“Gardens: An Essay” by Robert Pogue Harrison

Strange how, even in the most unlikely places, thoughts can still turn to gardens. Jury duty last week had me confined for a good part of Friday in a large, drab room full of strangers, all of us potential jurors awaiting selection for a trial. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., lunch break until 1:00 p.m., finally excused at 2:30 p.m., my juror services ultimately never required. I had expected to be there until 5:00 p.m., so when early dismissal was announced I practically skipped down the courthouse hall. Expecting a long, chair-ridden, time sinkhole of a day, I had grabbed a huge amount to read, including The New York Review of Books of October 13, 2011. (Seems I rarely read entire books anymore, just reviews.) Sometime mid-morning, deep in a review of the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s latest book, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” the writer of the review was so impressive and his bio in the NYRB so brief that I had to google him on the courthouse’s computers. (Thoughtfully, the courthouse had provided five computers for potential jurors to share.) Among many scholarly works, Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford, published a book in 2008 with the intriguing title “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,” and an excerpt from this essay subtitled “The Vocation of Care,” could be brought up on the courthouse computer (found here). The long day was now whizzing by in a gluttony of reading, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my last plane or train journey. In this essay Prof. Harrison explores the myths of Eden and how they drive our age and history. He feels that faced with the prospect of living forever in paradise, as Odysseus was on the island of Kalypso, humans would wish desperately to return to their homes and care-ridden lives, “For unlike earthly paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call it the mark of Cura.”

Prof. Harrison recounts the parable of Cura, or Care:

“Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: ‘Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called homo, for it is made out of humus (earth).'”


image found here

While care is a constant, interminable condition for human beings, specific human cares represent dilemmas or intrigues that are resolved in due time, the way the plots of stories are resolved in due time…in general human beings experience time as the working out of one care after another.

“Here too we find a correlation between care and gardens. A humanly created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always ‘the constant gardener.'”

Yesterday I found this audio clip of Prof. Harrison ruminating on the jacaranda tree in the quadrangle outside his window at Stanford, and how “cultivation” is an apt word for expressing the kind and depth of attention required to sustain a garden, an education, a democracy. So far, I’ve only listened to this part 1 of 4 and will catch the rest this weekend.

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6 Responses to “Gardens: An Essay” by Robert Pogue Harrison

  1. A client gave me this book about a year ago, and I really enjoyed it. Definitely one of the denser gardening books I’ve read and more cerebral and allegorical, but a very good read for anyone with a philosophical bent and a love of gardens. It draws from a broad range of texts–Italo Calvino to the Decameron (and his perspective was much different from what I remember reading as a freshman in college!). He’s taking a close look at the ways in which gardens, and the care of gardens are an expression of and a portal into human experience and ultimate existential dilemmas. I’m glad you posted the video. Cheers!

  2. Denise says:

    Kristin, yes, “a portal into human experience” — and what a great voice Prof. Harrison has too!

  3. Grace says:

    Hubby sleeps beside me so I won’t listen to the video right now but the book sounds intriguing. Constant care really does put our mark on something and the investment fuels the love or at least a bond. I think we were created for caring and/or caretaking. Great post, Denise. As usual you’ve got me thinking.

  4. Denise says:

    Grace, no, don’t wake hubby! I’m so glad you enjoyed Prof. Harrison’s work. I’m going to finish the rest of the videos today.

  5. Les says:

    Wow, you got a lot more out of your jury experience than my last round of civic duty. I was on a grand jury and it was work from the first minute until the end of the day with no time for an enlightening read. We had several hundred cases presented to us by arresting officers and had just a few minutes for each case to decide if it was trial-worthy or not. The donuts were delicious though.

  6. Denise says:

    Les, my husband got into a lengthy trial his last jury duty as well. No donuts though…

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