Epiphany from compost

A Philosophy of Gardens
October 20, 2006

An unofficial prize is offered at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, where translation rights are sold, for the most quirky title on offer. One exemplary winner I remember was The World Atlas of Herons . Like Amateur Brain Surgery , a fictional work beloved of my philosophy tutor, David Cooper's latest book is a contender manqué for this prize. A philosophy of gardens? Get real. Unfortunately, this first impression is not entirely dispelled by reading this learned but somewhat dispiriting book.

"A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!" wrote T. E. Brown. Fair enough, though not all gardens qualify. "The veriest school/ Of peace." he adds, making us wonder if he had children. "'Tis very sure God walks" there, he further insists. Well, that is one way of looking at it.

The same might be said about Cooper's claim that "the Garden exemplifies the co-dependence of human creative activity and nature" - although this seems just as true of a plate of egg and chips. But when he adds that it is "an epiphany of man's relationship to mystery", and that "this relationship is its meaning", he has surely lost the plot and landed plumb in Pseuds Corner.

There is in fact no such thing as The Meaning of Gardens, which is a will-o'-the-wisp. To each gardener his own meaning.

Johnny Town-Mouse's view differs from Timmie Willie's: "It sounds rather a dull place. What do you do when it rains?" The fruits of gardening can be more important than its meaning, as Kipling recognises: "Take a large hoe and a shovel also,/ And dig till you gently perspire;/ And then you will find that the sun and the wind,/ And the Djinn of the Garden too,/ Have lifted the hump." And what do garden gnomes and other naff statuary contribute to the Cooperesque epiphany?

The book is an expansion of an article that might have been better left in obscurity: some of the material scrapes the bottom of the trug. There is a good deal of logic-chopping of doubtful value. Is a garden nature, or art, or a compound of both?

Cooper's answer - that it is an amalgam of the two that enlarges both - is hardly a surprise. Disarmingly, he prefaces some of his arguments by observing that it is important that we find them convincing, else his case collapses. But this does nothing to rescue the arguments.

There are also some splendidly empty remarks that only a philosopher could think up: "Meaning is what is explained in explanations of meaning." Ah, so that's it!

The publisher did not have his heart in the project, to judge from the drably reproduced and unilluminating black-and-white photographs dotted through the book: if a garden is about anything, it is about the deployment of colour.

In a rare moment of self-mockery, Cooper writes: "Go up to your next-door neighbour and say, 'I think The Garden is an epiphany of an ideal of life in which opposites are reconciled. How about you?', and you are liable to draw a blank." Admittedly, he is pointing out here that a "staccato statement" of his conclusion is not convincing by itself, but all the same.

A hospital porter at Hereford General Hospital once noticed an abstract painting that had appeared on the wall of the doctors' mess, and asked what it was a painting of. The answer he received was "Clyro Hill".

He scratched his head for awhile and finally remarked: "Well, of course, it's a long time since I was up there."

Reading Cooper's book about the mythical beast he calls "The Garden" one cannot help feeling that it may have been a long time since he was out there.

Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

A Philosophy of Gardens

Author - David E. Cooper
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 173
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 19 929034 2

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