As I wander again through the woods, the ground now covered in an inch or more of snow, I reflect upon the brief history of gardens recounted by Federico Campagna in his book Technic and Magic. The root of “paradise” arrives into Greek and Roman thought by way of ancient Persian gardens. “A Persian garden,” writes Campagna, “was a Paradeisos, to follow Xenophon’s first Greek transliteration of the original Persian term Pairidaeza” (175). For ancients, gardens functioned as living pictures of the cosmos. “This same structure surfaced again in Italy at the time of the Renaissance,” he adds, “when gardens were designed as miniature cosmoi (plural of cosmos, the universe)” (176). Let this history be a guide for our garden-making in the year ahead.
The yard around the house changes, of course, with the change of seasons. Neighboring houses enter sight, though still from a great distance, as trees lose their leaves. ‘Tis the season to build beds, I tell myself, so that when spring arrives, we can plant the beginnings of our vegetable, herb, and flower gardens. Because of deer, we’ll also have to raise a fence. The yard around this fenced-in area will remain open: some parts wild woods of trees, other parts mown. The deer are thus welcome still to visit and graze. Students and I arrive, meanwhile, to the tragic, long-awaited “novum-event” at the mid-point or core of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. A drug-consuming cult of “crazies” or “pyros” attack the narrator-protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina’s walled neighborhood and separate her from her family, forcing her to flee north. Lauren travels on foot as part of a “pack” with two of her neighbors. The three characters — Lauren, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss — must learn to trust one another to survive.
“It’s All Gardening,” says Stewart Brand in his book Whole Earth Discipline. What about the Green New Deal? And what about Gary Snyder’s “Call of the Wild”? There must be room for all of these. Community gardens, community farms. Households communicating and exchanging in networks of mutual aid. Brand married an Ottawa Indian mathematician named Lois Jennings. He joined the Native American Church, consumed peyote with them in ceremony at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico in the 1960s. Brand describes the ceremony in Whole Earth Discipline, acknowledging that it affords no more than a tiny glimpse of Native American culture. Along the way he quotes Gary Snyder. “There is something to be learned from the native American people about where we are,” the poet wrote. “It can’t be learned from anybody else.” What Brand advocates is “reinhabitation” of Turtle Island. Attention to and immersion in a locale. This is an idea he draws from Snyder, who writes, “we are all finally ‘inhabitory’ on this one small blue-green planet.” To which Brand replies, “might as well get good at it.” Somewhere in the Whole Earth Catalog is a conversation between Snyder, Brand, Ken Kesey, and Paul Hawken. I’m curious to know Snyder’s thoughts on Brand, as the latter remains for me a villain of sorts — not least due to his support for nuclear power. Snyder of course scolded him for that. The two are among the handful of signatories of the “Declaration of Interdependence,” a document unveiled at a press conference at Berkeley in September 1969.
At the center of a large, circular wooden coffee table in my upstairs study sits a copy of The Findhorn Garden: Pioneering a New Vision of Man and Nature in Cooperation, published by Harper & Row in 1975 as part of the Lindisfarne series. This latter was a book series under the editorship of William Irwin Thompson “devoted to an exploration of the newly emerging planetary society and the future evolution of man.” Other books in the series include Thompson’s Passages About Earth and Satprem’s Sri Aurobindo, or The Adventure of Consciousness. Do changes in mass sentiment correlate with changes in collective serotonin levels? Steven Johnson lays out the beginnings of a theory to that effect in his book on videogames and related forms of popular culture. Am I interested in practicing a kind of bibliomancy? The versions of Tarot and I Ching and astrology that hold meaning-making potential for me require belief in the power of “symbol-sets” to prompt “synchronicities.” The idea is that all of the above-mentioned symbol-sets allow some “acausal connecting principle” to manifest, as Carl Jung would say. This principle or power behaves as befits a trickster. We know it through its effects to be some sort of distributed intelligence, of which I and other users are but a part. We share with this intelligence a capacity for kindness and benevolence and care. We exercise this capacity by assembling daily reality into a jubilant, communicative mystery, containing inexplicably meaningful correlations and correspondences, there in the background like birdsong, for those who have ears to hear.
Strong is the power of ideology — but we’re changing, we’re slipping out from under the latter’s grip. Dancing in the streets. The tasks ahead seem massive but thrilling. Time to learn how to make of the lawn a garden. Purchase the tools one needs and get to it. Convert this place into a permaculture Oikos, a multiplayer bower of bliss.
Gardens brighten the day, as do messages written in chalk on streets. Bees give me pause. “Hello friend,” I say to one I admire. So, too, with mushrooms, dandelions, wild strawberries. Off the streets, behind the doors of homes, live others. The facade of each home serves as an emblem of the one or many private, undisclosed storylines within. All of them parallel worlds. Other people’s games. And sometimes we meet, we intersect. We enter each other’s discourse. Communication happens intermittently, both frequently and rarely. We produce a kind of mail art, signaling to each other as if across mountaintops with mirrors, and discuss redesign of the neoliberal world order, made happy by each other’s laughter.
White roses overgrow a trellis beside the driveway. I admire them from atop my perch on my front stoop as I shelter in place. Look at all the lovely everything, the leafy and flowery manifold Earth, sunlit and glorious, waving in the wind! A softness, a gentleness, enters into one’s manner. A grey tabby that likes to visit now and then sleeps out on my porch. I let it. Dreamboat baby tell all. At some point, though, I plan to grill some hot dogs. In a journal I note down the following: “In an imaginary interview published in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman uses language borrowed from his mentor Abraham Maslow to signal how his own approach and vision differed from those of his contemporaries in the New Left. Movements for change should be built, he says, not on sacrifice, dedication, responsibility, anger, frustration, and guilt, but on fun. ‘When I say fun,’ he tells the interviewer, ‘I mean an experience so intense that you actualize your full potential. You become LIFE. LIFE IS FUN’ (61-62).”
Time to start a garden. Peonies, tulips. Some gardeners plant by projecting forms into space, dressing the Other with squares, lines, and colors. But perhaps we can keep faith with something looser, more profuse. Hyacinths. We definitely want some kale. In the meantime, dig into George McKay’s book Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden. But we also need something practical, a DIY how-to.
I deem it wise to sit outdoors when possible. Pull out a lawn chair, listen to London-based Afrobeat 8-piece KOKOROKO, preferably later in the day, after lazing about dipping in and out of several texts midafternoon, testing the waters of each as if they were pools or oceans.
Perhaps I should jump right in. Practice Svadhyaya. But I prefer to pause now and then, take leave, retire into the alternative fictive domain of a backyard garden where shadows interact with light across bursts of Gaian majesty. Don’t ask me how it happens; I don’t know. The story of the Secret Garden, the story of the expulsion from an ancient leafy bower: these are mythic accounts, folk memories of dispossession, primitive accumulation, forced separation from the land.
Before arriving to the thing itself, I instruct myself to regard the 9-acre suite of Japanese gardens on the grounds of the Huntington not only in cynical terms, as a tourist site and a marker of social status, but also in more hopeful terms, as a site for encounter and self-actualization: manifestations, in other words, of Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise, enabling rebirth on a path toward enlightenment. Our observations, these gardens teach us, are always contingent, based on changing points of view. In the library itself, I request access to the “Aldous Huxley Oral History Papers, 1985-1990” and several rare books by Huxley’s friend and fellow mystic Gerald Heard. I also browse old issues of a journal called Aldous Huxley Annual. Consciousness airdrops into an altogether different Earth, however, some postindustrial world, an Earth of a different geological period, once the Subject exits the library and actually enters, sets foot into, the desert garden. Curvilinear profusion, flesh of the Earth thorny, prickly, and hairy. Morning doves and amber-bellied fox squirrels in the trees, lizards scurrying up the torsos of cacti. This is my Utopia, my garden at the end of time: this hot, wet, earthy, noisy, citrusy, fruit-bearing, sun-absorbing, multi-scented surround. I’m swept with the conviction in this moment that, whatever the details of this Utopia (apart from “full communism now”), our presence in it should be airy, minimal — an attentiveness to life’s formal richness that nonetheless remains light in its imprint. Let us be great lovers, tending only to our role as gardeners, nurturers, machines of loving grace, I’s who preside over the self-presentation of being. In these gardens and their surrounding bungalow heavens, this gift, this experience my love has given to me, LA prefigures its nickname “City of Angels.”