Getting out of nowhere

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

I went to a wedding high up on the hill in Bountiful, Utah, which is one of those towns where you can make a reasonably precise estimate of a person’s wealth and status by how high up on the hill their house is. This was a newly built residence, with the steep hillside tastefully terraced and the terraces landscaped with dozens of flowers and shrubs.

Bountiful is zone 7 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while I come from zone 4 or 5, so there were lots of plants I didn’t recognize.

When I met the owner of the new house, I asked him what a particular plant was, by way of making small talk. He looked toward it as though for the first time, the look on his face vaguely between puzzlement and blankness.

I saw that the landscape was not really his garden. It was an amenity he had purchased, with the cost probably including delivery and installation. The plants didn’t constitute an aspect of his consciousness as is the case with a gardener in his garden. They were just “over there.”

His body was in the garden but it was not in him. Besides not knowing the plant’s name, he also did not know where it was in its life cycle, whether it was thriving or just getting along, or what it might need before winter.

Chimpanzees can't watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

Chimpanzees can’t watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

I quickly changed the subject to the weather, but the moment reminded me of an illustration I sometimes use to evoke the hierarchical structure of reality. Imagine a chimpanzee at a baseball game, maybe standing on third base. He can see the batter, the runners, and the glittering lights of the scoreboard. What he can’t see is the game.

There is a level of reality that isn’t accessible to him. He can’t comprehend what’s involved in a situation characterized as bottom of the ninth with two out and the count 3-2. He could never figure out what a bunt is, let alone why it might be used. He can’t wake up to a reality that, for him, will never exist.

We’re all like that to varying degrees. We’re all surrounded by levels of play to which we are oblivious. Things are happening that we do not see, though they are right in front of us. The homeowner could see the colors and the plants. He probably knew how much it all cost. But he was not there, was not present the way a great ball player is in the game.

Writers on place have talked a lot about the how easy it is for us to slip into being nowhere, to have heads full of abstractions that filter out the world around us. In modern America, commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. People move past such places without seeing them in the way that gardens are seen. They can have a kind of perfection, similar to silk and plastic flower bouquets that represent flowers but lack the essence of flowers. The dimension of time—the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying—has been minimized, leaving only an aesthetic composition.

Typically, the makers of commercial landscapes rely heavily on hired labor and annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common. Rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, an expense. They are ironic constructs because a carefree garden is nearly an invisible garden. We are left with the sense of a garden, in somewhat the way that Pizza Hut gives us not Italy but a sense of Italy.

The modern mall may be the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice, to evoke what is becoming our primary function: wanting. Desire is the spell such places are designed to cast. We move through an aura of well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We move along in our dreamy business, undistracted by care, maybe with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.

Breaking the spell is easy. We just need to ask what it is for, what it means. This restores the real game, which is to see more, understand more.