My childhood was spent in stories and gardens.
My mother’s garden held our games and discoveries, adventures real and imagined. We navigated our botanical world by touch and smell, as well as by sight. We came to understand in tangible ways how the rhythms of the seasons, changes in light and temperature, drought, frost and wind, all shaped our landscape, and our lives within it. Everything born in the garden went back into its earth, and we learnt that things die, as well as flourish. The garden taught us to be patient, to wait and observe. How to be still and silent. How it is to be small amid something wildly alive and impersonal.
When I was eight, a gifted teacher introduced me to Jacob van Eyck. She told me the story of him playing his recorder while wandering through a place called a Pleasure Garden. The poetry of that lodged deep, and I felt a strong affinity with Jacob. The fact that he was born in the sixteenth century, on the other side of the world, was of no consequence. His music was real to me, as was he.
We’ve been companions ever since, Jacob and I. He comes with me to weddings and funerals, nursing homes and prisons, impromptu sessions on verandas, and into concert halls too. His melodies fall happily under the pads of my fingers; his phrases measure the span of my breath.
Some of his creations have become dear, trusted friends – Daphne, Amarilli, Marie. I have poured countless versions of myself into them, and they have held me, giving me substance and form.
Not far from my childhood garden is a place I revere: Lambley Garden. Its two inhabitants have moulded their lives around a pursuit of beauty – one through paint, the other through plants. Visiting their earthly paradise some years ago, I found myself thinking of Jacob and his Pleasure Garden, and the way history and emotions can speak to each other across time and place. Suddenly, stories began to converge.
Our Pleasure Garden sets Jacob’s exquisite blooms in a new environment. We collected material from Melbourne to Bermagui, Utrecht to Kristiansand, back and forth to Lambley – improvised melodies and textures, birdsong from the places in which we worked, and Jacob’s own carillon, still joyously played today.
We planted our music in bird boxes and flowerpots, nested in trees and dug into the soil at Lambley.
Then, we invited visitors. Sweet, spring days of people gently ebbing and flowing through a magical place, listening intently to very soft, delicate sounds. Something in the combined spirit of music and place seemed to encourage people to be quiet, move slowly, look deeply, and then to leave with a little glow of contemplative beauty.
Fiona Blair makes landscape theatre for The Old Van theatre company. She lives, in an old school house, down the road and around the corner from a beautiful garden.
Some weeks ago now, I walked back in time.
It wasn’t far, as such journeys go,
two miles perhaps, perhaps three —
the road crosses at the end of ours
and it wasn’t much further than that —
then down a long avenue lined
with cherry trees, and through a gate
into a sort of formal hall, green and
private with hedges and espaliered trees,
carpeted with grass. Half hidden,
behind a bench at the far end,
was another gate, leading to a huge
walled garden of flowers and fruit trees
and vegetables, stark and bleak just a
few weeks earlier, now lush, abundant
with colour, with sound.
Sound all about me,
riding on the air, coming up through
the earth beneath my feet.
Sometimes it seemed
I might be imagining it.
Sometimes it seemed
to happen only because I was there.
Hesitant, fragile, tantalising,
insistent; half heard, half seen
glimpses of melody:
wherever I walked, music, sound.
Sound was in everything,
and walking through arches –
down long paths edged with
tidy rows of planting,
where order had been imposed,
yet everywhere small rebellions of shape
and colour overflowed –
I thought about time,
and how I had no sense of it here.
I thought about how the music,
the unpredictable music, hanging
like light on the air, heightened every
moment, and drew on every sense.
I thought about how music was
everywhere if one could only hear it,
catch it, frame it,
and how the blur between
composed and organic sound was,
in this place, complete,
but that only we who were then
in the garden, would ever hear it in
quite this way,
with random birds and insects
winding themselves through melody
I thought about a book I once read,
in which was discussed the ways in
which music might be measured: that
a physicist might describe sound moving
through air, measuring pitch, time,
frequency, while a critic might comment
on melody, nuance,
and that both were true.
That music was not separate
from its sound, that it was the sound,
and that it showed us the
‘soul of the world’.
And I thought about how this garden
had always been a thing of beauty,
but that the sound confirmed it as a
timeless place, a place of wonder.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His works include Philosophy in the Garden (2012) and the forthcoming The Art of Reading (2016).
“A melody unfurls its fronds and I understand why the violin’s neck is curled.”
Luke Fischer, ‘Gardening’, Paths of Flight
The Keukenhof in Holland is high kitsch: acre upon acre of hyacinths, jonquils, daffodils and, most of all, tulips. Tourists bus in, try to avoid photographing one another photographing the flowers, then soon bus away. It is easy to mock gardens like this, as somehow fake or superficial—something for breezy out-of-towners,not serious garden-lovers.
But they are delightful. The shock of fluorescent corollas and sky, the play of stems in breezes, the meditative waltz of bees on tepals—these are sensory pleasures, pure and simple. They can be enjoyed for their own sake, with neither reflection nor justification. Like the trills and glissandi of van Eyck’s ‘English Nightingale’, they offer experiences that demand nothing beyond themselves.
This does not mean every garden must be delightful. They can be sublime, ascetic, brooding or menacing, and still be excellent landscapes. Delightful gardens simply offer pointless joy, in which we can revel without blame. As the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller noted in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, it is the virtue of a civilised mind to savour semblance without mistaking it for anything more. And gardens are an apex of semblance: a show, a display, a spectacle.
As pageants of sensation, gardens are also invitations—to thought and reverie. Every garden is literally and figuratively what we make of nature. Normally the world’s raw materials are hidden in glass, timber or plastic, but the garden is an exhibition of natural textures, forms, scents and hues. We give new harmonies to quartz, Agapanthus and Echium—yet they are still visibly rocks, flowers and shrubs. At the same time, we also reveal ourselves: the very human ideals, values and impressions that push us to intervene. For every eighteenth-century French estate showing off geometry and autarchy, there is an English one celebrating the serpentine and democratic. Some gardens suggest hardy austerity, others cartwheeling caprice.
Because of this to-and-fro between nature and humanity, gardens encourage philosophy and art. They prompt speculation and creation because they are a unity of two riddles. Nature is an enigma of sorts—we can never get to the bottom of what it is. It is always just beyond comprehension, if only because things like ‘comprehension’ are themselves uniquely human. Yet we are also mysteries to ourselves. There is no one humanity, fixed and forever—we shift with era and geography. And our own minds can be opaque or just baffling to us. In short, the garden combines two suggestive questions, nature and humanity.
Importantly, this unity is not achieved with numb abstraction. Instead, the garden offers sensory richness: bark to touch, perfume to smell, leaves to hear, and so on. To cross the threshold into a garden is to enter a new space, marked by goading or seductive puzzles, each offered in a tangible form.
History records many artists and thinkers beguiled by these virtues. Novelist Jane Austen with her Chawton Cottage syringa, finding consolation in the flowers’ eternal cycles. Philosopher and playwright Voltaire at his estate Les Délices (‘The Delights’), seeing the garden as an opportunity for civilised progress. The painter Eugène Delacroix in his garden studio, revelling in the botanical intricacy and dynamism. ‘I caught him in an ecstasy of delight,’ wrote novelist George Sand of her friend, ‘in front of a yellow lily whose beautiful architecture had just revealed itself to him.’ Philosophy itself had horticultural beginnings. Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus—each had his school in a park or garden.
Every garden, then, has at least two offerings. The first is pure delight: the pleasure in sensory richness or subtlety. Perhaps the tang of a tomato vine, or its furry leanings on stakes. Perhaps the burgundy peaks and capillaries of an Amaranthus. Perhaps just the sudden encounter with shades of green after a day’s indoor grey. The point is that the garden is a space for gratifying attentiveness.
The second is the opportunity to reflect: on nature and its habits, on oneself and one’s era, and on the ties between these. Put simply, the garden inspires and rewards thought. And this need not be academic philosophy, or the grand speculation of Plato and Aristotle. Poets like Emily Dickinson think in language, just as painters like Delacroix think in pigment and oil.
Gardens can be status symbols, labours and larders. But they are also hallowed spaces, which nudge us to look and think again.
Jane Davidson and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Australia Council for the Arts, Fiona Winning, Lieven Bertels and Sydney Festival, Ed Champion and staff at Vaucluse House, Sydney Living Museums, Criss Canning and David Glenn of Lambley Garden, Malgosia Fiebig, City Carillonneur of Utrecht, Toby Chadd and ABC Classics, Sheena Boughen and the Four Winds community, Music Norway, Lou Oppenheim and Circus Oz, Henk Heuvelmans and Martijn Buser of Gaudeamus, Graham Pushee and Arts Management, Martel Ollerenshaw, Atticus Bastow, Nick Roux, Ann Lacey, Francine Tanner, Jude Gun, Steven Richardson, John Davis, Fiona Blair, Damon Young, Pat Hockey, Greg Lyons, Adam Gibson, Joseph Browning.