Many of us have been influenced by classical ideals when it comes to our ideas about landscapes and gardens. This can be shown in two ways. First, through ideas about reason, order, and even God. For people as far back as at least the 5th century B.C.E. – Plato’s time, roughly – the mind was considered the important part of life, and “matter,” the stuff of life, was at best something to be conformed to the image of the human mind which – supposedly – reflected the Divine in that it was orderly and rational. As far as I can tell, control was a big part of the classical movement. The human mind would control the natural world. Therefore geometry applied to gardening was an ideal.
Secondly, the application of human reason to agriculture meant that machines were developed and agriculture became more efficient in bringing in harvests. There was less human labour on the farm, although more in workshops and factories.
Jethro Tull (the agriculturalist, not the flautist of the rock band) is sometimes credited or blamed for changing agriculture forever. Tull’s theories were new: he thought that fertilizers were unnecessary (especially too much nitre) and that the earth itself contained all that is necessary for plant growth. It needed but plowing, hoeing and cultivation to make particles finer and to increase crop yields. This last part of his theory has been widely discredited; we now try to reduce tillage to preserve soil aggregates and avoid disturbing the micro-organisms and relationships that exist in the soil around growing crop roots. Nevertheless, Tull’s seed drill made it possible to predict and control row crops so that rational methods of weed control could be used. In that sense, at least, he prepared the way for technical marvels such as the mouldboard plow (Deere), the McCormick reaper, and – ultimately – spray rig. Efficiency based upon improved mechanical science became the norm.
Machines tend to determine how you plant, what you plant, and – perhaps most significantly – the shape of the fields you farm: again, geometry rules. We don’t want too many corners, curves or scattered trees to go around, because that hinders the most efficient use of our machinery. This leads to beautiful aerial views of prairie fields, but also to the desire of farmers to drain swamps, “behead” little hillocks, and generally use mechanical force to force nature into human convenience.
Since I purchased a rototiller I noticed how I prefer long, straight rows – fewer turnings-around – and that shapes my garden plans. Instead of working small “lands” in the garden which involved patches and curves, I am encouraged by my rototiller to make those convenient long rows. Where there is an infertile spot in the garden I formerly would pile on the half-finished compost and let the mound of it sit a year “in place” and work around it. Not so much anymore. Therefore, while my garden looks more like a jungle than anything remotely classical in nature, it has been affected by the technical developments that proceeded from rationalism to scientific advancements to mechanical determinism. I’m not sure of this, but I think I see some evidence that some classical ideals are at work even in the organic gardening movement with its emphasis on perfectly-spaced raised beds and paths. From the air, some of these “perfect” gardens look to me like one more attempt to force nature into a human, geometrical mold.
This column is a continuation of ‘Edenic Landscapes I’.