Gardening: A Cosmic Dance

Outside the CERN high-energy particle accelerator in Bern, Switzerland a polished bronze statue of Nataraj (Sanskrit for Lord of the Dance) stands two metres tall. In Hindu cosmology, Lord Shiva dances the cosmos into existence and also dances its destruction, so that all may be reborn. Nataraj is the traditional representation of this cosmic dance of creation and destruction, as well as Shakti the Hindu life force. Nataraj is ideal for greeting visitors to CERN, the facility leading investigation into what Carl Sagan has called ‘the cosmic dance of subatomic particles’.

There is a far more modest statue of Nataraj in my garden. When the statue was given to me by an Indian workmate years ago, I put it in the garden, just because it looked good there. I placed it in a quiet corner, but over the years it slowly disappeared from view, hidden behind undergrowth. However, when I uncovered the dancing figure in a fit of weeding recently, I decided to relocate it to a position of greater prominence.

In the intervening years I have come to see dance as perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for my relationship with nature in the garden, making Nataraj not just aesthetically appealing, but philosophically meaningful in the garden.

Here’s a shot of Nataraj set amongst the rockery. The dynamic interplay of form, colour and texture looks carefully composed. Well, it is and it isn’t. The garden was originally carefully designed and set out. Over twenty years the weeping Japanese maple planted at the back has grown forward and down to become a key element of the arrangement. About six years ago I planted black bamboo to protect the delicate maple leaves from the searing afternoon sun. Be damned if the maple didn’t grow around the pillar of bamboo, chasing that afternoon sun to centre-stage. Who would’ve thought? I delight in these unpredictable effusions of vegetation, nature’s spontaneity. You never know what to expect, or where they will appear. When they do appear, rather than trimming them back into a predetermined shape, I like to leave them go and see what happens. And lo, a whole new element emerges, changing the entire garden composition.

The statue of Nataraj set amongst the rockery in Paul Morgan's garden.

A long time back, I used to be a landscaper. I loved the creative satisfaction that comes from constructing well-designed, beautiful gardens. The funny thing was, my own garden remained an unreconstructed hodge-podge. Only after I changed careers and left the profession behind did I discover the joy of creating one’s own garden. And only after I relocated to Sydney and established this garden did I discover the pleasure of gardening as an ongoing process rather than the set-and-forget product of professional landscaping.

That’s when I began to think of my relationship to the garden as akin to a dance duet. Not your traditional dance forms with set steps and a designated leader and follower, but more like contemporary dance, such as contact improvisation or modern tango. In these forms, when two people dance, one initiates a movement and the second person responds in any way they feel moved to – improvising. This response, in turn, becomes the next lead, triggering a further improvised response from the first dancer. Each partner initiating, each responding, the two dancers move as one, in an active, embodied relationship. Initiator and responder roles become blurred into a single Dance.  And so it is in the garden. I do something in the garden. Nature responds as she sees fit, and I respond to her lead, setting up the next lead with my response.

All that is asked of me is that I come into the garden open to the suggestions proffered by the garden itself.

An unexpected shoot here offers unforeseen possibilities. A plant that suddenly turns up its toes after years of sturdy service, allows new directions with its replacement.

Or not – perhaps the resulting gap, that space between plants that Japanese gardeners revere, adds more to the overall appearance of the garden than merely refilling the gap. Several years ago, one of the twin trunks of the robinia suffered fungal disease and died back. I removed the dying trunk before the disease spread to its twin, leaving a large gap in the back corner of the garden. This year, a solitary branch from the remaining trunk grew vigorously down into the vacant space, creating a striking arc of yellow green across a dark green background. After some deliberation I nipped out a small upgrowth of the branch, clarifying and reinforcing the downward arc of lemon-lime.

As I wander about the garden I am not looking for anything, but I am open to suggestion, to hints and possibilities. And over time I have become more and more attuned to the garden’s rhythmic processes. So, like two accomplished dancers who move together in one dance, a resonance has emerged. And beauty happens the more attuned we become. Actually, I find that the state of being attuned to my mystery partner becomes a purpose in itself. The unexpected beauty of the collaboration is mere icing on the cake.

Gardening is my cosmic dance.

This approach to garden-making sits somewhere between the rigidly defined, clipped, formal gardens, and the naturalistic bush gardens that largely died out with the 1970s. For me it requires an openness – a happy-go-lucky response to whatever nature throws up – balanced with a willingness to intervene, to impose some order and definition, informed by my own aesthetic sensibilities. But total control is impossible, planning for a particular effect, futile. This approach embraces change in the garden rather than remaining fixed to a certain look; gardening as a process rather than product; an interactive, creative engagement with nature. And the garden becomes this cosmic dance slowly changing, unfolding across space and time, an endless performance that never repeats itself. Nataraj dances here.

Featured image by Georgina Reid. All other images supplied by Paul Morgan

A snapshot of the garden in 1999.
Paul's garden develops, here in 2004.
The garden in 2006.
Paul's garden in 2016!