The Virtues of Gardens

“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul”

These are the rather grandiose words of Sir Thomas More. Despite the language of exalted spirituality they are still, I think, pretty valuable to anyone who owns a garden today. No, you are not a soulless monster if you haven’t weeded the garden path in a few years. More’s words are useful precisely because they negate the sense of guilt Alan Titchmarsh may make you feel about the state of your backyard.

Most people reading this article have probably read George Monbiot’s Feral. Several times in that book Monbiot refers to feelings of primitive reconnection with the natural world – a feeling of deep, somewhat subconscious reversion to a state of existence far simpler than the chaotic lives we find ourselves leading today. I find this idea romantic, even beautiful. How wonderful that even in a world full of such complex horrors like terrorist attacks and global warming we can still, through engagement with nature, reboot our minds into a state of relatively unburdened harmony. A mindset hardwired into us that doesn’t let our various modern day anxieties bleed through. At least, that’s what Monbiot makes us believe.

I grew up in a city. Granted, it wasn’t a very large city but I still didn’t spend my youth frolicking through forests and waking up to the sound of birdsong. Traffic was my lullaby and pavements my playgrounds. Still, I could relate to Monbiot’s sentiment. During my childhood the relative quiet of my garden – a small, swing-set strewn patch of grass – wrought over me a subtle feeling of calm. Nothing particularly dramatic nor profound but still, I felt something. It’s the same peculiar feeling I get whenever I find myself in a natural space: I gain the ability, however slight, to momentarily forget the things that trouble me and just enjoy the surrounding greenery. Many people may not be able to relate to Monbiot’s primal reawakening but I’m certain that even the most staunch inner-city dweller feels slightly less stressed while wandering through a park.

Don’t get me wrong, there are great differences between Monbiot’s visions of unbridled rewilderness and the bog-standard garden. However, ultimately they come to the same thing. Gardens have been so valued by artists and philosophers since Ancient Greece because they embody our relationship with nature: enclosed, regulated spaces where, despite our influence, naturally occurring processes can still take place. By pruning the apple tree yet still harvesting its fruit we demonstrate our interdependence with nature, not our dominion over it. Re-wilding, even at its most convincing, will never fully return our wilderness to its prehistoric state. It is, essentially, an enormous gardening project. Those who can see the value in it should, I propose, also see the value inherent in their own gardens.

Natural settings – from modest front-lawns to swathing, ancient forests – are valuable to us for the same reason they were valuable to Aristotle: they provide us with a momentary escape from the noise, stress and company of modern life. By articulating our interdependency with the natural world these settings provoke intellectually stimulating questions that can be hard to contemplate amidst the hubbub of a city center. Places that embody vitality and change, for some reason or other, make us feel a little more virtuous and open to deeper thought.

Why, then, are we destroying them?

Over the past two decades about 7 million of the UK’s 21 million front-gardens have been transformed from small pockets of semi-natural habitat to cold, hard parking spaces. The decision to avoid admittedly extortionate on-street parking permits and pave over your front-garden may not seem like an environmental issue, but think of the effect that has when it happens 7 million times over. One family may gain financially by avoiding parking fees, but everyone else in that neighborhood loses a valuable green space. Not to mention that in paving over our gardens not only do we deprive ourselves of what small natural connection living in a city permits, but we deny the creatures with whom we share our cities a place in which to thrive. Over the past thirty years bird populations across Europe have decreased by over 420 million. Wildlife needs all the help it can get at the moment; gardens included.

Our relationship with nature is quickly becoming one of outright dominance rather than the alliance we require in order to live both physically and spiritually healthy lives. As well as looking pretty birds also have various utilitarian functions – from dispersing seeds to ridding our gardens of pests. To banish them in the name of parking is not only damaging for the community, but for the environment at large.

Furthermore, the rising abundance of parking spaces instead of gardens causes various problems for our drainage systems. Soil absorbs rainwater; concrete doesn’t. Seemingly subtle changes to the landscapes of our streets can cause distinctly brash consequences. Without gardens to absorb excess water during storms our drainage systems struggle and floods become more likely. In short, for the convenience of a parking space we sacrifice the safety of both our own homes and our neighbours.

Although, I would suggest that these functional issues aren’t what should worry us most. And here is where More’s quote becomes valuable.

A few doors down from my family home there used to exist an aged cherry blossom tree. During spring it would litter the pavement with candy-pink confetti, vastly improving the visual aesthetics of a street that exists, as it still does, in the shadow of a high-rise block of flats. For almost the entirety of my youth I could count on the blossoming of that tree to inject a little vibrancy into what is usually a grey, uninteresting residential area. When I was thirteen the owners of the garden in which that tree grew cut it down and replaced it with paving stones and a Peugoet 206. The entire neighborhood lost something it valued all for the sake of a parking space.

So, what matters more: parking or beauty? In our collective answering of that question we may very well decide the environmental future of this planet. Essentially, we must ask ourselves whether the short-term benefits of suburban conveniences like parking spaces outweigh the benefits of a world where birds, trees and flowers are integrated into our lifestyles instead of being pushed out by them.

It may hurt your wallet to park your car on the street, but the curative effects of a garden can never hurt your ‘soul’.

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Ross Hunter

Ross Hunter

Budding environmental journalist and documentary film-maker. Pure love birds 'n that.
Ross Hunter

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