Our most recent session of the environmental literature discussion group, Ryerson Reads, was about Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). Harrison’s Gardens is not the sort of work we generally discuss. That is, it is not a work in the broad tradition that begins with Thoreau’s Walden and includes the many American books that connect a meditation about a particular place with a meditation on the subjective experience of a sojourner in that place. These books – let’s call them what Thoreau once called Walden, “a meteorological journal of the mind” – include such very different texts as Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge and Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and constitute something like the mainstream of American environmental writing. Neither is Harrison’s Gardens a traditional work of garden writing that might belong in the tradition that stretches from Gertrude Jeckyll to Michael Pollan, or the traditional academic monograph that one might expect from Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University.
Gardens, which Harrison calls an “essay,” recalls the root meaning of that term: a try or an attempt. Harrison attempts to delineate some of things that the ancient human imperative to order outdoor space for aesthetic purposes suggests about human nature. The attempt, necessarily partial and incomplete, is undertaken with all the resources of a master teacher of the humanities. Dante, Boccaccio, Italo Calvino all figure in Harrison’s bibliography, as do Plato and Epicurus, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and many more in many languages. The difficulty of the book – its many references and subordinate texts – is part of the pleasure of reading Gardens: you admire the reach of Harrison’s learning even as you work to keep up with his argument.
Central to Harrison’s argument is the idea of care (cura), which Harrison defines, learnedly, by telling the story of Homer’s Odysseus stranded on Kalypso’s island of earthly delights. Kalypso has offered the hero immortality if he will only stay with her in her garden of perfect beauty, but Odysseus spends his days there pining for Penelope and Ithaca. But what he also pines for is the human world of mortality and imperfection where care and cultivation are possible:
Had Odysseus been forced to remain on Kalypso’s island for
the rest of his endless days, and had he not lost his humanity in
the process, he would most likely have taken to gardening….
For human beings, like Odysseus, who are held fast by care
have an irrepressible need to devote themselves to something.
A garden that comes into being through one’s own labor and
tending efforts is very different from the fantastical gardens
where things preexist spontaneously. For unlike earthly
paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and
maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature
of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call
it the mark of Cura.
Harrison extends this claim in a striking feminist adaptation of the Christian felix culpa argument by asserting that Mother Eve, an apostle of Cura, redeemed humanity from the idleness of Eden by delivering us into the world of labor and care.
The gardens Harrison surveys in this brief and crowded book are many. Plato’s academic grove is contrasted with Epicurus’s kitchen garden as divergent expressions of the Greek idea of civis virture. Harrison analyzes the temporary gardens of homeless people in New York City as exemplary of human biophilia or, as he wittily calls it, “chlorophilia.” He writes of Versailles as the monument to a suite of regal vices. And there is a lovely interlude on Kingscote, an out-of-the way garden on Stanford’s campus, which is one of several places in the book where Harrison insists that to be a garden there must be a wall enclosing it, but that the wall must have openings to people and polis: “Gardens are vital to the degree that they open their enclosures in the midst of history, offering a measure of seclusion that is not occlusion.”
In the final chapters of Gardens, with the help of a cast of sources that includes Ariosto, Pound, and the Czech modernist writer and gardener Karel Capek, Harrison launches an attack on modern Western restlessness and consumerism. Our manic modern energies, and the environmental destruction they have wrought, are for Harrison a renunciation of Cura in quest of a dehumanizing Eden of creature comforts. Modern westerners live in “the expectation of an Edenic condition, in which the sole higher purpose, if not obligation, of the citizen is to enjoy the fruits of the earth in an increasingly infantilized state of sheer receptivity.”
A bracing and challenging book, Harrison’s Gardens provoked a rich discussion among the group at Ryerson Reads. Consider joining us next season, when we will discuss Berndt Heinrich’s Life Everlasting; Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger; E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence; and T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth.
Written by Benjamin Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature. Ben has led Ryerson Reads for the past eleven years and is now preparing for an exciting 2015-16 season.