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What is a garden?

Elephants spontaneously doodle with stones and sticks; given the equipment, they paint. Koko the gorilla (famous for using American Sign Language) uses a camera, draws and paints. In the 1940s at Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology, the female chimpanzee Alpha would sometimes rather draw than eat. Not just humans make art.

And gardens? To attract a mate, the male bower bird builds a collage of twigs and various objects, like feathers, shells, pieces of human trash, leaves, berries, moss and even orchids. He chooses particular colors, arranges everything with care, and replaces wilted leaves, moss and flowers with fresh new ones. One group of these avian artists is called the “gardener” bower birds. But I don't get the feeling they care about their gardens the way we humans do.

What is it we’re doing? Why do we do this? In 2004, at the Ninth International Congress of The International Society of Ethnobiology, an Austrian group presented a study titled "Why do women farmers estimate their homegardens as an oasis of happiness?" They concluded that "the motivation for gardening does not only depend on material outputs of gardens, but also on the intensity of emotions created by gardening." The gardeners talked about the satisfactions of being responsible for their garden, having an opportunity to work creatively, and feeling connected to their land and to the rhythms of nature.

Labeling all these feelings "emotions" may be a little oversimplified. I'd like to see scientists distinguish between a wider variety of non-cognitive mental activities: for example empathy, imagination, intuition.... But at least they acknowledged that gardening is more than a utilitarian pursuit: it engages more of us. Parts of us we may have few outlets for in our workaday lives. Parts of us undernourished by the culture at large.

A garden is a place set aside, to take special care, to pour love into -- just for the joy of feeling the energy that collects there. Most gardens have plants, but not all. In Barcelona on the roof of Casa Mila, designed by the avant-garde architect Antonio Gaudi, the roof is a sculpture garden composed of many chimneys rising in gigantic fantasy shapes, each unique, each surprising; together giving -- some say -- the impression of warriors in a forest. I haven't been there; I wonder what one feels connected to there?

Or in the Japanese gardens composed of nothing but stones and sand?

© Copyright 2007 Catherine Holmes Clark

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Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 6 April 2007

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