Reframing the garden
Thoughts on gardens and grief, by David Lambert
I’ve long believed that gardens and the act of gardening are sites that can help us to hold and process many things, and that includes the broader environmental, political and social situation we find ourselves in. I have certainly found that to be true for me ever since I started gardening almost twenty years ago and only compounded further in the last few years. In this article David Lambert explores this idea, in particular relating to grief and the climate and biodiversity crisis.
Thoughts on gardens and grief, by David Lambert
In a now famous essay the American academic Jamaica Kincaid asked, ‘Why must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility that comes with being a human being?’She was talking about gardens – specifically Middleton Place, the famous plantation house near Charleston in South Carolina – as the product of enslaved labour. But the question resonates still wider.
The wonderful Black Lodge Press have a poster, Growing a Garden is a Beautiful and Radical Act. There is a long tradition of links between gardens and radical, even revolutionary, questions of the status quo. Here in the West it is seen in the guerrilla gardens of the 1970s in New York, the allotments and plotlands of post-war Essex, and in the extraordinary wartime gardens documented in Kenneth Helphand’s book Defiant Gardens: gardens made in ghettos, in front-line trench systems and in prisoner-of-war and internment camps.
In the Global South, in Latin America and in Africa, it is clearer still: control of the land and the means of food production is fiercely contested between indigenous communities and agro-chemical corporations such as Bayer-Monsanto. In Mexico, the milpa, the traditional three-sisters garden of maize, beans and squash, has become a symbol of resistance to GMO seeds and cheap US food which has devastated local environments and communities in Mexico in the wake of the 1994 NAFTAZapatista educationalists are exploring and reviving Mayan traditions of perennial forest gardens not only as part of celebrating indigenous culture, wisdom and identity but also as a ‘practical response to the bankruptcy of contemporary commercial agriculture and food distribution systems.’
This is all a long way from gardening as part of Western consumer culture – as exemplified by the Chelsea Flower Show. In 2022 the RHS announced the return of the show, promising ‘stunning garden designs, gorgeous floral displays and endless shopping.’In all cultures, throughout history, the gardens of the elite have been models of conspicuous consumption, resource-intensive spaces that benefit the lucky few rather than the majority. In this view, gardens are - as the Chelsea show again illustrated with a special category of show-garden - ‘sanctuaries’, places to escape, refuges, securely insulated from the world outside.
As if such a disconnect were possible let alone desirable. Every gardener knows what is happening in terms of biodiversity loss, plummeting numbers of invertebrates, insects, amphibians, songbirds. Every gardener sees it in a spadeful of soil – where are all the millipedes, centipedes, beetles, spiders, earthworms? - or in the dwindling numbers of returning migrant birds. Every gardener is dealing with ever-increasing pests and diseases spreading around the world on the back of climate change. And of course, every gardener is dealing with extreme and unpredictable weather, even in temperate areas. Far from being refuges, gardens afford a front-row seat on climate and ecological collapse.
Maybe we need to reframe gardens. It is deeply engrained, culturally as well as etymologically, that a garden is an enclosed place; boundaries are integral to the very idea of a garden. Beyond its walls or hedges, there is wilderness, industry, hostility, or even just other people and their property. But maybe in a time of unravelling certainties and securities, we need to reconsider that idea. Maybe we need to think of gardens as microcosms, places to help us process what is happening in the world and to connect with other than human lives.
Gardens are places of joy and of deep connection to the soil and the natural world. They are places of love; but equally, because it is the other side of the same coin, gardens are places of grief; grief for what is being lost, year on year. They are places of observation and reflection: where not only, as John Donne said, ‘it behoves us to be astonished,’ but also where Professor Kincaid’s ‘painful responsibility’ of being human is sharply experienced.
In the West, maybe we need gardens to help us reconnect with our vulnerability. Gardens are places where the unravelling of our world can be personal. We need to be undone by grief for what we love and are losing. If we don’t admit vulnerability, we can’t begin to address the toxic paradigm of mastery.
Derek Jarman wrote of his garden at Prospect Cottage on the shingle at Dungeness, ‘There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.’It has been described as a garden open to devastation, both physically – the nearby power plant, the relentless battering of the wind and salt spray – and emotionally – entangled as his plantings were with the loss of friends during the AIDS epidemic. His journal, Modern Nature, records both endless replanting of plants lost to storms, and a litany of dying friends and his own relentless decline.
The author of that description, Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, comments that in our modern Western culture there is lots of evidence of environmental loss, ‘but few places in which to experience it as loss, to even begin to consider that the diminishment of life that surrounds us on a daily basis is something to be really sad about, and on a personal level.’Gardens can offer that space, at the same time as being ‘sites for extraordinary reflections on life, beauty and community.’
A final thought: gardens also illustrate the wisdom of the Yoruba philosopher and activist, Bayo Akomolafe, who, in 2019, when Extinction Rebellion was taking to the streets, gave a talk entitled, “The times are urgent: let us slow down.”It was a profound and, for many, counter-intuitive response to XR’s Now or Never messaging. A gardener too understands the limits of their agency; that they are not in control of what happens, that things unfold according to rhythms and timings far beyond our understanding. Gardens are lessons in humility and of all virtues maybe that is the one most lacking in today’s discourse.
David Lambert has researched and campaigned for historic parks for most of his working life. He has been an academic historian with fellowships at the University of York and De Montfort; an expert adviser to Parliamentary select committees and bodies such as English Heritage and the National Trust and for twenty years helped spend Lottery money on public parks. In 2018, the full horror of the climate and ecological emergency broke over him and he has since then spent his time learning about and raising awareness of that emergency, with Extinction Rebellion in London and his home town of Stroud. In 2021 he was part of the Shell Seven who were found not guilty of criminal damage by a Crown Court jury. He continues to support civil disobedience but his time is increasingly devoted to community and environmental work in his local area.
David is being paid for this article.
Photo credit: Sui Searle
I’m interested in exploring the theme of this article further and would love to hear how gardens or the act of gardening holds you and perhaps helps you to process things in your life and in the world (or perhaps not, maybe the garden doesn’t do this for you). Feel free to comment below or hit reply to your email if you’re a subscriber and received this to your inbox.
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Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Sowers and Reapers: the unquiet world of a flower bed’, The New Yorker,,January 22, 2002, pp. 41-45.
https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/. Accessed 30/5/22. The wording has now been changed from ‘endless’ to ‘exclusive’, which in its own way is equally toxic.
Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, London: Vintage Books, 1991, p.3. The garden is the subject of a previous Radicle article by Carmen Sheridan (https://radicle.substack.com/p/a-garden-without-boundaries)
Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, ‘Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,’ in Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson ed., Queer Ecologies: sex, nature, politics, desire, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, pp.338; 344.
Link to “The Times are Urgent, Let Us Slow Down” video below. Bayo is also the subject of an earlier Radicle article (https://radicle.substack.com/p/how-do-we-decolonise)