an inhuman, unthinking cosmos, which escapes consciousness”.

Nostalgia is often seen as a force which imparts upon its human sufferer a selective blindness to the present moment. For many, this is perhaps true. But a garden – a unique meeting ground for the powerful tendencies of nature and humanity, to borrow Young’s notion – can gently accommodate two competing tendencies. It can allow the gardener to indulge in their cherished memories of gardens and plants of their past by providing a fruitful present context for their nostalgic inclinations. Despite the forces of growth and decay which are mostly out of the gardener’s control, one’s garden can absorb the motivations of its designer and keeper while enforcing its own elemental will – in this way, it can reform one’s nostalgia into something new, take it into account, and shape it so it has a productive place, a currency, in the present. Young borrows from ancient theologian, Augustine, for whom gardening may be counted in what he terms “occasions when human reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things” – where there is a productive melding of human sentimentality and the immediate biological impulses of the world of nature. It is possible too, that the nostalgic inspiration to garden is a kind of ultimate nostalgia – a harkening for the elemental, not for a particular time or place or person but for what it means to be as simple and fundamental as we can be; a nostalgia for our primality and naturality. In any case, it seems perilous to attempt to erode the influence of the past on one’s gardening, as perilous, perhaps, as willing nature to bend out of its wild shape. Gardening thus can be considered a dance of opposites, a delicate, and productive, process of holding on and letting go.

Images used to accompany this post are from a previous Planthunter story on Bryan Hardy’s whale garden in Leura, NSW.