The Garden as Form

Michael Marder

This is not your garden-variety reflection on gardens.

It is, in fact, extremely difficult to think about gardens, at a carefully calibrated distance thinking requires, because our minds are awash with positive, sentimental, and nostalgically inflected cultural associations with these cultivated, carefully manicured green spaces. Forests connote danger and darkness, disorientation and wild life, both animal and vegetal; gardens are the products of life’s taming and domestication, as much cultural as they are natural. The former jolt thinking into action; the latter are the tranquilizers that put thought to sleep. The outward signs of aesthetic excess, gardens are also indicative of how we make sense of the world, even if their geometrical arrangement happens to be labyrinthine, as in Renaissance Europe, or if they purposefully blend and conflate organic and inorganic shapes, as in some of the traditional Chinese gardens.

In the course of writing these lines, I am facing a small garden through a glass partition that, though generally transparent, reflects parts of my desk and myself. Perspective matters: are we contemplating gardens from the inside, looking out, or from the outside, prying into them? The perspective in question is not only visual but also conceptual. To restate, then: are we focusing on the contents of a garden, the mélange of living beings that inhabit or pass through it — grass, bushes, flowers, trees, bees, mosquitoes, birds, spiders, worms, the microorganisms dwelling in the soil, and, last but not least, ourselves — or on the environmental form that hedges them (and us) in? Should we consider the garden in terms of an ephemeral generalization of cross-pollinations, interspecies synergies, hybridizations, let alone frictions, struggles, and downright conflicts simmering there often outside the sphere of our attention and control, we would imagine it as a space of freedom. Should we start from the formal limit that defines it, however, we would discern something else entirely, namely an enclosure, within which the most diverse beings are primed for appropriation.

Stressing more the perimeter than the territory it encompasses, garden relates not to what it guards but to how living things are guarded. In a sleight-of-hand, the word itself has changed its semantic form by switching from an adjective, which it was in the Vulgar Latin expression hortus gardinus (“enclosed garden”), to a noun. In the process, it usurped the positive meaning of the milieu it had previously circumscribed in a merely negative manner. Form became content.

The act of guarding guards things for and against something. The guarding of the garden detains the plants growing there and the small ecosystems that develop around them for the purpose of capturing, securely holding, and finally possessing whatever lies within its confines. The capture is, by and large, ideal rather than real, and it converts the actual appropriation of a plot of land destined to be a garden into a sign of proprietary power. Is it an accident that, traditionally, the physical seats of power (say, the royal palaces) are surrounded by magnificent and extensive gardens? Ideal capture peaks in the conceptual relation of knowing. The concept seizes conceptualized matter with the phantom hand of abstract thought. The garden is nature conceptualized, guarded in a seemingly innocuous form as the reminder of a threat neutralized, of “monstrous” growth subdued.

The garden is the form of form, a meta-order bent on preserving order as such…

What the garden guards against is the intrusion of others who do not belong there. It is not enough to wall off or fence in a territory to accomplish this negative function: insects, birds, airborne seeds, rodents, and pollen breach the perimeter and disturb humanly planned configurations. Additionally, the others may be the cultivated plants themselves that overgrow the boundaries, shapes, and structures horticulture has slotted them into. In the garden, too, vegetal otherness makes it slow but inexorable comeback, frustrating our landscaping blueprints.

To ward off external intruders, some gardeners resort to herbicides, insecticides, repellants, and other poisons, unleashed as part of the global toxic flood we are living or dying through nowadays. Within the rigid confines of what the garden guards, trying to ensure the purity of the species gathered there, these are the undifferentiated chemical killers that affect everything and everyone on their path. The stricture of controlled difference, which is the garden, relies on lethal indifference and non-differentiation for its consolidation.

Against the internal disruption of garden architecture by the “good” plants it admits, topiary, pleaching, pruning, bonsai cultivation, tree shaping or tree training and other similar techniques are deployed. Trunks, branches, stalks, and leaves are brought into line and made to follow certain lines and patterns, as though plants were mere materials in need of form, as though, that is, vegetal matter had no living forms proper to and coemergent with it. The garden, then, is the form of form, a meta-order bent on preserving order as such, whether it guards its contents against the trespassing others or serves to consolidate the proprietary power.

In this somewhat depressing light, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden displays new hermeneutical hues. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are marked out as different from the plants and animals that inhabit that paradisiac space, because, unlike the nonhuman species, they are the guarded guardians of the rest of creation. They are responsible for the garden, where they nevertheless live as some precious and rare flowers, without having any sort of perspective of their milieu. Human creatures are only capable of relating to it as garden once they find themselves outside it, even if they are still physically situated on its territory, as in the stretch of time between the moment of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and that of their judgment, sentencing, and expulsion. In effect, their sin — the primordial sin, to be precise — is that they defied the divine ownership of paradise by trespassing the formal limit God drew at the heart of it. (Could it be that the true object of knowledge they acquired as they bit into the forbidden fruit was the concept of private property, from which the proprietorship over their own naked bodies and the corresponding experience of shame was derivative?)

At any rate, it is by virtue of Eden being a garden that the expulsion of Adam and Eve is effective. The first woman and man were a privileged part of paradise guarded for God’s amusement, satisfaction, or some other reason; after the fall, the place they used to belong to is guarded against them. Supplanting the forbidden fruit that, circumscribed by the formal divine prohibition, represented a garden within the garden, the entire paradisiac form becomes off-bounds, set apart from the mundane space for existence. This begs the question: if paradise is literally an enclosure or a walled-off garden, then was it prepared by God in his perfect foreknowledge to keep some aspects of creation out, notably the humans? And the reverse also holds: while paradise is not just a garden but the formal being-garden of a garden, every garden is a paradise… in the worst possible sense of the word.

Whither went the fallen beings that were expelled from the Garden of Eden? Certainly not into the forest, which is bereft of enclosures, but into a world lacerated by fences, walls, private property with either actual or implied No trespassing! signs, and, therefore, into a world of gardens, if not into the world as garden, currently mutating into a desert at a dizzyingly fast pace. Something of the forest admittedly survives in the garden, as well. I am referring to what I earlier called “vegetal otherness,” continually challenging the aesthetic form foisted onto the cultivated plants.

Vegetal otherness is the otherness of matter itself, thwarting the forms that temporarily overlay it.

Now, vegetal otherness is the otherness of matter itself, thwarting the forms that temporarily overlay it. The garden is matter spiritualized — rendered familiar, quelled, and mastered — through an act of formalization, but it is always on the verge of deformalization and, indeed, of self-deformalization. The forest breaks through the form of the garden, as the garden’s own recoil from the inflexible limitations it imposes on its contents. It is akin to a feral cat, who so astonishingly quickly loses the genetic memory of domestication. But this is not to say that the forest is formless or spiritless; rather, it harbors a form that, far from an enclosure, flourishes in and with matter. No longer acquainted with such a unity, we experience its effects as sudden disruptions and obstacles on the ideal and ideally unperturbed path of our concepts and projects. We have all but repressed this nonformal form foreign to the garden, one that guards nothing but the future of growth, unfolding, development — hence, guards everything without the residual possession and mastery inherent to guardianship.

Avid gardeners are likely to raise a series of objections to the argument regarding the formality of their beloved environment. Isn’t gardening an open-ended experimentation often proceeding in the dark, both with respect to its outcomes and the below-ground level where surprising alliances are forged and battles are waged? Doesn’t this activity give up on immutable plans and programs still before it commences, and doesn’t it, consequently, come to terms with failure, modestly aspiring only to fail better next time? Having a green thumb is possessing a special gift to collaborate with plants, the sun and the shade, the soil and water, so as to encourage the garden’s flourishing. So, how can one impute any degree of formalism or idealism to gardening?

Such objections are valid only inasmuch as they represent an internal perspective on the garden. They do not in the least touch upon the garden itself as form, notably as a form guarding over its contents and warding off potential intruders. They do not, therefore, address what I am tempted to dub the problem of guardening. A fruitful reaction to the problem could be loosening the boundaries separating the inside from the outside of the garden, including those that, cutting through its heart, are associated with vegetal otherness. In practical terms, “rewilding” corresponds to a liberation of vegetal growth from the selectivity, size limitations, shaping, and other human impositions. At the extreme, it reinvents the garden as a miniature forest. Yet, this solution does not go nearly far enough in diminishing the garden’s proprietary vigilance. For one, it guards an illusion that we are powerful enough, in our conscious rejection of mastery and dominance, to bring back the past of wilderness and to erase a long history of human-plant interactions that have profoundly influenced the two parties to the relation. For another, it preserves a form that has been sundered from matter, just in a softer, more porous and malleable version.

In order to tackle the problem of gardening (or of guardening) at its root, it is necessary to give the garden a different form, or, better yet, to refrain from bestowing a form on it. We would need to let the garden’s form — the form that is the garden — develop from matter itself, no longer worrying about its perimeter. Which means expanding the definition to symbioses of plants previously unrecognizable as a garden. Letting the garden be, refraining from form-bestowal, should we do nothing? Not exactly. What appears as “doing nothing” is actually taking a step back from matter to form and, through this retrogression, acting on the latter. To let the garden be otherwise is to hasten its deformalization and to see to it that the garden’s stiff form would disintegrate, so much so that it would become, perhaps, a garden without a garden, which amounts to a garden without guarding.

Although my suggestion sounds a lot like rewilding, it goes further than that. Instead of loosening the garden’s limits, its formal makeover foregoes the enclosure and allows the garden to grow from the interactions among its various participants, be they organic or inorganic. In the absence of a prior circumscription, according to which form is an empty container haphazardly filled with sundry elements of matter, it would not figure as property, and certainly not as private property. There will be no one to guard and plenty of human and nonhuman actors to care for it. Paradise lost might not be such a bad thing, after all.


Image credit: Anaïs Tondeur, The Dryas Project, photograms, 120x 170cm


This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig


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