Sunday, January 11, 2015

Because Weeds

So much of gardening in my part of the world involves getting rid of plants. Constant, vigilant, effortful plant eradication.

I live in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, but it was all hacked out of hardwood forest over several centuries and despite population pressure and sprawl, it wants to be forest again.

Not an inch of ground in southern New England tolerates being bare. It started out as vast white oak forests, and then, after the European settlers had cleared so much of it for farms, native red maples and poison ivy moved in where sunny open ground was left untended.

Now, it is the aggressive foreign-introduced plants that are moving in: autumn olive, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, tree of heaven, Norway maples and other invasive competitors.

It is astonishing how quickly dirt becomes weeds becomes brambles and then becomes a shrubbery on its way to reforestation. It only takes few seasons from weeds to forest.

I get tired of hearing gardeners (myself among them) constantly complain about weeds. We read books about design, we pore over pictures of paths and seating areas, we lust after the botanical marvels we want to plant, but we spend our days taking out weeds, or fretting over not getting them out fast enough or often enough.

We garden in a state of constant agitation. We are barely in control. It is hard to sit and contemplate life in our gardens, because, you know, weeds.

I read a couple books this winter on Islamic gardens. What is strikingly different about them is that they exist for sitting, contemplating and experiencing the calm of creation.

They are not walking gardens (it's too hot there to be active outdoors), they are not even visual experiences, although they are artistically beautiful.

They are formal, enclosed spaces you sit in, quietly and contemplatively, using all your senses to experience God's paradise. They are oases not just from the harsh landscape outside the garden wall, but also spiritual refuges.

That is their purpose, and all design and plantings and hardscape and water features are built for exactly that use of the garden. You sit, you visit with people, you eat and rest in the garden. You carefully encourage flowers and trees to grow, using ingenious irrigation systems.

Balance and harmony reign.

Here, in our gardens that seems impossible.  Yes, we have benches to sit on. But our gardens are action spaces -- paths lead somewhere, curved garden beds wander, lawns exist for play areas, at least in theory.

And the constant need to pull out as many unwanted plants as you can in a day means that even when we have a bench to sit on in a quiet nook of the garden, we can't sit still.

The garden here is never, not even for a day, in balance. It is always aggressively growing toward something else.

It's not that an Islamic garden is work-free. Achieving perfect balance and harmony does mean effort -- the gardener has to irrigate and prune and plant and nurture the garden. But it is effort toward creating, and it is garden work that celebrates growing and fruitfulness.

Here our effort is toward eradicating what wants to grow. Gardening in New England involves eliminating plants and always fending off the agitation of being overrun.

Our gardens are rewarding and beautiful, but the word "battle" comes to mind more than "harmony."

After learning so much about Islamic gardens, I am struck by how different gardens in other parts of the world are -- not just how they look or are designed, but how completely differently we experience them and what it even means to have a garden some place other than my own spot on the globe.

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