Situated in the small town of Hummelo in the east of the Netherlands is the private garden of the renown Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, that poignantly reflects his usual loosely planted meadow style. The surrounding landscape is however a characteristic polder: flat and wet. Walking into the garden of Oudolf is like entering a completely different world, full of colours, uneven heights and unknown smells. Having to pass a high and thick hedge, one experiences the physical entering of another space. What exactly defines the entered space then as a garden? How does it differ from the surrounding farmland, the parks in the centre of town or the nearby nature reserve of the Veluwe? Where begins the garden and where precisely does it end?
At the end of the year’s gardening season we welcome you to the Learned Pig’s fourth series, Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices). While gardeners are finishing off their work to prepare their gardens for the upcoming winter months, we would like to invite you to reflect upon those garden spaces you might have entered, visited and walked through this year. Though the term ‘garden’ is entirely familiar, and brings to mind certain images, it is difficult to precisely define what we mean by the concept. In A Philosophy of Gardens, David E. Cooper writes: “pressed to say what I mean by the term, my response would be ‘The same as you who are pressing me mean by it – so you already know what I mean.” A garden is known since we can distinguish it from other spaces that are not gardens. Providing a fixed definition however, will only lead to the exclusion of certain gardens, since there are simply too many different kind of gardens to grasp them in a single definition.
The question “what is a garden” need not be heard as a request for a definition; it could be asked about how people experience and relate to gardens. Again, the significance of a garden is then not singular, but rather plural and mutable. In the Middle Ages for example, nuns would grow vegetables, fruits and nuts in their cloister gardens. Simultaneously, they would make that visitors and themselves could sit and rest for a little while in the garden, by placing benches and hiding niches within the garden space. The reason people would visit a cloister garden was not only to be safe, but also to access the knowledge the nuns possessed about growing and preserving food.
Later on, during the European Renaissance and Baroque period, gardens gained popularity and landscape design thrived in the world of the more wealthy. Still privately owned, gardens would not only reflect the power of the owners, but also functioned as spaces in which they could escape their manor houses during short strolls. For example, in 1699, William and Mary added new gardens to Hampton Court, which were so huge that one could walk a mile before reaching the wall. In Europe, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the outside world became more and more safe, a development which lead to a disappearance of thick and high fences around gardens. Nowadays, the significance of gardens has changed tremendously since less and less people have access to natural spaces, especially in urban zones. Gardens might then be visited to submerge oneself in the natural realm, as part of a search for an aesthetic experience, to learn about entities that are topically so separated from us, or to simply meet one and other.
An important question arises: how can gardens help us to understand the process of enclosure in other spheres?
Across the varied contributions that make up The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen season, the apparent romance of the garden undergoes a sustained questioning. In her piece Paradise Past, Manzar Saami explores how the notion of paradise is vivid in non-western societies such as Iran, the cradle for the well-known Persian Gardens. On the other hand, as Amanda Ackerman in The Book of Feral Flora and Mateusz Salwa in The Garden Dystopia address, the romantic approach can lead towards to an ignorance of the violent and dominant relationships that found each garden: not only do humans act dominantly towards non-human creatures in order to design a garden space, but plants and animals also deliberately influence the life of non-human others in a negative and aggressive manner.
But who is gardening? Is it only a human activity? Or a collaboration between the human and the non-human? Since a garden belongs both to the natural and the cultural sphere – and therewith exceeds the nature-culture dichotomy – it is restrictive to simple ignore those acts of non-human entities such as plants, animals and fungi. In their very different ways, Micheal Marder, Maria Kozenacka and Andrew Yang each explore if non-humans might be understood as designers or creators of garden spaces in their own right – and what this means for the garden form.
Inherently based upon enclosure, the garden seems to be a place where certain voices are heard and others overlooked. A question then arises: how can gardens help us to understand the process of enclosure in other spheres? Can a closer look at the garden lead to a better understanding of the silencing of certain minorities in society, the exclusion of certain voices from the writing of history? Jamaican poet Olive Senior, Slovenian artist Špela Petrič and Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury explore how gardens and politics interrelate.
Tuin Stemmen focuses on the garden as a lens through which we discuss questions around inclusion and exclusion and relationships of control and collaboration between human and nonhuman actors. With a diverse range of contributions, the series explores how works of art, writing and music – such as the sounds of Felicity Mangan and documentation of Zuri de Camille de Souza and Jimmy Granger from A-1 Publishers – contribute to our understanding of what entering a garden purports.
And what might be learned from those encounters during our wanders.
Image credit: Marloe Mens.
This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.