Garden Party

Stressed out by our posts on the sea of troubles in which American higher education is flailing? Relax. That’s one of the main things gardens have been for since there have been gardens (besides the whole growing-food aspect).

● Although binge-spending on campus amenities is problematic in a lot of infuriating and scary ways, it does mean that many American schools (at least those that end up on the dumb ranking lists barfed out by Forbes and US News and other magazines every year) have remained passable facsimiles of Arcardia. Yes, I’m being aesthetically charitable, but schools with competitive admission profiles spend major funds on landscaping for a reason: an environment distinguished by transplanted ornamental trees, machine-shorn lawns, stone fountains, ivy wired to buildings, and other postmodern-bucolic stuff is meant to evoke the repose necessary for deep thought and complex scholarship. That’s why Plato taught in an olive grove. Also, it entices prospective students with all sorts of green nooks for smoking weed in.

● Read all about the above, and more, in Robert Pogue Harrison’s magisterial Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. It’s actually more of a book than an essay. If the untamed side of things is more your style, he also wrote a book called Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. It is also good.

● Maybe grab a couple other garden tomes? None of us read enough anyway. These would be the Oxford Companion to the Garden (wonderful even though the British origin makes you put up with lots of colour and vigour and missing commas) and Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Contra the ad pitch on Pollan’s website, it is not “a modern Walden,” because it doesn’t have any boring stretches where you want to die or go read Emerson instead. Built upon an autobiographical foundation (there is great stuff about lawn care on suburban Long Island after World War II), the text is ultimately a hybrid of cultural history, botanical inquiry (the stuff about weeds is rhapsodic and sensible at the same time), gardening advice, and ethical meditation. Pollan’s central claim is that gardening, unlike (say) American wilderness worship or a vague feeling for the poor Amazon, reminds us, over and over, that human experience takes place within a life-world that we must simultaneously exploit, care for, and love deeply.

● Staying with the literary angle, refresh yourself with Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.” Over the years critics have gone at it with all kinds of ideological crowbars, but you shouldn’t forget Philip Larkin’s remark that the poem might be best understood as “a good description of the mind of someone half-asleep under the summer trees in a garden” (“The Changing Face of Andrew Marvell,” collected in his Required Writing).

● Rich people usually have nice land around their homes. Often that land bears complicated gardens. And if rich people go broke and then go crazy, they sometimes do it in high style, as Grey Gardens reminds us. I’ve seen this documentary three or four times, and it never ceases to be demonically compelling. Don’t call it a “cult classic.” It’s just a classic. Man, WASPs have some weird genes.

● Merely eccentric wealthy people tend to be a lot more functional, and one of them, Madame Ganna Walska, left behind the coolest, most variegated, enchanting garden I have ever been to, Lotusland in Montecito, California. If you are ever in the Santa Barbara area and have a few hours, go. It is absolutely worth the steep admission fee ($35). They sometimes do free-tour days, but those are tough to get.

● I have a little kitchen garden, and bugs and weeds get in it all the time, which MAKES ME SO ANGRY. These people can help: the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program. Caution: this site’s mesmerizing level of visual and written detail, along with its intense dedication to helping you do the practical stuff that keeps a garden functional, will take up lots of your free time, if you garden.

● Aesthetics aside, we also need more working gardens in urban neighborhoods that lack decent grocery stores. Gardens are nice to walk through and look at, but they can also help bring down America’s catastrophic rates of obesity and diabetes, scourges that are concentrated in the places where poor people live. From the LA Times, here is a touching story about how kids in a scruffy part of Los Angeles are maintaining local garden clubs.

● Here is a snapshot of Wallace Stevens watering his rose garden in  West Hartford, Connecticut sometime in the 1930s. Note that he is wearing a suit. The image is housed in the archives of The Huntington Library in Pasadena, which also happens to maintain some astonishing gardens; the photographer is unknown.

Stevens watering roses - mid 1930s - Huntington archive

● And here is that scene from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland that has inspired thousands of budding artists and similar weirdos, and subtly terrified millions of children more.

● We’ll leave you with some more music. Have a listen to the Stone Temple Pilots’ corny but energizing “Wicked Garden” (the garden seems to be a metaphor for something). Kind of fun to mute the Alice clip above and play this:

● . . . or maybe you should just stick with Beethoven’s 6th, the “Pastoral” symphony:



One thought on “Garden Party

  1. Pingback: Topical Verse: Summer | The General Reader

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