A shadow fell across the earth yesterday. Not an all-encompassing darkness. Not a clear round shadow tracking its path across the earth. Instead, more of a weird pale diffusion of the light that streams to earth. Look up - shove those black plastic glasses on - and you could see the pale orange halo of fire around a circle of darkness. How strange that our moon, that silver sphere of powdery rock, could - by some whim of physics and geometry - be the exact distance and diameter to temporarily eclipse the sun.
Eclipse-watchers lay flat in the back of pickup trucks, sprawled on hillsides with bottles of wine, sand-angeled in the desert. All gazing up at the sky. All hushed in awe, in reverence, in worship of the planets in the sky. Under the crepe myrtles - or where my colleague held out a plastic colander - the concrete flickered with hundreds of dancing crescents of light. Each burst of light mimicking the sun and moon, coinciding again for the first time in 99 years.
Does it really take an event of cosmic grandeur to draw the attention of modern screen-savvy air-conditioned Americans to the natural world? Our continent is full of incredible beauty. The giant redwoods are here, guarding our Pacific shores. The Rocky Mountains rise craggily up above the western plains. The Mississippi surges, muddy brown, in an unforgettable swath through the middle of our continent. The Everglades fringe our southeastern shores. Why do we sever the beauty of landscape from our daily experience?
Back when every human had a daily struggle with the physical world, we held a different understanding of landscape. Rather than thinking of ourselves as something separate to nature, humans had an embodied daily relationship to the places where the lived, the other beings with which they shared the landscape, and the cycles of weather and light which shaped experience of each day. Native American First Peoples are perhaps the most obvious examples of cultures which saw humans completely enmeshed in a network of beings and ecological systems - not separate from the landscapes in which they lived. (Listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conversation on “The Intelligence in all Kinds of Life” with Krista Tippett of the podcast On Being for a thoughtful perspective on Potawatomi beliefs about humans’ relationship to landscape.)
Animism (“the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls” per Dictionary.com) isn’t restricted to First Peoples Americans. Across the globe, humans have ascribed spiritual power to specific landscapes and landscape elements. In the Japanese Shinto tradition, specific landscape elements such as rivers and stones were said to host the spirits of gods, known as kami. (GOTO, S. & NAKA (2015). JAPANESE GARDENS: symbolism and design, pg 65) In Balinese Hinduism, the landscape is understood through the lens of a sacred orientation - called the kaja-kelod axis. Kaja is the direction of the mountains (where the gods live), kelod is the direction of the ocean - where the mysteries and evil reside. Such an understanding of the landscape is augmented by beliefs in the sacred nature of specific landscape elements. Banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis), for example are believed to host the god Krishna, since he rested in one of its leaves in between destroying and recreating the universe. And, of course, most familiar in the western garden design tradition - the Roman tradition of Genius loci, or guardian spirit of a place.
During the late classical revival in England, British designers and thinkers appropriated the idea of the genius loci and interpreted it - not as the persona of a deity that inhabited a place, but as the body of qualities that make that place unique. Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays, Epistle VI “Of the Use of Riches”, a long-winded satirical poem on the follies of extravagance in architecture and landscape design, signifies the transition of the idea from that of personhood to abstract qualities of a landscape:
“Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work designs.”
In contemporary landscape architecture parlance, that’s “consider drainage, grading, and the surrounding landscape”. Not exactly profound insight.
Today, the terms Genius loci and “spirit of place” are used generically to describe the character of a landscape. Ted Relph has a full website, Placeness.com, devoted to exploring this concept. Lawrence Durrell wrote a full book about the topic in 1969, titled Spirit of Place. So did Christian Norberg-Schulz. Kevin Lynch looked at specific qualities of place in cities.
This proliferation of study and discussion demonstrates that designers and planners are attempting to create places with the same emotional tug as memorable natural landscapes. But, somehow, our human works don’t have the same impacts. Maybe we’re all animists at heart. Regardless of our struggle, the universe’s wonders continue to eclipse our human efforts with their awe-inspiring beauty.
I come from a family comfortable with teetering back and forth on the ledge of cognitive dissonance between faith and the scientific method. My father likes the consistent laws of physics. An egg couldn’t fall off the counter without becoming subject of an object lesson on calculating trajectories, velocity, and force upon impact. Same with chemistry. Us children would cry over spilt milk, not because it was wasted, but because we’d get drawn into endless practical calculations of temperature effects on evaporation and absorption rates of different household surfaces. After which we’d go into unironic discussions of Noah’s flood and apocalyptic Revelations.
With such a pluralist upbringing, I’ve no patience for fundamentalism. Both in life and in gardens.
Like making scrambled eggs in the household where I grew up, making a garden involves navigating systems of values that merge clearly-ordered physical systems with subjective aesthetic and psychological considerations. Thanks to the messy nature of human experience of physical reality, garden-making is a complex field of intention and interactions. In making a garden, people pay distinct attention to a specific place and its component parts, manipulating it to enhance specific aesthetic and functional qualities. Involvement with a garden is basically a smaller, more concentrated version of our personal approaches to presence in the wider universe. Which puts us squarely in ethics territory.
Merriam-Webster defines the term “ethic” as “a set of moral principles; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group professional ethics; a guiding philosophy.” So, a garden ethic involves a set of principles or values that determine how we make decisions in garden-making. Each of us has a garden (or landscape) ethic - usually a grubby mental treasure map compiled from received wisdom and personal experience. Many of us just don’t know how to articulate or clearly lay out these values and the ways that they influence our decision-making process in gardening and garden design.
I always struggled with the idea of a “concept” in design school. It took me ages to figure out that this concept business wasn’t necessarily some big explicit narrative. Not until my full entire semester seminar dedicated to The Theory of Landscape Architecture did I realize that a “concept” is just the primary premise of a garden. Why are you making this garden? What’s your intention for its function? What values are driving your choices?
To some degree, all gardens are “conceptual”. They all have some idea underlying them. Even a whiskey barrel stuffed with seed-grown 6-pack petunias has the basic intention of providing bright flower color in a bleak environment. On ThinkinGardens, Jay Sifford writes about designing a garden with the concept of enhancing light effects in his beech wood by blocking in masses of light- and dark-foliaged plants. Continuing the conversation, Charlie Bloom wrote about her Colourbox No-Concept Garden - which takes a similar approach to Jay’s garden, in focusing on aesthetic effects rather than an explicit narrative. Some conceptual gardens - such as those you’ll see at the Chaumont-sur-Loire, Hampton Court, or Cornerstone Sonoma - will be more explicit or literal in their concepts. The intention for the weirder of these gardens is to push new materials or explore what a garden can do. However, in wider conversations about gardens and garden design, I’d argue that the way forward is to create a more sophisticated and nuanced conversation around garden ethics.
Outside academia and a few garden shows, our industry hasn’t been great about articulating the ethics of garden-making. Usually, a garden is presented as fulfilling one of three primary functions: edible, ecological, or ornamental. Edible gardens prioritize providing for human physical needs. Ecological gardens are typically focused on needs of other species, replicating wild plant combinations and providing habitat. Ornamental gardens are primarily for human aesthetic enjoyment - lots of large brightly colored flowers. These three intentions to a garden are often presented as antagonistic - or even mutually exclusive.
However, to me, there’s not much value in taking an “either/or” approach to garden ethics. Just as it’s possible to hold both an understanding of scientific research methods and fantastical historical allegories, so it’s possible to take a pluralistic approach to accumulating a garden ethic. I don’t just want essays, white papers, & research reports. Bring me poetry, allegories, narratives and songs - then we’ll be well on the way to developing a richer, more sophisticated garden ethic.