Friday, January 11, 2013

Walter Mason gets philosophical in the garden with Damon Young

Gardens have always held a sentimental place in my personal history. My beloved grandfather was a keen gardener, and when I was eight he came to my house and helped me establish my own vegetable garden, growing eggplant and paw paw trees, tomatoes and green beans. Every day after school he would come over for an hour or so and tend to my little garden while I followed him about, chatting about the world and all of the amazing things that were going on in my own special garden.I have remained fond of them all my life, though I am not really possessed of a green thumb, and my success rate with any plant is only ever around 50%.

Damon Young's wonderful new book, Philosophy in the Garden, is a beautifully written and highly entertaining exploration of writers and thinkers and their relationships to gardens and plants. The garden, he says, is one of the most fundamental expressions of civilisation, representing a place where we flirt with our fear of nature and our great desire to somehow curb and control its beauty.

Sydney's Hyde Park gardens
It is also central to the Western philosophical tradition, with all of the great schools of the Greeks being established in and around gardens.

The garden has also been a place of retreat for writers, those terminally indoor creatures like Jane Austen who nonetheless benefited from a daily turn around their garden beds. My favourite writer gardener has always been Vita Sackville-West, though in this book Young is much keener on the garden work of her romantic rival, Leonard Woolf.

Damon Young

This beautiful looking book is a wonderfully refreshing mix of literary gossip, historical exposition and philosophical reflection, and I never wanted it to end.

From Proust's beloved bonsai that provided him with an entire imaginary world to Nietzche's despised and immoral nature, a place that showed up what he saw as the cruelty and randomness of a capricious universe, this book never allows the reader to slide into easy platitudes about gardnes and flowers and home sweet home.

I was struck most by Colette, that deliciously amoral writer, who in her final years was bedridden and deprived of the pleasures of the plants and gardens she had so loved. And like Rousseau I have been struck by the romantic possibilities of nature, and at various points in my youth was convinced that the only solution for the future of humanity was to live more in accord with what I imagined was nature's perfect - and perfectly beautiful - system.

If you have ever planted a cactus or sprayed a lemon tree or mowed a lawn you will find much to fascinate you in Philosophy in the Garden. In equal parts bookish and outdoorsy, it balances the romatic dynamic that so many of us literary types battle with, and challenges the binary of art vs. nature.

You can purchase this or any other book at the global bookstore links: all above right. We also love to hear from you. Don't hesitate to post your comments, thoughts, responses. You might also want to catch up with Damon Young's 2014 article on his current reading.

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