Unreal Nature

October 1, 2016

A Jar

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… gardens have been said to represent the larger world outside them.

This is from the essay ‘The Garden as Cultural Object’ by John Dixon Hunt found in Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century edited by Stuart Wrede and William Howard Adams (1991):

Let me begin by establishing four markers by which to orient the historical discussions that follow and to provide a context for consideration of the modern garden. They are, if you like, conclusions in advance of my concluding.

First, I would quote the first half of Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The Wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.

For our present purposes what interests me in this poem is its recognition that the introduction of a work of art into the unmediated wilderness of nature alters both, though it is wilderness that seems more changed. Gardens, too, are jars, set down in otherwise untouched landscape, and part of their function and interest is that they alter their surroundings by their presence.

Second, I would invoke two Renaissance writers, Jacopo Bonfadio and Bartolomo Taegio, each of whom introduced a fundamental but unregarded concept into the study of gardens when he wrote of them as resolving the ancient antithesis of art and nature and thereby, as creating or constituting a “third nature” (terza natura), whose name, one of them says, is unknown. These first two propositions address the dialectic between culture and nature.

Third, gardens have often been, from the very earliest examples, an exercise in what modern historians have termed invented tradition. Gardens are created, adapted, or used to provide spaces and forms of a ritual or symbolic nature that inculcate certain values and norms of behavior having an implied continuity with the past; indeed, they often seek to establish continuity with a suitable historic past that could be objective not idealized but is largely factitious.

[line break added] Some of the most conspicuous examples of invented garden traditions will occur (as the historians make clear about other forms) when society undergoes rapid transformations: in the Italian Renaissance new princes of church and state used gardens to signal their new place in the tradition of antique villa life; in the English nineteenth century, the remarkable, sometimes hilarious invocations of historical styles of gardening — Italianate or Dutch — suggest the instant formulation of “new” traditions to bolster the social aspirations of an emergent upper middle class. The cottage garden is another such invented tradition, but so was the medieval jardin d’amour.

Finally, gardens historically have been a representational art, until the late eighteenth century, although this perception of their function has been lost, or at least overlooked. With the same theoretical justifications as painting and literature, gardens have been said to represent the larger world outside them. Labyrinths represented the wilderness; mounts, mountains; pergola walks, paths through the forest; fountains, springs or waterfalls. When the idea of garden as a representational work of art was abandoned at the end of the eighteenth century, a long-standing role of gardens was potentially lost, even though some late twentieth-century gardens seem to have recovered something of that function.

[ … ]

… The medieval peasant toiling to obtain a basic subsistence from a small vegetable garden has perspectives upon that plot that are wholly different from those of the modern, suburban man who reinvents contact with the soil or re-creates, if not Eden, an ecologically virtuous spot, a cordon sanitaire against biochemical pollution.

-Julie

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