Shakespeare’s famously articulated metaphor obtains a new twist in Wade Graham’s American Eden: From Monticello to CentralPark to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are.
Since we ask “our gardens to speak for us, often assigning them certain lines in the play that we write about ourselves,” the garden inhabits the role once occupied by the Greek chorus. It communicates the background of the stories that become our individual lives, and reveals to others our hidden emotional baggage.
And that, my friends, is far from outlandish.
It is a heavy thought.
And a scary one.
Imagine: all our dirty laundry airing between wisteria and forsythia, our closeted skeletons hanging from our Crabapples and Smoke Bushes, our Freudian desires situated between our Pelargoniums and Penstemons!
But calm down.
Garden viewing is an interpretive affair, so your nosy neighbor who “sees” depression in your prized collection of Weeping Cherry Trees might actually be witnessing your celebration of sublime beauty.
I won’t pretend to know what our gardens communicate to the world about ourselves—I leave that to the professional garden writers—but I will offer two thoughts.
First, it’s all speculation. Interpretation. One might see the impeccably neat and orderly garden and intuit its creator as uptight, anal-retentive, and potentially in need of “loosening up” more often, when in fact the gardener’s desk might be cluttered, and the gardener a disheveled mess of a soul. But here, Graham is right: we assign the garden certain lines in the play that is our life. He doesn’t say the role is one we actually live or depict or inhabit in our everyday existence.
Second, on a more personal level, I offer a self-interpretation. My first place win in the “New Garden” category means I cannot enter that category next year. (Besides, my garden is 3 years old, which was the maximum age for the new garden category.) So I must look to the “landscape garden” category: but all of the winners this year, though we all have “city” properties, garden on much, much larger tracts compared to my inner-city plot. I just cannot compete with spaces adorned with multiple beds experimenting with various color combinations, or arbors, or pergolas, or multiple rooms (water gardens, patios, private spaces): in other words, drama and suspense and surprise.
And this has instigated two thoughts: (a) buy another house with more land [slightly irrational, I know] or (b) take my garden to the next level by creating more drama [more than slightly irrational, I know].
Let’s not even consider the first.
The second has unleashed an inner demon: the competitive demon. Or diva. I’m not sure which.
But I hit a wall—thankfully a proverbial one—and realized what I have done. I have pulled a Callas on mygarden’s Norma. (G-d love Maria Callas!)
Two of my de-stress, pleasurable activities—going to the gym and gardening—suddenly became sources of stress.
With regard to the gym, I told M, my friend-cum-my unpaid-de facto-personal-trainer, that I wanted to ratchet up my gym activities and “develop a body.” Gain definition. Never a sculpted body as his (I lack the discipline and the desire) but physical development that reveals my investment. But I have since realized that I now loathe going to the gym—it has become a chore, a source of stress (why aren’t my muscles getting bigger? Why is my waist still X inches? Why do I still feel fat?)—and my waist now protests.
With regard to my garden—well, I lament my behavior and my thoughts. Why?
Well, some, of course, garden to “collect” specimens. Others garden to impress neighbors. Some garden to reflect outwardly their inner beauty. Others garden to fill time. Some garden to expend energy.
I garden because it is about the only thing I can do without assistance of a book. I am an academic. Ergo, I possess no usable skills.
I garden also to stop the incessant chatter in my head. Gardening inhibits a particular incisive, debilitating self-criticism that usually rears its ugly little head no matter what I do. Up to a week or two ago, I had not yet subjected my gardening to grueling criticism. I was able to dig, remove, annihilate, amend, replace, create, stylize, imagine, envision, plan, and scout out new finds—all without fear of self-retribution.
But now? Every decision, every thought, every motivation is met with inner scorn. Gardening could only be worth it if I collect another first prize in the landscape category.
Divas be damned! Demons back to hell!
Here, Graham may be wrong. I have never been “competitive” except in minor ways. I have never been “careerist,” except in minor ways. But “winning” can almost imperceptibly lapse into a competitive game of accumulation if we are not careful. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But if we lose sight of why we actually began to engage in our pleasurable activities, and if we permit pleasure to morph into pain, well, then, we have moved into the abyss.
In that sense, Graham is right: but in a much deeper sense. Instead of the garden parroting who we are or might be, instead of reflecting like the Greek chorus our hidden emotions, gardens instruct us on how to Be. We just need to be open to how they speak.