Aesthetics at Mountain Gardens
I am trying to make a Paradise Garden, a garden which fulfills all my (our) needs, and so it should go without saying that it must be a beautiful garden, indeed the most beautiful (to me) garden in the world. I have a ‘need’ to live in a beautiful environment – I think we all do. The contents of my garden are ‘useful plants’ for food, medicine, etc.; but these can be arranged so as to compose an inspiring environment or a boring, utilitarian one. Inspiring (latin) = enthusiasm (greek), both referring to ‘the god within’. I want, we all want, to step out the door into an environment which lifts us out of our petty concerns and reminds us that we are a part of the huge, beautiful world. The garden (meaning, basically, your entire property) should be the place you’d rather be than anywhere else. And this is entirely possible. It’s what our hunter/gatherer ancestors had; they lived in awe of, and thanksgiving for, their environment; they ‘walked in beauty’. Can we get it back?
Well, we can certainly try; and it is one of the most enjoyable and meaningful things we can do with/during our brief lives on this beautiful (but less and less so) planet. We need to ‘find our way back’ (forward) to a sense, and reality, of being a participant in Gaia, the magnificent organism of which we are a part. I don’t know of any way to do this other than gardening; but not just any gardening and in fact, regrettably, not most gardening. What I see is a big gulf between utilitarian gardening (vegetable gardening,orchards, permaculture, etc) and ‘ornamental’ gardening (landscape architecture) which I suppose is, ultimately, just another symptom of the (western, especially) mind/body problem. We need to solve this and related problems if we don’t want to become extinct. I believe that the directive in Genesis ‘to dress it and keep it’ is a wonderfully concise and true definition of our niche, our role / function in Gaia, our purpose in life.
On the basis of ecology and evolution, without resorting to revealed or channeled wisdom, I suggest that our purpose in life, vis-à-vis Gaia, is to increase fertility and diversity. Increasing fertility is the most important task of the gardener. We make compost in the summer and gather leaves in winter, and try to capture any fertility that comes into the garden while not letting any depart. Fertility is important for beauty – once you know what you’re looking at, an underfed, sick plant really spoils the view.
Diversity is the key concept, both in creating a garden which fills all our needs and in creating a beautiful garden. An ecological principle is that greater diversity = greater stability – as the climate changes in erratic and unpredictable ways, our best defense is to populate our gardens with the widest possible diversity of plants and habitats. To fill our needs we want a diversity of plants, and the more diverse habitats we have, the greater diversity of plants we can grow. So garden making for me is largely creating habitats (sometimes micro-habitats like tiny ponds and bogs). With regard to plant life, important aspects of habitats would be such axes as wet/dry and sunny/ shady, also soil type, texture (drainage), pH and fertility, slope and aspect, shelter from wind & cold or exposure. Those are the physical characteristics; in addition, of course, there is the hardiness zone you’re in (which means less than it used to), and then there are cultural factors affecting each location: habitats near a path are likely to be better kept, and appreciated.
But there is much more to diversity: the garden should celebrate (and encourage us to celebrate) every season and weather, and stimulate all our senses. The most sophisticated examples of how gardens can do this are Chinese, specifically the type of small, personal spaces known as daoist or scholar gardens. These gardens had many meanings for their owners, from wealth and production to enhancing social status, or being a refuge from society. For my purposes, while not neglecting the productive aspect, what is most valuable is their use for self-development, as optimal sites for meditation or tai chi, reading / studying and practicing the arts especially poetry, painting and music. What all these have in common is that we are trying to enhance our qi (‘energy’ is the most common, but inadquate, translation). Qi flows through our body in the acupuncture channels, and flows through the earth (the study of that is feng shui.) We can gather qi from our environment, and so the optimum place for self-development would be a place with perfect qi. Perfect qi on earth is the same as perfect health in our bodies: balanced. The most fundamental balance is between yin / yang (this is as true of your liver, kidneys, etc. as it is for the garden), and the essence of yin/yang in the garden is water and rocks. Yin/yang is also a way for classifying and balancing the diversity axes mentioned above: yin is shady, wet, cool, sheltered, low-lying, north-facing – yang is the opposite. The original meanings of the characters depict the shady and sunny sides of a mountain. Brilliant! A daoist / scholar garden is an enclosed space (implied by the term ‘garden’ which shares etymological roots with ‘guard’ – mustn’t let the qi leak away) in which qi is enhanced and balanced. Enhanced is the result of the creation of diverse environments / habitats, populated by a wide diversity of species, complimented by pleasing architecture; balance is achieved by the time-honored method of ‘reducing that which is too much, increasing that which is too little.’ But these gardens were not used only for solitary activities and spiritual development (that would be unbalanced after all) but for all kinds of social activities from moon-viewing parties to drinking games involving floating cups of wine down a winding rivulet and composing linked verse.
Chinese gardens are divided, by means of hedges and walls, into ‘rooms.’ This serves a number of purposes: walls & hedges provide shelter, increase diversity of habitats, and add greatly to the experience of moving through the garden, alternately concealing and revealing its parts. Moving from the open sunny space of my vegetable garden through a tunnel between dense evergreens and into the opening of a lawn is always a pleasure, even when I’m in a hurry; in fact it asks me to notice, slow down, savor the moment. Transition spaces between habitats can be enhanced with simple bamboo gateways and vines. A key element of balance in Chinese landscape painting and gardening (closely related, along with poetry) is empty / full. Although I am tempted to cram full my limited garden space, I greatly appreciate the relatively empty spaces such as our small lawn. Even beds of kitchen vegetables can make a simple, soothing counterpoint to dense, information-loaded perennial / shrub borders. The goal is that moving through the garden should be the most delightful experience it can be. At any time, I can make my eye a camera and watch the movie, or imagine I’m a stranger who wandered in to ask directions and thus see it all with fresh eyes.
Moving through the garden is one of the most important ways to enjoy it or, put differently, since you are going to be spending much of your life moving through your garden it is worth putting some effort into maximizing the reward. Winding paths, which open new views around every turn, are much preferable to a straight path where you can take in the objective, and everything in between, at a glance: no mystery, no hope of surprise. Even though I know perfectly well what’s around the curve, the experience of watching it reveal itself, step by step, doesn’t get old; and, of course, it changes with the weather and the season. I have planted so much stuff, and scattered so much seed, that surprise is always a possibility even, occasionally, the delight of seeing a new species’ first flower. We can constantly tinker with the movie: the walk from the car to the house, the house to the garden, the walk to the spring. The first thing of course is to notice what offends the eye or distracts from the view such as, in my situation, any piece of plastic. Plants, earth, rock, water all harmonize, plastic doesn’t – it pulls my attention, but doesn’t gratify it. You can go a long ways towards making a beautiful garden by simply getting rid of everything ugly. Those elements which catch your eye, unwillingly, or which you have to make an effort to look past. As you get the junk out of the way (or concealed), you can begin to appreciate the potential of the scene, and how to enhance it.
We enjoy our gardens by working in them, moving through them and looking at them. A beautiful garden is beautiful no matter where you are standing and what direction you are facing, but some views are better, and some are good enough to just sit and get lost in the scene. This is where you put a bench or, better, a pergola. ‘View’ (jing) is an important concept in Chinese garden design. The best views in a garden were given poetic names, inscribed on boards or rocks, and albums were painted of the ‘views’ of a famous garden. A perfect view should resonate with the viewer’s heart and raise the garden experience to a higher, spiritual level. All this is the development of a highly aestheticized ‘literati’ culture. The classical description of an elaborate Chinese garden and the naming of views is chapter 17 of the most famous Chinese novel, the Dream of the Red Chamber (also translated as The Story of the Stone). That book, and the garden it is set in, is more about the garden as a wealthy status symbol, but wealth is not required to incorporate the basic principles of Chinese garden design into our gardens. Any garden can afford particularly nice views, which can be enhanced and framed. The Chinese liked to make little structures to sit and enjoy the view; such structures, with picturesque pointed roofs, served as focal points for other views. (At Mountain Gardens, these structures will also serve as camping places for WWOOFers and visitors.) In this way, the whole garden can be linked together as a path through diverse habitats, with occasional viewpoints.
Chinese garden design theory makes much of the concept of ‘borrowed view.’ This means incorporating scenery from outside the garden in composing views. A common example is a distant mountain, but a nearby picturesque tree or structure or anything else that’s nice to look at can be included in a view. In some cases, ‘towers’ (elevated platforms) were constructed to capture a view (typically of distant mountains). More often, alas, we are in the position of needing to conceal something ugly – ‘blocked view’. The garden as a whole will benefit from a boundary wall or hedge, which can be composed of useful plants and, where necessary, can form the backdrop to a garden view, screening whatever is behind it. There are of course many plants useful for hedging – a Chinese source listed 30 species for garden hedges and multiple uses for each ranging from edible fruit and beautiful flowers to medicine, tool handles and sharp thorns to discourage intruders. Bamboo is fast-growing, evergreen and very useful, but does have its problem.
There is lots of information online about Chinese gardens. The best surviving scholar gardens are in Suzhou and offer photo tours. For Daoism and gardens, a good introduction is “The Symbolism of the Taoist Garden” by J. C. Cooper, available online.