The Origins, History and Philosophy of Gardening?

For the true origins perhaps a good place to start is with the word garden itself. It is thought to be from Proto -Indo European, from the root word meaning enclosure: Gher. Proto-Indo European is thought to have been spoken about 4500 BC and regarded as the root of most languages.

It seems to be in the mid neolithic, perhaps early neolithic, so roughly 10, 000 years ago in which humans first seemed to take on the idea of enclosing a piece of land. We can assume this was to more easily protect their homesteads but also to keep livestock and perhaps grow some crops although it’s more likely they were doing this in larger enclosures beyond the homestead enclosures.

I guess it’s a moot point on when early humans would have began to consider an area of land their own territory and of course it happens with other animals, all the various ways different species mark out their space. It could be argued the idea of land enclosure is inherent in nature, indeed in us and as we developed we became more skilled in enclosing using earth, wood and stone. There are examples of animals farming, the one which springs to my mind is some species of ants actively farming aphids.

The presumption has to be made the act of early enclosure was all about survival and food but I do sometimes wonder if there was anornamental element, it’s tempting to imagine early Neolithic settlers finding beautiful plants and then planting them in their enclosures.

This movement to enclose the land – a move away from the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle could be argued as the first real step into civilisation or to look at it another way: a symbolic moment where perhaps humans began separating themselves from nature as well as the first real important attempt to control nature.

Immediately for me this begins to raise controversy and deep fundamental questions. Perhaps, the most fundamental is: what is our purpose here on Earth? Are the animals, land and its produce here for us? Are we somehow separate or different from the rest of nature found on this planet? Do we have the right or perhaps more importantly is it wise to think we are different or to put it another way special? It seems during the course of our burgeoning development we have on the whole, certainly the so called developed world, seen and acted as if we have had to really struggle against or with nature. That we must conquer nature and perhaps subliminally we must destroy nature.

Sometimes it seems we are trying to run away from or vanquish something which is deep rooted in us: our own nature.

Throughout history many answers and explanations have been given to why we are here, our purpose and to what are relationship to nature should be. I think there are some which have been so dominant they have really swayed the way things have gone.

There can be no doubt of the influence of the Abrahamic religions on how we have developed and conducted ourselves as a whole over the past 2000 years. In the old testament it clearly gives the instruction and overall sense that the Earth and all its vast treasure – nature – is here for us, that we have dominion over it, the main reason being that we are made in the image of God, or we are more divine because we are made from the direct image of God. One example would be in Gen 1-28 where God commanded humans ”to fill up the Earth and bring it under control and to rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the heavens and all the living things that move about on the Earth.”

Of course the bible and the Abrahamic belief system is not the only influence on how our society has developed but it could be argued it is at its core, an indication of how we see ourselves and our place in life. I want to add too that there are more contemporary interpretations of the bible which suggest a more sympathetic environmental point of view, that God wants us to look after his nature and other creatures, that we are it’s guardians. Any environmentalism as a good thing but the overarching lasting impression is that the original Abrahamic view is that nature is here for us, we are superior to it and therefore separate from it.

It could also be argued that we have moved away somewhat from religious or as some would say superstitious beliefs to the atheist point of view, but this also seems to have made ourselves more separate from nature. The point could be made if there is no spiritual belief or explanation then a lot of people end up with the you just live and die and that’s it, so you might as well grab as much as you can, enjoy it while you can and hang the long term consequences of your actions. Again, this leads us again to see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature, that we are better and different from nature.

There’s something else that seems to be a fundamental part of the biblical story and indeed a common theme that seems to be in a lot of global legends, cultures, religions and creation myths: the idea of a forgotten or lost paradise.

B/W of Cole Thomas’s The Garden of Eden, 1828,

The Garden of Eden, the idea of a once Earthly paradise from which humans are ejected for disobeying God, a fall from grace. Perhaps it might be the most universally known part of the biblical story as it appears in western art and literature throughout the ages and of course the title of this post is the title of John Milton’s epic poem on the subject.

There are some who speculate Eden actually existed as specific place and location. There are others who say it is some form of allegory for humans as having lost their path from God or even some kind of ancient group memory of before humans became civilised: before the advent of self knowledge there was a state of innocence. It could be looked at as ancient memory for when early humans were living with nature such as the early hunter gatherers, although in some versions humans were living in harmony with the animals, that the animals were no threat.

A strong and persuasive argument for it being some kind of ancient memory is it does not just occur in the Abrahamic faiths it also features in many other cultures, eastern as well as western, as part of their creation myths, the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Mesoamerican civilisations and the Chinese Taoists, to name some of them.

As an aside, in Yoga and Buddhism with the idea of energetic systems within the body and soul, residing within the heart chakra is a paradise of the most beautiful plants, trees, animals and singing birds. It’s interesting a garden paradise exists at the core of these belief systems.

Back to the Abrahamic faith’s.

As previously mentioned there are some of whom some who believe or have believed the lost paradise actually existed somewhere on Earth. whether this true or not, it is perhaps significant this Paradise became or is a garden or ‘enclosure’, excluding the rest of the world which presumably was or is chaos. At what point this happened or why, it is hard to know. Is it the idea of an enclosure just makes us feel safe? Is it also or perhaps for how we perceive or experience life, as series of enclosures beginning with consciousness being enclosed in a physical body then the enclosures growing concentrically outwards.

Perhaps when we think about it, enclosures are a fundamental part of life, of the universe, enclosures within enclosures (micro environments to macro ones) and what is the ultimate enclosure? Of course one thing about all these enclosures is they are all connected even if only by the virtue of being contained with in one another or are the building blocks for one another. Maybe facing the ultimate vastness of life/the universe is again why we love the idea of an enclosure, to feel safe and protected, a sense of peace but let’s not also forget, an enclosure can also be a prison.

Whatever the truth of these myths or legends, perhaps they are most poignant as some kind of allegory for human development, an indication or clue to our nature or Psyche: that inside ourselves there is a part which is innocent in regards it is free, wild, natural but is lost. This might seem to suggest an internal journey only but perhaps the external is in the wilderness or nature because it is the wild of ourselves, the strongest connection to ourselves.

The final image of this post is a black and white of a William Blake illustration, taken to mean or show the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. There might be another way of interpreting it: An image of union between nature, the life force of the land as represented by the serpent, and humans represented by Eve.

B/W William Blake.

There’s something else that seems to be a fundamental part of the biblical story and indeed a common theme that seems to be in a lot of global legends, cultures, religions and creation myths: the idea of a forgotten or lost paradise.