It begins with a piece of land, which I wish to cultivate, and which I must therefore defend, against wild beasts and against my human enemies. And so the art of gardening was linked by birth to that of war, and Cyrus of Persia was admired by Lysander for the attention that he paid to both arts, in his pairi-daeza, his paradise, his walled garden. Lysander, being a Spartan citizen, was forbidden any manual craft. He was astonished to discover that Cyrus was in the habit of setting out and planting his own trees, that he never ate without first having worked up a sweat, doing something in the line either of war or of agriculture.
And this suggests a classical definition of gardening as being that activity with which I busy myself when I am not fighting (or otherwise serving the state). The faultless Athenian citizen Ischomachus (more of an overseer than a doer) told Socrates of a typical day, when he would walk from his city home to his farm, having sent his slave ahead with his horse. After supervising whatever was going on in the agricultural line, he would put the horse through its paces, imitating as closely as he could the skills needed in battle. Then, having returned the horse to the slave’s keeping, he would jog home, scrape off the sweat with a strigil, and settle down to the day’s meal.
What Lysander saw in Cyrus, what Socrates praised in his model Athenian, was typified for the Romans in the example of Cincinnatus—one moment plowing his field, the next assuming the dictatorship, then back to the farm again. Peace or war, prepared either way, like Churchill in the years of his eclipse, building his garden wall at Chartwell—the garden being a retreat, a buen retiro, only in the sense that a retreat is a maneuver from which I return refreshed, the better to face my opponents.
And within Cyrus’s retreat, his paradise, he had set out the trees according to the figure of the quincunx—the same figure which is recommended today in the planting of coffee (four bananas on the corners of the square, the coffee bush itself set at the point of intersection of the diagonals, so that the banana leaves protect the young coffee from the scorching sun), and which impressed Lysander and Sir Thomas Browne, the latter believing that it resembled the order of battle of both Macedonian and Roman soldiers. The trees thus shared a military discipline.
So the garden reveals itself, from the start, to be a complex idea offering an opportunity for complex and contradictory symbols. Peace and war are woven together, simplicity and magnificence, nature and art; beauty will be found together with monstrosity, contentment with fear. A cursory reference to the emblem books will not solve for us the meaning of some passage, for the meaning of the garden recreates itself afresh. Browne tells us that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon drove Nebuchadnezzar mad, since he…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.