That gardening teaches life lessons is, perhaps, trite. Truisms usually are. They have been observed for a long time, after all. Gardening teaches patience, forbearance, a sense of order and sequence. Gardening requires attention to detail, attention to environs, and the notion of working with rather than working against.
Gardening for food and gardening for aesthetics need not conflict but there is an urgency about growing food that can reduce the pleasure of gardening. Gardening for food veers towards farming and agriculture, where success means livelihood or profit. To garden is an avocation, while growing food is a business — that is the dangerous attitude towards which one can slide if gardening gets too serious. The pleasure of growing not food but, say, flowers and landscape plants, on the other hand, must be governed by aesthetics as much as science or logic, but can seem without practical end. For this there is the edible landscape. Permiculture takes into account the interplay of needs in the life of microbes, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals and humans. That is the ideal. Many of these gardening styles are the revival of traditional methods but with a new philosophy born out of witnessing the ugly and destructive habits of recent time. A guiding principle is that of belonging with, of working with.
Growing organically is like living organically, always conscious of self and environs. Thus, finding an insect on a food plant ought to be informative, not a source of panic — another lesson. Insects tell us about our environment, about the quality of the soil, about the health of the plant. If the garden is healthy, the appearance of a pest will be followed by the appearance of a beneficial insect. Again, a lesson for life.
The overriding lesson is the cycle of nature, the give and take, the time for this and the time for that. Done too early, we fail, too late and the same result. Even when gardening in optimum conditions, something in nature may challenge or overthrow everything. Or we may be overly scrupulous, or take too much for granted, both with bad consequences. The cycle of the garden is the cycle of life. We cannot oppose it; we ought to work in harmony with it.
Here is a digression on primitivism, the psychology of which appears at first helpful in dissecting the ills of modern society, but which takes us in an unbalanced direction. Primitivism rues the desolation of modern civilization but traces its roots to agriculture. According to this theory, agriculture collectivized free individuals under a central authority bound to be abusive, corrupting, and destructive. Agriculture was mass production to service the elite. Agriculture was a necessary condition for the leisure of the elite, which is to say, for the products of civilization.
But the hunter-gatherer state posited as the original free state of human beings is itself — like agriculture in this scenario — not the peaceful coexistence with nature here supposed. The small tribes and groups who roamed the forests and plains hunting animals would itself be the microcosm of control that primitivism abhors. The killing and consuming of animals in this scenario is not only violent in itself but makes for social values based on violence and control of others. The small numbers of primordial peoples presumably meant that society was structured horizontally and that discontented individuals could easily leave and attach themselves to other groups. But those individuals with what today would be called “leadership skills” would inevitably amass possessions, lord it over others, and soon create a system of control. Would not such a system quickly evolve into centralized authority and create agriculture? Is not the root of civilization’s woes intrinsic to human beings rather than to agriculture or any other collective practice?
The contemporary primitivist probably may, then, reluctantly grow plants for food in the garden, daydreaming about primordial and wandering peoples. The primitivist’s scenario is often used today to justify the consuming of animals and animal products. The roundabout method is a backyard or farm setting with animals to consume, which however, still mimics agriculture, though, of course, the “free-range” idea is far removed from the factory farm and the slaughterhouse. Or is it? A radical notion of the autonomy of animals would prefer not to capture and kill them when other foods, healthier and at less environmental cost, are readily available. But to enter the whole debate on this topic is beyond the scope of these notes. Suffice to say that there remains an odd incongruity to the argument that animals and plants are the same when treated as food. End of digression.
The Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka offered “natural farming” as the paradigm in his book The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka’s method and scale essentially resolves the dilemma of growing plants for food without becoming agriculture. That this practice would revolutionize modern society and culture is clear. His presentation has no weaknesses other than challenging a whole system of feeding billions. The revolution is not so much in how to grow food as in how to wrest wealth and power from the keepers of technology. As in other spheres of modern life, agriculture delegates to a set of powerful interests all the control and methods of food production, representing the loss of self-sufficiency and community sensibility. To follow Fukuoka’s paradigm is to drop agriculture, but not to destroy the fruits of civilization.
Perhaps the form of gardening that most evokes a sense of creativity is not related to food-growing. Not mythical Eden, though perhaps the showcase gardens of Shalamar or the Alhambra overlap. The aesthetics of such non-food gardens is an expression of wealth and status. Far less creative are the luxuriant English lawns of which moderns are so fond. The vast spans were merely expressions of wealth, displays of disdain for those who must use their property to grow food, versus the rich who ostentatiously exhibit their excess space as a byproduct of their money and power. They need not stoop to growing their own food. Add topiary to amuse a certain taste. Perhaps an ornamental hermit, as in the luxurious estates of 18th-century Britain. Coupled with modern agriculture and monopoly practices, there is enough offense to engender peasant revolts, wherein land is considered precious if but utilitarian. The romantic would not have calloused hands but would sympathize.
The Japanese garden carries an aesthetics that reflects life. The arrangements are made to conform with, if not outright mimic, nature and natural settings. There is more philosophy in this art than ostentatious display, and that is a redeeming factor. Indeed, the aesthetics may jar the Western sensibility. For while the owners of Japanese gardens were perhaps social and economic counterparts of European luxury gardens, the philosophy differs in evoking not human or civilized presence. Where the European garden is unmistakeably contrived to boast of a human author or arranger, the Japanese garden, in keeping with Eastern culture, seeks to efface its designer, to withdraw the sense of human intervention, and to project only nature (admittedly as conceived by the designer), or the essence of what nature is. The Sakuteiki of Tachibana no Toshitsuna, the 11th-century manual on garden design, is the basic text on principles of the Japanese garden.
Japanese gardens evolved from the wealthy stroll garden to the ascetic meditation garden, to the functional tea garden. While the Sakuteiki was partly inspired by Chinese belief in what is today called Feng Shui, it is based more on indigenous Shinto belief, wherein spiritual beings inhabit all natural objects, and the interplay of natural forces from wind and light, to water and rocks, soil and plants, are to be captured and expressed in the garden’s design. A guiding justification for bringing nature close to the person’s dwelling is that few people can go out to natural settings and reside therein. Says Toshitsuna: “We should always remember that it is not practical for ordinary people to live in the depths of the mountains.” Most people are not going to become hermits, so a garden can at least bring the insights of nature to the average person, at least to some degree.
Thus, every detail of the Sakuteiki is an attempt to recreate the hermit’s natural setting. Stones are of particular relevance, the culmination of design and the infusion of spirit into the garden. They are balanced because nature is balanced. Because nature shifts light, water, and wind, but stones tend to stay where they are, Toshitsuna calls for the arrangement of stones to carry a sense of permanence and balance, but also of movement and animation:
If there are “running away” stones there must by “chasing” stones. If there are “leaning” stones there must by “supporting” stones. If there are “assertive” stones there must be “yielding” stones. If there are “upward-looking” stones there must be “downward-looking” stones. If there are “vertical” stones there must be “horizontal” stones.
Toshitsuna gives credence to the notion that Taoism influencesd Zen as much as Buddhism.
The Sakuteiki ends with a discourse on what is now called a Zen garden, which Toshitsuna called a “dry” garden or landscape: karesansui. Here Toshitsuna speaks almost exclusively of stones, and the reverence toward stones reflects the Shinto heritage of treating all natural objects, animate or inanimate, with respect. Not unlike ancient Celtic thought, the indigenous Japanese considered stones of particular interest as expressions of life and spirit — not merely impressive stones like the Celts might have preferred in the monoliths of a previous era (like Stonehenge) but in the smallest contemporary stones, too.
The Zen garden recreates a mountain or hillside without water, concentrating on the core of nature as emptiness. It is distinct from the food garden or other pleasure garden. Another lesson: all of them are different and address different aspects of nature and ourselves.
The lessons of gardening are limitless. Toshitsuna himself admits, at the close of his book, that he has tried to present many ideas about gardens and designs, but there are many other possibilities, including many, he admits, “too profound for me.” In this we can only agree.