Wednesday, February 25, 2009

... and gardeners must garden

Fritillaria meleagris, here flowering on my kitchen bench, reminds me of the ones growing at the wild flower meadow in my garden in Saltsjöbaden.
Garden shows always make me ponder the meaning of the whole activity of gardening and the hugely different results produced by different individuals pursuing this activity. Leaving out economic gardens where only food is cultivated for survival, the questions of "Why do we garden?" and "What are our gardens for?" come to my mind as relevant reflexions.
Charles Quest-Ritzon, a quite well-known British garden writer, gives a kind of an answer to my questions in his interesting book The English Garden - A social History (Viking/Penguin Books, 2001). According to him, gardening is purely social history - it is all about social aspiration, lifestyles and money. He laments the fact that just like many art historians, many garden historians have been mainly occupied by the development of garden styles, particular designers or gardens, and accounts on plant-hunting or botanical phenomena. The subject has all too often been the big gardens, big names and big themes; only lately the garden history has been interested in minor gardens and "secondary" aspects of gardening. Quest-Ritzon claims that gardens have too often been described without adequate reference to the social and economic conditions which engendered them. Deliberately being provocative, he states that gardens are symbols of social status and class, and have little to do with the history of art or the development of aesthetic theories - and nothing whatsoever with moral forces, artistic tasks and the psychology of perception.

My girls climbing in an old apple tree in Saltsjöbaden; it was planted by the first owners of the house in 1935. Gardens are not only physical, they are made of memories that follow us through our lives.

Tough stuff, I think, and I heartily disagree with him on this. Unintentionally, my thoughts wander to the (quite worn out) theory of an American behavioural scientist Abraham Maslow, who in 1943 published his article entitled "A Theory of Human Motivation", that has been since taught to millions of college and university students. He argued that people everywhere are subject to what he called a "hierarchy of needs". In his model, at the bottom were the elementary physiological needs for food, shelter, sex and sleep, then come the basic needs for safety and security. First once the basic needs are met, people move up on "Maslow's pyramid" to look for other things, as "belonging needs" for love, acceptance and affiliation, "esteem needs" for self-respect, social status and the approval of others, and at the top, needs for "self-actualization". Later in his life, Abraham Maslow further divided the level of self-actualization into four different parts. These he named the cognitive level: to know, to understand, and to explore; the aesthetic level: the pursuit of symmetry, order, and beauty; and the self-actualization level: trying to find self fulfillment and realize one's potential. The final and "highest" level in his theory is transcendence: to help others find self fulfillment and realize their own potential.

So, what has all this to do with gardening and gardeners? First, I don't fully agree with Maslow's hierarchy of needs (I do feel gloriously opinionated today...); I rather think that we all are born with different "sets of needs", abilities and potential. We make individual choices on how we prioritize fulfilling of our needs; for some, social acceptance is very important, others would rather go hungry than give up their chosen professions in life.

Also as gardeners, our personalities govern how and in which order we fulfill our needs - which leads to the different aspirations and end results in how we garden. Some of us grow things to get food, but very few of Western gardeners are totally depending on their crops for their living. For some of us, the "belonging needs" are important; we are members of societies and clubs, and/or use blogging as a method to connect to other gardeners. For others (and I think Quest-Ritzon's gardeners belong to this group - and many of them probably leave the act of gardening to others), "esteem needs" with the accompanying social status and approval of others are important. Many of us are driven by the needs for "self-actualization"; botanists and plantsmen by their need to explore and to know; design-oriented gardeners by the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure and beauty. We get a feeling of deep contentment and self fulfillment through our gardens, and a few of us even help others to realize their own potential by helping them further on the path of gardening (here I think about the many teachers, unselfishly inspiring garden people and writers).

Hellebores flowering in March 2007 by the side entrance of my house in Saltsjöbaden; the first of these wonderfully dark and prolifically self-seeding Hellebores were planted by the first owner of the house. I gave a seedling of these to his now 76 year old "youngest daughter" last spring - a circle of connected lives and gardeners.
So, there are as many reasons and ways to garden as there are gardening individuals. In general, I think we garden because it gives us joy and gratification. Plants and gardens can be wonderful keepers of memories, full of connections to our past and to our beloved ones. Looking small leaf buds unfurl and bulbs peek out from the dark soil in the spring gives a deep satisfaction and a sense of belonging to the nature and the never ending cycle of life. Even Maslow himself said: "Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature." My addition to this would be ...and gardeners must garden.
PS 1 - According to Maslow, creativity is a quality that can be applied to any task in life. Maslow maintained that a first rate soup is better than a second rate painting...
PS 2 - Don't let my text above distract you; Quest-Ritzon's book (now out of print) is extremely well-researched and entertaining, and it truly makes an interesting connection between the bigger picture of developments in society while describing the aesthetics and practicalities of gardening. I highly recommend it as reading to anyone interested in garden history.


nilla|utanpunkt said...

Very intriguing post! I would definitely agree with Quest-Ritzon's theory when it comes to the English. It's a country with a social/class issue running straight through every layer of life, in past and present. However, I would debate that his model could be applied to us all. Talking of Scandinavians, most of us, historically, being peasants, and thus growing our own food, self-sufficiently – or failing (those famines and migration come to mind). Our garden history is around the production of food, and the natural beauty of our nature – not the designed garden. We've only very recently, in terms of history, become inspired (by the English!) by the idea of creating gardens, and even growing flowers with no practical use, just for beauty. And we've adopted it without the class label – for us it really is an issue of personality, of playfulness, of wanting to create, and as you say, or strong bond with nature (with a hint of childhood nostalgia, perhaps). I also believe in everybody's potential, in everybody's creativity, and that it could encompass anything. But in our society it tends to take both courage to go against the grains, and a little bit of madness to and make it come true.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

I probably am an idealist; and I agree that cultures do pose "restrictions" and expectations on its member, all different from each other. I've never lived in the UK, but I have heard same comments as your from many friends who have - it would be so interesting to get to live there to experience the country myself. I have loved all my vacations there, but vacations just skim the surface of a culture, and give no idea of how a country really functions.

I have a bit different picture of Scandinavians; there are many gardeners there too, caring a lot about about what other people think about their houses and gardens. In many areas, gardens are real status symbols maintained by professional gardeners and designed to "make an impact". I don't think any culture is free from this, it just is a part of the human nature.

One more thing - (it is snowing outside and I am trapped inside the house); we Scandinavians and especially Swedes have been very much inspired not only by the English but also by the Germans in our gardening. The German garden style (tyska stilen) was very popular in the mid-1800th century (Daniel Müller, a German immigrant, wrote a very popular book about this then - I found it at the Salvation Army sale almost for free!), and in the 1930's Willy Lange and then Karl Foerster were extremely popular inspirers for the "natural gardening style" of this era.

I loved your idea of meeting at Chelsea this year; it would be so much fun! I just have to figure out how to get my concept together to make that overseas travel...

Anonymous said...

Hi Liisa - I loved this thoughtful rumination on the motivations for gardening. I agree, Maslow is a bit dogmatic, and people don't always fit into those boxes quite so tidily. I often wonder about that "musicians must play music thing" - what if people don't have a chance to actualize their potential in some area because they never get a chance to try it out while they're able? I know so many folks who wish they'd studied music as kids but didn't have the opportunity, and now they are too intimidated to try. It would be interesting to see what percentage of rural kids grow up to garden, vs. urban kids. From what we discussed at our meeting, it seems like it's easier to take up, even later in life, if there is a family precedent. As for myself, I enjoy the process of gardening (working in the dirt, removing and adding things, etc) almost more than the result. I have kind of a failure of creativity/imagination in the planning/design part of my brain, which can stop me from getting out there sometimes, but when I just focus on a small task (remove popping weeds from side path) I am always so satisfied when I have done it. Cheers - Karen

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Hi again, just to clarify, I do agree that people in Sweden nowadays have gotten all competitive with their gardens. It was just that I saw a different historical route and than the English "social" one. i think today, most Western gardens are very similar in terms of reasons why we do it (with the odd plant difference, depending on climate zone – I so often make new plant acquaintancies on garden blogs from California or the Carribean, for instance!). And, oh, I take your point of the German influence – I have absolutely no knowledge about German garden tradition. Thanks for sharing!

And I'd love to be your guide in the gardens of London. But there is no stress, they'll probably be there for a few more years...:-).

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Oh, it so disappointing to notice that one's comments have disappeared! I posted them yesterday, so I guess there's no hope of them popping up anymore.

Karen, good to hear from you! I think too that many of us probably have a lot of "wasted potential", having not had possibilies to realize all their hidden talents. We are so much like plants; given the right soil, we flourish, but so many seeds end up on pavements and other harsh places. Even in the poorest cultures/countries, people keep creating and decorating and trying to beautify their surroundings, so I guess there really is no excuse for not doing things one loves. Well, it definitely is difficult to create theories, there are so many exemptions!

Camellia, I would love to take your offer for guidance in London; it just might take me a couple of springs to get there :-)

Have a nice weekend - I really hope this comment shows up...!