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It’s a pity that Western gardens have lost direction over the last century or more, and that all passion has gone from gardening. I mean not the passion of disguised social feeling, as in 'Heavens, how I hate ericas and dwarf conifers', or 'Isn't ‘Madame Hardy’ divine?', but real passions: the sort that must have made gardening exciting when gods lingered in the shade. Passion. Something that island beds, colour-the-year-round, or wispy herb gardens in silvery mauves, just don't have. No symbolism. No real resonance of the past. Bland.
Yet gardens were one of the first wellsprings of civilisation, one of the things that made us different from the beasts of the field. They could be again. Gardens can surely nourish the whole human, not just the part that cares about etiquette. Gardens were once seen as places of vast power and potential; after all, the idea of 'heaven' as a secure and abundant garden is much earlier than the written word itself,. Paradise myths appear fully developed in the early life of the earliest city of Sumer. Real gardening is deep inside us.
But ancient gardens, Mesopotamian, dry, with their richness of imagery centred around the worship of a powerful water goddess named either Anahita or Mazda (and broadly comparable to the later Greek Artemis-Aphrodite), were also dangerous. Mazda, fierce and bloody, demanded human sacrifice as part of her rituals.
That's a bit strong, perhaps, for the 1990's. It was a bit strong even under the Achaemenid kings (600-400BC), when a prophet called Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), became immensely popular, not least because he promised his followers a paradise garden with paths of burnished gold, pleasure pavilions of diamonds, and all filled with perfume, flowers and fruit. The last three are all right. The first two, well...
However, he also turned the table on Mazda, worshipping fire not water, and forbidding human sacrifice. Indeed, as Zoroastrianism spread (the great Darius was rumoured to be a follower), a section of believers became associated entirely with gardens and gardening, a tradition that lasts into modern times.
Persian gardeners, all Zoroastrians, wore saffron robes and loose yellow turbans. And as if that wasn’t pleasure enough, after a Zoroastrian dies, at the end of the 3rd night, he (I’m not sure if that includes ‘she’), finds himself among plants, perfumes, and a wind blows from the South and Paradise. Sounds nice, and not a trowel to be seen.
However, when we, modern Western gardeners, think of gods in the garden, we almost always think of ancient Rome. Their cultural imperialism still rules, even though many Roman gods were actually derived from ones worshipped in the East. However, in Rome, unlike in our present-day gardens, they were not reduced to polite cyphers; while we think of goody-two-shoes Flora and Pomona as the main goddesses of the garden, Priapus was, originally, the Roman god of gardens and garden produce (phallic amulets are commonly found at Roman garden sites). He was only later to be superceded by the slightly less explicitly sexual Dionysus (who seems at first to have been the Thracian god of vegetation). Then that god was himself replaced by the mildly salacious, half-animal, Pan (a god associated with wild woodland, and usually unsucessful lechery).
Curiously, after Rome collapsed altogether, and northern non-gardening barbarians ruled, the ancient thread of gardening did not break. Monastic cloister gardens often followed the old, old garden plan. It’s one that would have been prefectly familiar to a gardener in Sumer or Ur, or to a Zoroastrian priest, or a follower of earliest Islam: four symmetrical beds arranged around a fountain (perhaps supported by lions), or a single tree. It was the plan followed in the great Sassanian palaces of 224 - 641AD, where, in several, the gardens had sides seven miles long. It was symbolic of the four corners of the earth, of the four estates of man, of the four great rivers of the then known world. It is also a basic mandala. It is a plan that can still look thrilling even if your garden has sides of seven feet. It is the garden of the gods.
Christianity contributed almost nothing to the garden, perhaps a bad PR mistake; even the white lily was sacred for several millenia before it became associated with the mother of Christ. Renaissance princes were, therefore, delighted to find, when excavating their backyards, the muddy Roman garden gods that had been toppled a thousand years before. Thus, the gods were back in the garden, but they found that the once passionate or spiritual aspect of gardening had declined forever. They were now just part of the decorative scheme. Grottos, even with applied gods and godlings, were nothing more than grand fairground delights.
And so it remained into the seventeenth century. River gods dozed at the ends of canals, or by water stairs. Pan, Dionysus, (though never Priapus) stood on their pedestals at the intersections of allees, and Diana and Venus sheltered chastely in Classical rotundas. No terror, no symbolism: these once great and terrifying personages and concepts were reduced for ever. Celia Fiennes could write cheerfully in 1702 : 'In ye lower Ground... Statues in stone of Gods, Nymphs etc. are advantageously placed up and down ye Rock amongst Trees. In a hollow, in ye body of one of ye Trees, is an Owl, so well made, as easily to decieve You. ...' Well, at least it wasn't a gnome.
Now, it’s got even worse. We hardly dare do even that. A fibreglass pagan urn (we usually call them ‘planters’), is about all we manage, and even then our friends snigger at the pretention. But... Thank heavens that there is a ‘But...’ Sometimes, just very, very occasionally, a gardener finds the thread, and you can still catch that shimmer, muted and distant, of the old, old feeling. You know, that tingle that shivers the spine, and tells you you’re in a ‘real’ garden; that something really is happening. And you can perhaps have a garden like that yourself. You don’t have to don turban and saffron robes; just plant a fig, or a pomegranate, a quince, even an apple. They’ve all, once, been the sacred Tree of Life, at the centre of both garden and Paradise, entwined with serpents, not symbols of evil but of the wellspring, or the four winds. Give the tree a four-square garden. Add, should you quail at Priapus, just the tiniest image of Pan. Then, just wait, and listen. Perhaps they will come.
Copyright david stuart 2004