The Garden Dystopia


The dull necessity of weeding arises, because every healthy plant is a racist and an imperialist; every daisy (even) wishes to establish for itself an Empire on which the sun never sets.

— Ian Hamilton Finlay


In one of his short stories, Dolce notte (Sweet night), the Italian writer and poet Dino Buzzati describes a ‘very simple garden’ (un giardino semplice) which the protagonist can observe from his window. The garden consists out of a small lawn  surrounded by a gravel lane and a flower border. Everything looks quiet and wonderful in the moonlight. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s partner feels an inexplicable anxiety. In order to calm her, he glimpses out of the window at the garden and declares that he has never seen ‘so much peace’ (no ho mai visto tanta pace).

What makes Buzzati’s text rather unusual is the contrast between the narrative frame, which consists of the opening paragraphs introducing the garden as ‘immobile, desert and silent’ (immobile, deserto, e silenzioso) and the final scene as described above, and the space in between that is occupied by a description of a much less romantic reality of the garden au clair de la lune. As Buzzati writes, the moonlit garden is in fact the  a theatre of the great chain of being in which more powerful species kill and eat their ‘little brothers and sisters’: a grasshopper is eaten by a spider which in turn is swallowed by a frog etc.

Buzzati seems to suggest that the Moonlight ennobles the garden by turning it into a mysterious black-and-white spectacle, but that in fact it only masks the fact that garden is ‘red in tooth and claw’. People are then misled by the beauty of a night garden when they are lead to think of, for example, The Moonlight Sonata — a classical composition by Ludwig van Beethoven — as its most adequate musical counterpart. It should rather be a Funeral March. A thought provoking illustration of the contrast between the adamant Moon up in the sky and the turbulent down-to-earth fights is offered by the horror-and-jazz soundtrack of the animated film Douce nuit (1987; directed by M. Wannaz) based on Buzzati’s story.

The very nature of creatures populating gardens inhibits people from recognizing them as fully living beings.

Dolce notte may be interpreted in various ways. It may be read as a metaphor of life which is necessarily intertwined with death (a motif present in Buzzati’s Le gobbe nel giardino [Bumps in the garden]), or as an illustration of the inevitable passage of time (see his Strano giardino [Strange garden]). Lastly, it could be interpreted as a rather faithful description of the real life of gardens or as a demystification of the dominant myth of the idyllic garden reigned by ‘the divine silence and poetry’ epitomized by the Moon.  

These diverse interpretations have a common feature:  they share the focus on death which is one of the defining traits of gardens, a trait which is however little noticed by humans  and is even eagerly and intentionally overlooked by most of us. After all, no teeth or claws are in use in gardens, and who would seriously think of arachnids, insects or even amphibians as beings that are born, live, fight and die? Even in Buzzati’s account they are represented as animate beings that somehow mechanically, i.e. inanimately, act and cease to act, as if there were no place for suffering in their world. Indeed, the very nature of creatures populating gardens inhibits people from recognizing them as fully living beings. Plants are not in a better situation, either. As a consequence it is even easier to pretend not to see what Buzzati describes. Night, i.e. the time when gardens are usually not visited, favours such an intentional blindness.

In Dolce notte the Italian writer cleverly plays with the two points of view, one being ‘objective”, the other – ‘subjective’. The former one belongs to the narrator who in the first paragraphs of the story macroscopically describes the peaceful look of the garden and then shifts to the microscopic perspective allowing him or her to see all the garden power plays. The latter is the standpoint of the male protagonist who reports what he sees from the window. Contrary to what one would expect knowing that the narrator is also aware of all the violence that takes place in the dark, the decisive voice belongs to the protagonist who is charmed by the moon. It is his view that closes the story as if the narrator did not want to oppose to it. It can be said that they both see the garden as peaceful and quiet, the only difference between them is that while the protagonist may be absolved on the ground of his unawareness of what is going on out there, the narrator is guilty of an intentional callousness. They both may then dismiss the inquietude of the partner who wakes up frightened by her dream of someone being murdered in the garden. From their point of view it is just an irrational emotion and it is enough to open the window to see that nothing terrible is happening.

Buzzati’s story might be then interpreted as an illustration of how the Western tradition has tended to think of the gardens. His account of what a garden is follows what Giacomo Leopardi, a famous Italian romantic poet, wrote early in the 19th century. It is a short passage which is not quoted as often as it deserves, given that it stands in stark contrast with the general idea of the garden:

Go into a garden of plants, grass, flowers. No matter how lovely it seems. Even in the mildest season of the year. You will not be able to look anywhere and not find suffering. That whole family of vegetation is in a state of souffrance, each in its own way to some degree. Here a rose is attacked by the sun, which has given it life; it withers, languishes, wilts. There a lily is sucked cruelly by a bee, in its most sensitive, most life-giving parts. Sweet honey is not produced by industrious, patient, good, virtuous bees without unspeakable torment for those most delicate fibers, without the pitiless massacre of flowerets. That tree is infested by an ant colony, that other one by caterpillars, flies, snails, mosquitoes; this one is injured in its bark and afflicted by the air or by the sun penetrating the wound; that other one has a damaged trunk, or roots; that other has many dry leaves; that other one has its flowers gnawed at, nibbled; that other one has its fruits pierced, eaten away. That plant is too warm, this one too cold; too much light, too much shade; too wet, too dry. One cannot grow or spread easily because there are obstacles and obstructions; another finds nowhere to lean, or has trouble and struggles to reach any support.

In the whole garden you will not find a single plant in a state of perfect health. Here a branch is broken by the wind or by its own weight; there a gentle breeze is tearing a flower apart, and carries away a piece, a filament, a leaf, a living part of this or that plant, which has broken or been torn off. Meanwhile you torture the grass by stepping on it; you grind it down, crush it, squeeze out its blood, break it, kill it. A sensitive and gentle young maiden goes sweetly cutting and breaking off stems. A gardener expertly chops down trunks, breaking off sensitive limbs, with his nails, with his tools. Certainly these plants live on; some because their infirmities are not fatal, others because even with fatal diseases, plants, and animals as well, can manage to live on a little while.

The spectacle of such abundance of life when you first go into this garden lifts your spirits, and that is why you think it is a joyful place. But in truth this life is wretched and unhappy, every garden is like a vast hospital (a place much more deplorable than a cemetery), and if these beings feel, or rather, were to feel, surely not being would be better for them than being.

Leopardi’s view that a garden is a place of sorrows for other-than-human beings is noteworthy as in the Western tradition gardens are usually seen as earthly embodiments of the Paradise and as such are defined as places where the ideal harmony – between humans and nature as well as within the natural kingdom itself – is warranted. As a result, some see them as utopian places, others call them eutopias, good places, while Michel Foucault cited gardens as examples of heterotopias, i.e. images of the ideal world that unlike utopias really exist and are different from other real spaces.

The paradisiac ideal embodied in gardens as well as garden practices finds its expression in the concept of culture (cultivation). Culture is usually understood as human care that has little to do with imposing human intentions on land and plants and that is instead identified with a consensual interaction (or friendly competition) which results in reinforcing the inner qualities of the latter. A gardener – be it a professional garden designer or an amateur – thus appears to be a sort of steward acting on behalf of nature and in her interest as if nature’s teleology were such that its aim was to be turned into a garden and thus to realize its ideal thanks to man that acts in the likeness of God. As it was in the beginning…

This idyllic view tends to associate oppression and violence that are involved in gardening only with social factors, forgetting that culture implies power relations in gardens no less than in societies. As a result, ars topiaria as well as the art of following the spirit of the place or taking pains to grow the largest pumpkin in one’s neighbourhood are hardly ever discussed in terms of struggle between humans and other-than-humans beings. Almost the only practice interpreted in this manner and criticized for its arbitrariness is weeding which Gilles Clément calls a form of ‘agriculture taliban’.

What seems, instead, to be largely overlooked, at least in critical discourse, is precisely the gardens’ natural history cursorily described by Buzzati. One of the reasons why the theatre of natural violence is ignored – apart from aesthetic reasons – is the fact that gardens are conceived of – and justly so – as artefacts resulting from human actions. Consequently, the relationship between humans and nature turns out to be of primary importance and even if the concept of stewardship was criticized for its patronizing implications, the belief that cultivating a garden is in fact acting on behalf of nature has not been completely given up. It is based now on the idea of dialogue or creating a human-and-other-than-human community. Such an approach is accompanied by the awareness that the numerous conflicts perforce present in gardens do not have to follow the humans vs other-than-human beings division. Gardens are then still thought to be eutopias where people get involved in conflicts and yet show their respect toward nature because they become aware of their position in the universe and discover how to dwell in the world. I plant, therefore I am – such a maxim should be inscribed above all the gates to gardens.

In fact they may appear as dystopias.

The above approach is definitely adequate yet it excludes to a certain degree the presence of nature. Even if gardens exist thanks to human craft only – nature does not create gardens as one of the French aestheticians once wrote – they are natural, which means that it is possible to approach nature in them as nature despite it is so deeply affected by humanity that it may be seen as artificial. In other words, every garden is an ecosystem whose values, including its harmony, should be judged in ways differing from those applied in judgements of human works. Once this perspective is adopted, the sorrows described by Buzzati and Leopardi turn out to be more than obvious – there is much more souffrance involved in gardens than one would like to think. In fact they may appear as dystopias.

Of course, gardens are not more dystopian than other natural environments. In fact, when they are seen through the eyes of the two Italian writers they lose a lot of their garden character that makes them ‘other spaces’. Nonetheless, their dystopian dimension may be more conspicuous than elsewhere just because such an ecological stance undermines the century-old tradition of thinking of gardens as utopias. It is the rule of contrast: the more humans would like them to be ideal, the more other-than-humans beings prove them to be the opposite. Moreover, humans are not fully consistent in their utopian beliefs and desires as they suggest that gardeners should take advantage of natural antagonisms: pesticides may very well be replaced by natural agents that fight unwanted guests (e.g. weeds). It is one way to form the human and other-than-human alliances mentioned above. What is clear now is that even if we want to think of gardens as expressions of a universal harmony and ‘peace and poetry’, they are in fact rooted in natural violence. The belief that gardens may be utopian in any sense results then from false consciousness of someone who prefers admiring the moonlit view of a garden to accepting the fact that someone is being murdered out there.

Should we then abandon the utopian view of gardens as a form of ideology? Is this the lesson we may draw from Leopardi and Buzzati? No. Buzzati’s protagonist wants to see the ‘peace and poetry’ in the garden and the narrator seems to follow in his footsteps despite everything. They accord with the approach that treats gardens as artworks and in that they are both rather traditional. A the same time Leopardi’s standpoint allows one to notice what is usually overlooked, i.e. the fact that the traditional approach is nothing but a double human projection: firstly, it sees nature itself as devoid of violence, secondly, it believes the relationship between humans and other-than-human beings to be not oppressive. These two views mutually condition each other. On the one hand, in order to believe that one may interact peacefully with nature, nature is to be believed to be harmonious in itself – otherwise every interaction amounts to supporting one of the competing natural species and hence to being involved in a conflict. On the other hand, nature is believed to be peaceful because humans want to believe that they are able to make the world better by rendering it even more harmonious. Harmony – as vague as it sounds – still is an ideal.

Even if the above views are sine qua non conditions of gardening – how would one justify and practice it otherwise? – the awareness that they are but a form of wishful thinking and that all the talking of a utopian or dystopian character of gardens is deeply anthropocentric makes one critical of his or her approach and practices. In other words, Leopardi and Buzzati show that gardens are neither utopian, nor dystopian. Or that they are equally utopian and dystopian.

One should have it in mind when listening to the well-known and highly appreciated David Mallet’s innocent Garden song (1975):

Inch by inch, row by row/ Gonna make this garden grow/ All it takes is a rake and a hoe/ And a piece of fertile ground (…)/ Pulling weeds and picking Stones/ Man is made of dreams and bones (…)/ Painful rain, sun and rain/ Find my way in nature’s chain/ Tune my body and my brain/ To the music from the land (…)/ Mother Earth will make you strong/ If you give her love and care.


Image credit: Mateusz Salwa.
Leopardi quote credit: G. Leopardi, Zibaldone, edited by M. Caesar and F. D’Intino, translated by K. Baldwin et al., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2013 (e-book), pp. 4175-4177. 


This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig


Mateusz Salwa

Mateusz Salwa, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Aesthetics (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw [Poland]), main fields of interest: contemporary aesthetics, environmental aesthetics and philosophy. He published a number of articles in English and Polish on garden and landscape aesthetics.