Gardens are generally thought of as bright, cheerful places. It's easy to see why this is the case. The bright flowers, attractive insects such as butterflies and ladybugs, sweet smells, growth, fertility, and herbal remedies that can be found in most gardens bring to mind thoughts of peace and healing. Much of Western culture identifies Paradise as a garden. This symbolic aspect of gardens has an obvious presence, but it is not the only aspect to be found.
Japanese Zen gardens are famous for the symbolism that they offer. The structure of Zen gardening emphasizes the unknown. Paths lead the eye around soft corners which conceal surprising perspectives. Deep, dark waters reveal occasional flashes of gold as carp come to the surface and descend again. Pebbles are drawn into patterns of rippling waves, still yet in motion, evocative of the ultimate transience of all things. These gardens explore the relationship between life and death, between motion and stillness, between change and eternal unity.
Zen gardens seem quite foreign to many Westerners, yet the ideas that they represent could just as easily be inspired by the gardens of the West. A perceptive gardener observes processes not only of life, but of death. Plants grow, but they also become sick and die. For every beautiful butterfly that harmlessly fertilizes a garden's flowers there are hordes of other insects that weaken or kill plants, or prey upon each other. For every herb with medicinal properties there grows a poisonous plant.
Why do we in the West take our lopsided light view of the garden? I believe that the answer can be found in our need for unambiguous knowledge. We are afraid of the mysteries that are symbolized by the dark side of our gardens.
Of course we all know what these mysteries are, even if we deny their mystery, pretending to have some sort of sacred understanding of them. Suffering, decay, and death are found in plentiful supply in any garden, no matter how fastidious its keepers are in their efforts at preservation. That life in general seems to thrive in the face of, or even because of, the downfall of individual lives only heightens the sense of mystery. It is understandable that we turn away from these frightening, unknowable forces, especially when they are at work in our own back yards. Who wants to look out the window and confront the inevitability of one's own death?
To ward off the evil spirits of our own fear, we shape our gardens into shrines to immortality. We choose only the strongest plants, most often sterile hybrids that have been engineered to behave in ways that no plant in nature ever could. We infuse enormous amounts of artificial fertilizer into soil that we otherwise ignore. If a plant should ever reveal any signs of sickness, we uproot it as soon as possible and send it to the dump with the rest of our household refuse.
Ironically, in our eagerness to present an image of vitality, we actually harm the health of our gardens. Spreading herbicides and pesticides in a desperate effort to preserve life, we kill countless plants and animals. The animals that survive our poisons leave the garden quickly and do not return, fleeing a simplified habitat that cannot satisfy their needs. If the Western garden is symbolic of anything, it is of the pain that one brings on oneself when one attempts to deny the existence of suffering, the lifeless existence that comes from the effort to escape death.
I am not suggesting that we transform our gardens into wallowing holes of desperation. Wearing black on the outside because one feels black on the inside is dramatic, but in the end it is just a pose, as false as an ever-present smile.
What I do suggest is that we allow our gardens to return to a more natural state where life and death are in balance. Gardens can be places for a process of true contemplation which may or may not be pleasant, like reflecting pools showing us grey clouds on one day and blue sky on the next. Escape from pain is a valid function of gardens, but one which can become unhealthy if used excessively. The best sanctuaries are able to both offer comfort and help us confront painful ideas. A garden that is allowed to grow into such a sanctuary can become a powerful balm, enhancing the enjoyment of good times and resolving the pain of dark thoughts. In such a garden, the return of death would provide the fertile ground from which a flourish of life could grow.
Irregular Times require backtalk.