One of the great benefits of being a landscape gardener is the fact that it keeps you very fit. You use all the muscles in your body via the action of stooping, kneeling, leaning and digging and generally manhandling heavy items into place. (I even suspect I have used a few muscles yet to be discovered by medical science – at least some evenings it feels that way).
Such physical employment, combined with a perceptive eye in the pursuit of making beautiful gardens and outside areas is, I believe, one of the most rewarding jobs someone can do. Work that rewards both body and mind is one that is ultimately complementary to the human spirit – we need both stimuli to feel complete.
And I know isn’t just me from my landscaping experience who thinks this way. A recent article in the Guardian suggested that GPs are now actively prescribing gardening to get patients moving away from their sedentary twenty first century existences and into the great outdoors.
To me, that’s no surprise at all. Gardens have been used as metaphors for happiness and safety since the time of the earliest civilisations and throughout all cultures that possessed them. They are a place of tranquillity where the owner can enjoy nature without any of its dangers. In literature too, their symbolism as havens against danger and despair is reflected throughout all the ages of man in what is known now as the Locus Amoenus (‘Pleasant Place’ in Latin). From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the concept of the afterlife with the Elysium Fields, and even before, with the Paradise of Eden, gardens are symbolic of our happy interaction with nature in a more perfect world.
We shouldn’t think of landscape gardening as a recent enterprise either. A long time ago, when I was a younger man and doing my education under bearded sages and monocle-attired professors (perhaps a slightly romantic view – or too much of Harry Potter), I came across a 19th century edition of the Geoponica, a collection of 20 volumes on agricultural practices written in 10th century Byzantium. (I would like to say it was in a dusty library with long shadows and a forbidden section, but really it was a PDF that I scanned through and it was, literally, all Greek to me!). Nonetheless, the idea that there were textbooks for agriculture at that period was something I found quite remarkable. (Though as one of my colleagues murmured, if we compared a medical textbook of the same time to today’s practices, then we might not be so willing to entrust a surgeon to practise upon us using the same principles!)
Although oddly, landscape gardening has probably been through far fewer revolutions than medicine. A thousand years ago, the concept of curing a disease was not accepted, but rather the body’s ability to balance its humours (a decidedly unfunny branch of medicine that only started going out of fashion when the Black Death arrived in 1348 and later on in the Renaissance, when the Germ Theory of Disease started to gain precedence). It took the development of the microscope in the late 1500s to kick start this revolution, by making the inaccessible accessible (as we were looking for things too hard to see without aid). In comparison, agriculture works on a more macroscopic scale. We have been able to learn from our experience on the landscapes, unhindered by any concept of souls that served to make human beings a special case in creation, and thus harder to apply unorthodox medicine.
Gardens are not always so nice though. As so often in literature and art, tropes are deliberately inverted to better illustrate a point and to surprise the audience. For every Arcadia we have, for the Garden of Eden or the Elysium Fields, there are their opposites: dark, treacherous places, which are still beautiful, but full of evil intent and forbidden passions. Circe’s palace on Aeaea where men were turned into animals, the Faerie Garden of Spencer, or the Garden of Earthly Delights, by the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, which warns against temptation.
Beauty, and the pursuit of happiness, is perhaps not much more than a misstep away from becoming their opposite. Landscaping is a skill in which one mistake can destroy all you are trying to create.
So it is that ideal that provides me with energy afresh every day. When I am in a garden cutting back overgrown bushes, laying a path, treating a lawn or putting down a bed of flowers, it is in the pursuit of both my client’s happiness and my own, yet always with a careful hand to keep on the surest path.
I don’t think there can be many better jobs in the world.