Gardens and the human condition

Posted by: Heidi

June 18th, 2011 >> Books

I just finished reading another insightful and thought-provoking book, Gardens – An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. Drawing from literary, religious and scholarly sources, Harrison examines the human quest for happiness through centuries of gardens and gardeners, both real and fictional, and examines how gardens are connected with human thinking about mortality, creativity and what gives life meaning. 

While discussing how gardens have provided education, creative expression and sanctuary throughout time Harrison refers to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who was among those who taught by means of the garden. He used the garden to cultivate patience in his followers, “a serene acceptance of both what is given and what is withheld by life in the present.” 

I particularly enjoyed Harrison’s discussion of the “lost art of seeing” and how gardens can help us to regain it. He comments that “there exists in our era a tragic discrepancy between the staggering richness of the visible world and the extreme poverty of our capacity to perceive it.” Almost a century ago Rainer Maria Rilke hypothesized that it was the earth’s destiny to become invisible and that the process of transmutation of the visible to the invisible had begun to take place. Gardens can help us to rescue the world’s visibility and relearn the art of seeing.

In his novella Candide, the philosopher Voltaire famously urged us to “cultivate our garden” and Harrison reminds us of the nature of that responsibility and its enduring importance to humanity. Voltaire’s use of the  pronomial adjective “our” points to the world we share in common. Harrison explains that Voltaire’s view of the human condition was that “where history unleashes its destructive and annihilating forces, we must, if we are to preserve our sanity, to say nothing of our humanity, work against and in spite of them. We must seek out healing or redemptive forces and allow them to grow in us.” This is what it means to tend and cultivate our gardens.

If history consists of the endless conflict between the forces of destruction and the forces of cultivation then this book weighs in on the side of the latter. In so doing it strives to participate in the gardener’s vocation of care.

This book can be purchased in Canada here:
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

or in the US here:
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

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