The Good Gardener

A British court considered whether land from which the owner had cleared trees constituted a garden (in which case the owner’s action was legal) or not (in which case a license was required).

In the 2008 decision, Lord Justice Moses found the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a garden as “an enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruit or vegetables” inadequate.

He observed: “no description will categorically establish whether a piece of land is a garden or not. It is incumbent on the fact finder to determine its use.” The definition of a garden, he ruled, lies in “the relationship between the owner and the land, and the history and character of the land and space”. Lord Moses’ de finition of course raises further questions for the “fact finder”.

American architect Donald Dunham asks a similar question: “What then is the space … between human intentions and nature? The garden?” Contemporary writer Michael Pollan’s answer viewed gardens as a “second nature” in his excellent 2003 eponymous book, while Renaissance authors viewed agriculture as the second, and gardens as a third nature.

Our intentions in this relationship with nature are critically important to the world we live in. The idea of gardens, and the nature of our relationship with gardens and with our environment are explored in The Good Gardener: Nature, Humanity & the Garden, a new collection of essays edited by Annette Giesecke, a professor of Classics at the University of Delaware, and Naomi Jacobs, a professor of English at the University of Maine. This volume is a companion to Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden published in 2013. The essays here range across the politics of gardening such as Annette’s excellent essay that explores the ‘

The Good Gardener and the ideal Gardens of State’ to Elen Deming’s ‘Gardens and the working body in the British Utopian project’ – a lively exploration of the Garden City movement. The ubiquity of the garden in the discourse of Victorian reform is presented in a series of vignettes exploring the nation as a garden.

Social and environmental themes complement the political – Margaret Morton’s powerful photographic essay ‘ The Gardens of those called ‘Homeless’’, Emma Maris’s ‘Gardening the Earth with Joy’ and Rick Darke’s ‘ The Accidental Landscape’ illustrate the diversity of the collection. These essays illustrate the value, and even the centrality, of gardens to the state and as much as to the dispossessed. My own essay, ‘Hidden Gardens: Australian Aboriginal People and Country’, co-authored with Leanne Liddle, an Arrente woman, lawyer and, currently, the senior policy advisor with the Northern Land Council, explores the hidden gardens of Australian Aboriginal people.

Gardening, as conventionally understood, has likely never been practised in Aboriginal Australia. Millennia ago, domesticated plants and animals spread from southeastern New Guinea to islands in the Torres Strait, but stopped just short of the northern Australian coast. The historian Geoffrey Blainey considers this dramatic halt “one of the baffling questions in prehistory”, but there may be a straightforward explanation. Aboriginal people may well have made a choice not to garden. The Umpila people on the north east coast of Cape York, close to the Torres Strait, observed of gardening for food, “It is not our way. It is alright for other people.

We get our food from the bush.” Australian anthropologist Athol Chase suggests agriculture, “implies a radically different perception of the environment and its legitimate human occupants and … authorises a radically diff erent manipulation of plants and their habitats”.

In 1977 the Yolngu Elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu recalled his father’s prohibition on unnecessarily disturbing the land, “One day I went fishing with Dad. As I was walking along behind him I was dragging my spear on the beach which was leaving a long line behind me. He told me to stop doing that. He continued telling me that if I make a mark or dig for no reason at all I’ve been hurting the bones of the traditional people of that land. We must only dig and make marks on the ground when we perform or gather food.” None of this suggests that Aboriginal people didn’t manage the Australian landscape or garden.

Aboriginal cultivation of resources and the art and design evident in landscape practice are explored in our essay. However, Aboriginal notions of land ownership, and the purpose for land management remain very di fferent to Western ideas. One of my favourite essays is Newfoundlander Robert Finley’s ‘Marlene Creates’ Boreal Poetry Garden’ which returns to the nature of cultivation and gardens.

Finley’s reassessment of the gardener’s toolkit is insightful. For summer we can end where he begins with Gary Snyder’s poem, As the crickets’ soft autumn hum is to us so are we to the trees as are they to the rocks and hills. Great summer reading! Gil Teague at Florilegium in Glebe is a likely stockist (or online)

The Good Gardener: Nature, Humanity & the Garden Annette Giesecke & Naomi Jacobs (eds) Arti fice Books on Architecture, London 2015 (306 pp.)

Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide @StephenJForbes

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