Aeon is a new UK-based magazine, which specialises in essays: fresh every day.
In the past months I've read some fantastic works by Mark Rowlands (on play), Julian Baggini (on Kierkegaard) and Tim Ecott (on swimming). Helen Heyward's recent piece on motherhood was particularly lucid and moving.
I have a new essay on Aeon today, 'The Wisdom of Gardens'. Ahead of the UK release of my book, I'm revealing the powers of gardens: to console, sensitise and confront with fleeting reality.
The morning glory vines slowly cracking the window frames of this study; the couch grass invading the asbestos-sheeted greenhouse; the Salvia reaching out across the porch. All examples of human contrivance being continually undermined.
This was the writer Leonard Woolf’s outlook, too. An avid gardener, he nonetheless wrote that in fact ‘nothing matters’, by which he meant that no achievement had any divine guarantor. No achievement was destined for immortality or eternal reward. The struggle to maintain some civilised order in the household was mirrored in statecraft and psychology: unrest and insanity were never far away. Woolf saw this, not only in the rabid jungles of Sri Lanka (where he was posted as a colonial administrator), and in his Sussex garden, but also in the mind of his beloved wife, Virginia. ‘Everyone,’ he wrote in his memoir Beginning Again (1964), ‘is slightly and incipiently insane.’ The point can be generalised: everyone is also slightly and incipiently ill.
In Woolf's vision, the garden is no easy consolation, but is instead a private reminder, a way to recognise the limitations on all human enterprise, and a caution against false expectations for worldly perfection and control. The comforts of a silent camellia might blunt this truth, but they cannot — and ought not, for the sake of a more lucid life — remove the thorns.(Illustration: Detail from Garden at Arles 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. The Hague)