I keep reading gardening articles about people who garden because they “want a closer relationship with nature”. Well, I’m sorry, but while gardening is many things, being part of nature definitely isn’t one of them. There is a difference between “outside” and “nature”. I have the sneaking suspicion that the people who make these claims actually don’t do much of their own gardening, because if you spend much of your time killing slugs, diverting floods, pulling weeds, de-icing branches before they snap off, watering in the heat, and battling the voles, moles, gophers, rabbits, and deer you will eventually realize that gardening is a very unnatural activity. Just look at any garden that has been let go. It actually doesn’t even take very long. The weeds start to pop up in a couple of weeks, blurring the edges and obscuring the plantings. The animals are fast on the uptake, too, and before long plants are being eaten or swamped with dirt from the tunnelers. I have repeatedly read stories, particularly from England, where some young couple buys a disaster of a house and garden and then, as they start to restore it, they realize the garden is by Gertrude Jekyll or some other luminary. However, they always have to do an immense amount of work just to get to the point of knowing that it is a special garden, whereupon the really immense amount of work must start, I imagine.
The natural world is very important to me. I revel in living somewhere so lovely and always feel sorry for traveling friends when they have missed a beautiful day or a special cloud formation or sunset. It is probably equally lovely wherever they have gone, but I always have a hard time imagining that since clearly nothing could be as breathtaking as what I am seeing at that moment. The natural world has always seemed miraculous to me. All those chemicals getting strung together in just the right way to create something so specialized: the double-feathering of an owl to ensure silent flight, the spade-shaped paws (curse them!) of a mole, the interdependence of insects and flowering plants, the human brain with so much capacity (and so little judgment). I go into nature for spiritual renewal, for comfort, for release and perspective, to understand how truly tiny a speck I am in the universe. If I am tiny, my problems must be also. Nature provides humility. Gardening, on the other hand, is ego.
Gardening is all about saying here I am, this is my vision, this is what I think is beautiful and meaningful. Gardening is constantly asserting control over my surroundings. Everything I do operates towards the end of making my little patch of dirt express distilled beauty. My woods are beautiful, too, but in my garden beauty is the only point, everything bends to that end. Gardening utilizes components from nature: soil, plants, water, stone, wood, clay (which may be what causes people to confuse it with nature). In gardening, however, all these elements are altered by the human hand and controlled by the human mind. That, to me, is what makes a garden, every garden, art.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully realize all the dreams I have for my garden, but every day I take another step, add another layer, flesh out another idea. It isn’t a perfect garden; it will never be on the cover of a magazine. Other than my children, however, I don’t imagine that there will ever be a better picture of my heart and soul than the garden I have created around me.