The Garden – beyond human needs


Gardens are and could be a living metaphor for symbiotic growth and coexistence. It displays and communicates how one organism cannot exist without affecting another. Having a garden requires taking care not only of what serves our own needs, but of the whole fragile ecosystem that maintains the balance in the space. Yet, the lack of awareness of this fragility could also mean building gardens as a mere form of decoration, and a symbol of human dominance over nature. Isn’t that rather identical to the human relationship with the environment? Can a garden exist with less human mediation? What purpose do gardens serve and what identity do they hold beyond human needs?

The relation between humans and gardens has been an ancient, evolutionary, and synergetic one. While perhaps gardens came into existence because of human intervention with nature, one cannot deny that the concept of gardens has done independent transitional growth on its own, through various ages, cultures, and positions.

Gardens can be seen as a binary between nature and culture, but this duality comprises of contradictions and requires a deeper exploration. Donna Haraway insists on the term “natureculture” or “natural cultural”, putting the terms together without a hyphen as a terminological innovation to refuse the separation between those fields.1 Haraway writes “what’s at stake in the judgment about nature and what’s at stake in maintaining the boundaries between what gets called nature and what gets called culture in our society”. But does this binary between nature and culture give gardens their true agency of independence? How does the idea of natureculture reflect on the gardens that are under extreme human control?

Gardens serve as one example of altered nature through human intervention, compelling us to reflect on other such human interventions with nature and their purpose. Can these modified forms of nature grow on with a stronger agency and can these be repurposed to contribute to support the collapsing environment?

Now, in the 21st century, gardens can mean different things resting on the context, regional influence, and purpose. Gardens as more than just an aesthetically curated space catering merely to human needs. They have evolved into symbols of awareness, (and too many times, the lack of this awareness as well) community, and acknowledgment of the environmental urgency affecting lives beyond humans. This post-human relationship of gardens with nature should be empowered and communicated effectively.

Historical Background

Tracing back the relationship between humans and gardens: Mythologically, most religions and culture acknowledge the existence of a heavenly garden before the existence of humans on earth. Popularly known as the Garden of Eden, the idea of heaven and paradise was often connected to that of the garden. This myth eventually turned into tradition, as various cultures and religions started considering gardens as a symbolic representation of paradise on earth. Often, societies borrowed elements and symbols from religious and mythological texts describing paradise and situated them within the gardens they built. This could be clearly seen within the Zen Gardens of Japan, which symbolised the eight mountains from the mythological place of Hōrai; in Islamic Gardens, which often included four water bodies representing the four rivers of paradise; and in Greek/Hellenistic, Indian, and Egyptian traditions gardens were specifically connected to temples and places of worship, adding on to the divine identity of gardens.

To further build up on this relationship between paradise and gardens, etymologically, the word Paradise comes from Old Iranian/ Avestan word ‘Parideza’, meaning ‘a walled/enclosed garden’. This was later adopted in Greek as ‘Paradesos’, meaning ‘a royal enclosed garden’ and eventually to French and English as ‘paradise’. This reflects the present day general understanding of gardens as an enclosed natural space. Apart from English, languages such as Persian and Arabic use the same words for gardens and paradise. With time, gardens developed throughout the world as a utopian enclosed natural space separated from the world. Eventually, gardens adopted various political, cultural, economical, and environmental identities depending on the context they were placed and understood in.

One of the most interesting cultural relationship between humans and gardens comes historically from the Roman Empire. Following the Roman dichotomy between amoenitas (delightfulness) and utilitas (usefulness), scholars traditionally class gardens as either utilitarian or pleasure gardens, but this binary choice does not fully capture the essence of Roman garden culture. Roman gardens were complex physical and ideological spaces. They represented wealth and contributed to wealth and they showed off horticultural skills through aesthetics and their ability to produce food, much like the contemporary gardens.

Contemporary Perspective

Does this traditional and mythological understanding correspond to the modern relationship humans have with gardens?

Coming back to the contemporary definition of gardens being an altered form of nature through human intervention, although it provides a broad and inclusive definition for gardens, it also presents gardens in a very human centric way of understanding the world. We as humans often describe things around us by how we relate to them and, in this case, humans as the creators, nature as a passive object under their control, and garden as a customised product. This understanding of gardens not only goes against the traditional understanding and historical relationship we have with gardens, but also positions humans above and separate from nature instead of being a part of it. The most common emotions associated with gardens are that of care and nurture, which are more reflective of gardening as an activity, rather than garden as a concept, further amplifying the notion of what we do with nature, is what it becomes for us.

To give gardens their independent agency, we should be aware of the difference between intervention and intrusion. How much of a garden belongs to us, and what parts belong exclusively to nature? Would giving nature and the environment more command within a garden disbalance the binary between nature and culture? What is required by humans in the process of making a garden a haven for the ecosystem that extends beyond only humans? What marks the border between a garden and wilderness, and how important is it (if at all) to identify this border?

The Way Forward

This alternative approach to gardens is aimed at exploring the current relationship between humans and gardens that go beyond the activity of gardening. What other identities do gardens hold beyond the binary of culture and nature? Once seen as a symbol of paradise, what should gardens symbolise in the future? How does the contemporary  relationship between humans and gardens relate to the mythological and traditional identity of gardens? What can the new environmental knowledge and climate change awareness add to this identity?

By activating these conversations, we attempt to uncover the layers of co-dependency between humans and gardens, while constantly questioning the ​​obligations gardens have with the environment which go beyond human needs. The discussion aims to use the parallel understanding of the concept of gardens and explore the future of the human-garden relationship. Future gardens need​​ to be epistemologically designed to sustain and ensure the symbiosis with the non-human lives within itself, while raising awareness for the environmental urgency faced by the planet. But what knowledge needs to be generated for this? And how can such knowledge production grow in and in-between multidisciplinary institutions?

The primary intention here is to produce knowledge from involving and evolving different local and contemporary discourses on the concept of gardens through an artistic research process with transdisciplinary perspectives from art, architecture, culture, and education.

Paintings from National museum’s collection:

Trädgårdsinteriör från Linköping by Johan Fredrik Krouthén, 1887 – 1888

Vattenvegetation. Motiv från Östergötland by  Johan Fredrik Krouthén, 1885.