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The Garden in the Anthropocene Era

Stuart Wrede

The garden has historically mediated between man and nature, reflecting how cultures see themselves in relation to nature, and at best embodying the symbolic meanings and myths that nature and the cosmos hold for us. Today, the dominant industrial culture that pervades the world and has its roots in the west has no such vital garden culture.(1) In working with my own projects, I have often pondered the issue, because the absence is so glaring, especially now that we are again becoming aware of how interdependent we are with nature, the earth and the cosmos, and how destructive of nature we have become. One may speculate that over the last few centuries, man has come to see himself as finally having established control and domination over nature, and thus not felt the need for a mediating artform such as the garden. Or perhaps the problem goes much deeper, to the very roots of western culture. Perhaps the fundamental problem in how western man conceived his relationship to nature lay in the very earliest myth of Paradise and the expulsion. Expelled from paradise, an essentially impossible ideal of benign nature, man came to conceive his relation to actual nature as adversarial. Nature as it existed was threatening and had to be subjugated. Armed with the apple of knowledge, man set about subjugating it, and in the last few centuries has succeeded to the point of threatening both nature and himself. Today one might half seriously ask, what was the original sin? Eating the apple of knowledge or inventing the myth of paradise and expulsion? In contrast, in the Far East, no such expulsion from paradise myth existed. Man saw nature as reflecting the cosmic order. His highest purpose was to understand it and live in harmony with it.

In the Gothic period, when the Christian church stood at its apex, spectacular cathedrals were built. They mediated between man and God. In contrast, the garden, most often an ancillary cloister courtyard, was a modest affair, as were artistic depictions of paradise gardens. They were symbols of something beyond, and medieval man never really gave form to what paradise might look like if it were fully fleshed out. With the advent of the Renaissance and humanist culture, the garden came into its own, but with a secular, human-oriented focus, even though, ironically, many of the great early Italian gardens were commissioned by cardinals of the church vying to become Pope. Over the next 300 years, three major garden styles were to evolve and flourish as significant reflections of the prevailing culture. Each successive style evolved in relation to the previous, as well as being influenced by the topography and climate where it evolved. However, all looked back to antiquity and the classical world for inspiration. Nevertheless, their references to temples, statues, grottoes and water features, recalling ancient myths and deities, had more to do with humanist erudition than with any real belief. The paradise garden remained as a reference point, but was transformed into a worldly pleasure garden which, especially in Italy, overflowed with sensual water displays. The French garden, grander, more ordered and less playful than the Italian, came to reflect the centralised, absolutist state that evolved in France. The later English garden, with its informal but idealised nature (an aesthetic influence from Japan), was seen as reflecting, in contrast to the French, the more liberal English political order, as well as the virtues of English civic ideals.

If one is to criticize the western garden traditions, traditions that have after all produced any number of delightful gardens, it is a criticism that is directed more at the culture itself, rather than the gardens. To put it concisely; the Christian tradition ephasized the relationship of man to God; the classical Greco-Roman renaissance tradition emphasized man, his power and pleasures. Neither put the emphasis on man´s relationship with nature, the earth and the cosmos. 

To put the western garden tradition in perspective, one can compare it to the Japanese garden art, representing an eastern tradition influenced by Shinto, Tao and Buddhism. Japanese cosmology and the Japanese landscape were intimately intertwined and formed the inspiration for garden design, which in turn was closely tied to wider religious and cultural beliefs. The depth, subtlety and resonance of meaning far exceed western models. 

As much as western gardens reflected their prevailing cultures, it was the culture of a small elite. This proved problematic in light of subsequent cultural and political developments. The Enlightenment put an end to the symbiosis between western garden culture and the elite. As both democratic and later socialist political movements evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, and an increasingly rationalist and utilitarian worldview came to prevail, gardens were seen as a useless and decadent playground and power display for the wealthy, whose time was past. With the advent of modernism, sporadic private efforts have been made to revitalise garden culture by drawing inspiration from the formal language of modern art. With a few exceptions, the results have mostly been formalist and decorative, and they have not found a wider cultural constituency. (2)

By the mid-19th century, a more utilitarian style of landscape design made its appearance, as industrialisation was causing increasingly rapid urbanisation. Chaotic growth required urban planning and urban sanitation. The urban park, with light, air and recreation for all, became a major focus. Exemplary urban parks were laid out in major western cities. While they drew formal inspiration from various earlier garden cultures, especially the English, they were driven by utilitarian considerations. They were, however, major civic undertakings. Today the utilitarian approach continues to dominate landscape design. Making major infrastructure projects and commercial developments more palatable to the public is probably at the top of the agenda for most landscape architects. Even the urban park has lost its central civic role as development has become increasingly decentralised, diffuse and suburbanised. Ironically, the rapidly expanding suburban and exurban population has probably exponentially increased the amount of gardening actually done, as people tend their lawns and plant their flowerbeds in search of their own small private paradise, as a refuge from the surrounding development. But it has not produced a vital common garden culture that would begin to reflect a new consciousness of mans relationship to nature. 

In his seminal book The Machine in the Garden (3) and later in his article ”The American Ideology of Space”(4), Leo Marx analysed western cultural attitudes to nature from an American perspective, which very much pervades the world today. He argues that for the prevailing dominant culture, nature and land has value only in that it can be economically exploited. This has proved to be true everywhere today, regardless of political ideology. Herein lies the crux of the ecological crises and our culture’s dilemma today.

However, as early as the 19th century, a minority dissenting tradition of pastoral idealism emerged, whose representatives fought to save extraordinary and beautiful natural habitats and landscapes from exploitation. Those who embraced it can be thanked for the existence of various national parks that have been established around the world. While aesthetics and a sense of sublime nature drove these early pioneers, the efforts of today’s dissenting activists to save wetlands, rainforests, rivers and oceans are driven more by scientific data. 

Early pastoral idealism had its roots in the Romantic Movement, which emerged in force in the art and literature of the early 19th century. In an increasingly secularised world, driven by the Enlightenment, traditional Christian iconography had lost much of its power to move people. Writers and artists instead sought a renewed sense of the sacred and the sublime in nature. Two leading early romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner, are exemplary. Friedrich’s often spare paintings, of carefully composed archetypal landscape elements that take on symbolic meaning, still resonate powerfully today. So does Turner’s almost abstract use of colour and light to evoke sublime landscapes. Turner’s quote, ”God is the sun”, sums things up rather well.(5)

In his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic tradition(6) Robert Rosenblum traces this impulse to revitalise the spiritual from Friedrich and Turner via a number of northern landscape painters to the early modernist movement, when a significant number of the avant-garde sought a similar spirituality in pure abstract forms and colours, thus establishing a thematic continuity between 19th century romantic landscape painting and a significant strand of modernism. However, standard histories of the development of modern art tended to lose sight of this continuity of theme, focusing instead on composition, technique, colour and secular subject matter. As the early modernists, particularly the Futurists, the Constructivists and the De Stijl group, polemicized for a new art inspired by the machine, the urban metropolis and new ways of seeing, they simultaneously denigrated the romantic landscape painters as hopelessly passé and sentimental in a modern industrial world. In this culture war, nature lost to the machine, the urban metropolis and an increasingly mechanized man.

Today we realise that we need to reassess our relationship to nature and the earth. Ongoing political activism to save rainforests, oceans and the atmosphere and stop a host of other environmentally destructive activities are having some effect. This activism is in the front lines of the practical efforts to change things. But if we do not find a way to change the broader culture’s view of our relationship to the earth, it is questionable whether we will succeed. Political activism, education, and scientific and technological efforts are essential, but there also has to be an artistic dimension to give vision to a new sensibility. Graphs and statistics illuminate but they hardly excite the soul. Since it is man’s relationship to nature and the earth that is the focus of the crisis, the garden is the most natural artistic and historic medium to give expression to this new sensibility, to symbolically capture a new metaphysical relationship between man and nature. 

One assumes that primitive man instinctively knew that he was intricately linked to nature, the earth and the cosmos. A few Thousand years of civilisation, when man assumed he stood at the centre and everything revolved around him and his god, lies between our newly rediscovered understanding of our intimate connection to nature, earth and the cosmos and that of primitive man. We come to this realisation with a new, perhaps more enlightened, and certainly more hard-earned perspective, and hopefully with the will and ability to live harmoniously with the earth. But if we truly feel it in our gut, we, like our ancestors, will stand in awe of what we are a part of. Perhaps the garden, like the cathedral of old, can manifest our sense of wonder. The garden as mediator between man, nature and the cosmos needs to become an integral part of the larger transformed culture.

  1. Though there exists a large body of modern landscape design, a considerable amount of high quality and there probably are some private gardens that seek to deal with more metaphysical issues of modern mans relationship to nature and the cosmos, I would maintain that there simply does not exists a serious garden culture identified with the pervading modern society.
  2. The exception can be said to be the landscapes of cemeteries, where deeper and universal symbolic motifs have sometimes led to outstanding results, such as Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm.
  3. Leo Marx The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964.
  4. Leo Marx “The American Ideology of Space”, published in Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the 20th Century.
    Editors: Stuart Wrede and William Howard Adams, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1991.
  5. Jeremy Lewison Turner, Monet, Twombly: Sent måleri, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2011
  6. Robert Rosenblum Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, Harper & Row, New York, 1975.