Yesterday I browsed again – I much prefer that quiet bovine metaphor to that of the muscular (and possibly drowning) surfer – through Keith Thomas’s fascinating Man and the Natural World, thinking to illustrate, through an assembly of quotations, the culture wars between art and nature which have been fought in gardens since the renaissance.
It is largely a question of ‘Man’, of course, although women were kindly allowed a look in quite early on. They were thought to have some affinity with flowers.
“Gentlewomen, if the ground be not too much wet, may do themselves much good by kneeling upon a cushion and weeding,” thought William Coles in Adam in Eden, in 1657. Today we’re all gentlewomen.
But in 1716 John Laurence, a cleric, wrote that “in a garden a man is lord of all, the sole despotic governor of every living thing”.
In 1629 the herbalist John Parkinson ruled that the scabious was not a flower of ‘beauty or respect’ and should be left in the fields. Single marsh marigolds belonged in the ditches but double ones could be brought into gardens.
William Harrison, writing in the 16th century, thought that the beauty of gardens had “wonderfully increased… so that in comparison of this present the ancient gardens were but dunghills…. how art also helpeth nature in the daily colouring, doubling and enlarging the proportion of our flowers, it is incredible to report.”
On the other hand, William Coles, ‘noted that some gardeners loved to “feast themselves even with the varieties of those things which the vulgar call weeds; and indeed there is a great deal of prettiness in every one of them if they be narrowly observed.”’
Narrow observation shows the first little seed pods on honesty.
The nature lovers have the best rhetoric. Here’s a wonderful rant from John Ruskin. He may have died a virgin but, especially when he was angry, his writing was really sexy. To him a flower garden was “an ugly thing, even when best managed: it is an assembly of unfortunate beings, pampered and bloated above their natural size, stewed and heated into diseased growth; corrupted by evil communication into speckled and inharmonious colours; torn from the soil which they loved, and of which they were the spirit and the glory, to glare away their term of tormented life among the mixed and incongruous essences of each other ,in earth that they now not and in air that is poison to them”.
I’m not sure what he means by ‘corrupted by evil communication’: is it a reference to the sexual perversity of hybridisation? Ruskin was writing in an age when the cult of the double flower was still lively, double being an odd word for flowers which could have hundreds of petals, so that the sexual parts were as if concealed by layer upon layer of petticoats, in prim gardens where flowers wore chastity belts and bees were driven into exile. But as Christopher Lloyd pointed out, flowers which remain unfertilised last much longer.
My attempt to design an argument through the assembly of quotations soon became confused, like my attempts to design gardens. But here are a few more interesting pieces:
Parkinson wrote “for many gentlewomen and others that would gladly have some fine flowers to furnish their gardens, but know not what the names of those things are that they desire”. But they knew that they wanted what was in fashion. Later in the 17th century come references to “obsolete and overdated” flowers, and in 1676 John Rea announced that many of Parkinson’s favourites had “by time grown stale and for unworthiness been turned out of every good garden”.
In the 18th century it was noted that artisans produced the finest blooms at flower shows because being sober and hardworking they could give their plants close daily attention, whereas the gentry and nobility were dependent on the labour of hired servants who took less care. I would add that the difference of scale and vision is significant. Noblemen dealt in the broad expanses of landscape, the artisans would have had maybe just a handful of plants, which they could ‘narrowly observe.’
There have always been idealists who scorn fashion and competition. “When I was in my earthly garden a-digging with my spade”, said the mystic Roger Crab, “I saw into the Paradise of God from whence my father Adam was cast forth”.
Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica. A weed from paradise.
But no paradise here. The box moth caterpillar is back, just when we were beginning to think we might be safe…
But my long awaited Echium fastuosum has begun to flower, and the bees are coming.
And here, narrowly observed again, (at dusk) is Euphorbia palustris, its flower buds about to open:
And here’s my favourite pest, the lily beetle. It’s popular with me because it doesn’t move fast – its only defence tactic is to fall to the ground – and it gives itself away, being scarlet, like the British infantry in the 18th century. But it’s a good example of how we artisans can succeed over the gentry. Daily observation will find them out before they can mate and lay their eggs. Once hatched, the little grubs cover themselves in their own shit as they devour your lilies. But it’s much harder for paid help, coming once a fortnight, or even once a week to deal with the problem. Especially if they spend most of their time ferociously blowing, mowing and strimming.
They seem to be mating, but have they really got the hang of it? Near the top of the photo you can see that the first bites have already been taken.
A last word, on images: there’s very little control in this wordpress site over font, font size, and the size of images. I’ve finally worked out that the only way I can get the pictures to be bigger is to change them from landscape to portrait, or at least to make them taller than they are wide, which doesn’t always suit , of course. Whereas normally on the computer screen portrait is much smaller than landscape. So here’s the euphorbia, narrower:
Hi Jonny, your ramblings are lovely, but your photographs are even better. Thanks for opening up the world of philosophical thought on the evolution of flowers to a wider audience. Viv