On the Inspiration for and Practice of my Garden Photographs Around the World


An Islamic Tree of Life

Tonight I want to share with you some of the rather esoteric research I have been working on for many years. It’s about the evidence of the mythology of paradise that we can still find in gardens.

As an artist I first became interested in the subject in about 1968. At first my sculptural sensibilities were engaged by all the random topiary and clipped bushes to be found in the residential areas of Vancouver. I started taking photographs of examples of them. Vancouver has a lot of clipped bushed – it’s a topiary city. When I assembled the photographs together, the combined results presented an unusual, even surreal sort of environment.

I began to ask myself the questions: Why do so-called ordinary people clip bushes in strange shapes along their front walks? Why do they create little ornamental gardens in front of their houses anyway? The houses are quite often virtually the same, all lined up in rows, and yet, here was evidence of a lot of individuality at work in the different shapes, rocks, trees, paths, planted, assembled or constructed in their front yards. At this point I also came across some references to the origins of ‘topiary’ and ‘paradise’ in a book on Italian gardens by Georgina Masson and it dawned on me that there was a connection between the intriguing front yard gardens in Vancouver and the concept of paradise.

This inspired me to undertake a research project on the connection between the mythology of paradise and gardens which I am still working on. It also led me into the production of a number of artworks – photo and text works, sculptural installations and some garden designs.

Through my research I have learned much about the garden/paradise and the fundamental relationship of man to nature. It is imperative to realize how important these origins are – how the myth of paradise is so much a part of all of us. As E. I. Hall points out in The Hidden Dimension,

One senses that there is a growing awareness of a loss of relatedness to the world at large. This loss of relatedness leads to an increased need for organizing frames of reference to aid in integrating the mass of rapidly changing information with which … (humans) must cope.

As Lucy Lippard notes in The Lure of the Local (New Press, 1997),

Canadian artist Glenn Lewis has pointed out that gardens are metaphors for both the center, or home, and the four directions they symbolically ‘look out on.’

I learned that my efforts were a literal entrance to myth, that organizing my work around a myth gave the work a public frame of reference beyond my individual artistic interest, and it gave me the perception to interpret the material into a coherent whole – a mythological language of images and symbols. The garden reveals itself as a kind of language to assist us with our comprehension of our origins, our life and death, through the ancient mythologies of paradise. Paradise myths are origin stories like the Garden of Eden — utopias.

The language of the garden I refer to resides in the various elements found in gardens. This is a kind of mythological journey from birth to death — the pattern of life which is echoed in the garden over and over again. Each element: the gate, the path, the field or courtyard, the waterway, the statue or topiary, the tree, the mount, the grotto, often reiterates the total pattern/language as well as represents itself as a part of the pattern.

Tonight I will begin with a concentration on the gateway — the initiation into the garden — the first words in the mythological language of the garden. And then I’ll describe the other eight elements of the garden/paradise with some subdivisions.

I should also tell you something about my photographs. I see the photographs as a detailing or referencing in my search for the elements of paradise in the garden. I try to distance myself from aesthetic or personal considerations when I take them in an effort to let the elements speak for themselves. In some instances, they are rather like postcards, in others, I am led into unusual places and odd viewpoints. In no way do I find myself as a photographer in the artistic sense, but rather as a kind of documenter. In the course of this research I have taken photographs of the paradise elements in many gardens in the USA, Canada, England, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Turkey Iran, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Japan. I plan to visit and photograph gardens in China, and it would be great to be able to produce a book on this subject with these photographs.

The Gateway – The Entrance or Threshold to the Garden/Paradise

The gateway is at once the literal entrance or initiation into the garden/paradise – the beginning of the journey, and as well, it is the first stage of retracing one’s steps to return to one’s primordial nature.

The gateway is the symbol for both the fertility powers of the hole and the opening of this world onto another. It can symbolize birth or rebirth into an ‘other world’ — paradise. This also implies that it is the entrance to death.

The gateway or the structure of the gateway can also represent other aspects of the garden/paradise: the pillars of the gates can indicate trees; the entrance to the cave can also be a gateway and there may be guardians at the gate who are continuously on guard day and night against anyone who attempts to disrupt the order of the cosmos.

The association of trees with gateways is through the use of columns.

In a cosmic sense, the two pillars or columns are symbolic of eternal stability, and the space between them is the entrance to eternity – the passage between earth and heaven… Taking them as separate symbols, the two units making up the number two are different in kind.

It is for this reason that Saunier gives the particular significance of the two columns rising up at the entrance to temples as that of evolution and involution, or of good and evil (comparable with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (or Death) in the Garden of Eden). The two columns of any garden gateway represents the symbol of duality at the entrance to paradise. The lintel supported by two columns represents a balanced tension between opposing forces – life and death.

Chinese garden entrances are often circular or octagonal. The circle or circular hole is a symbol of heaven and perfection (just as the square symbolizes earth). The hole as an artistic expression, is found in the Chinese Pi, i.e. the representation of heaven. It is a jade disc with a hole in the middle. Entrances between the various sections of Chinese gardens are never sited opposite each other as this might facilitate the passage of evil spirits. A hole is also the Hindu gateway to heaven.

As a symbol of heaven, the hole also stands specifically for the passage from spatial to non-spatial, from temporal to non-temporal existence, and corresponds to the zenith.

Schimmel, in The Islamic Garden, comments on the enclosed and inner aspect of the garden/paradise with its necessary gate and gatekeepers.

But notwithstanding its enormous spatial extension, Paradise seems rather an enclosed garden, as were the gardens in the East: surrounded by God’s greatness, the garden becomes, so to speak in mystical interpretation… the inner aspect of creation…. There must be walls around it, for the Koran mentions its gates, which are opened, and the keepers will say to them, ‘Peace be upon you! Well you have fared; enter in, to dwell forever.’ And they shall say: ‘Praise belongs to god…’

It was comparatively easy to associate the constant exchange of greetings from the gatekeepers and the praise of those entering Paradise with a musical mode, and in fact Rumi (d. 1273) did once defend music as being “the creaking of the doors of Paradise.

In the mythological scheme of things, when you enter the garden you enter a different time zone – a primordial type nostalgia for the terrestrial paradise. The gate punctuates this passage to another time.

Utopiary — Man among the animals in the garden/paradise.

Just as Adam and Eve inhabited their paradise, the Garden of Eden, gardens are inhabited sometimes by people or beasts in the form of topiary or statues. Gardens are also inhabited by actual insects, birds and other wildlife, some of which are often not so welcome.

One of the conditions of the primordial or original paradise was the human friendship with animals and knowledge of their language – in other words, living in harmony with nature.

The gateway to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life were protected from unworthy intruders by angelic cherubim with flashing sword, stationed there by God after he expelled the sinners, Adam and Eve. Statues at the gateway, fearsome or otherwise, are common features of the garden/paradise.

Beyond the gateway, along the paths, in the field or by the edge of the forest, by the roots of trees, near the pool or in the grotto, dwell the memories of the original inhabitants of the garden/paradise — the elves, fairies and mythical beasts.

In myths people are often transformed, as if by art, into plants or to stone by enchantment. Lot’s wife was changed to a pillar of salt when she went against the prohibition and looked back.

Animals, people and other symbolic representations are found throughout the garden/paradise, transformed to stone, metal, wood or plants in the form of statues and topiary.

The Japanese believe that stones, trees and other natural things are inhabited by spirits, kami, and that their correct placement in the garden is auspicious and especially important to keep them happy.

Certain primordial desires can best be satisfied through the making or glimpsing of ‘Faerie’ – in the full archaic sense of the word, or beauty that is an enchantment, which

is relatively diminutive, a characteristic of Faerie imagery. Topiary — the shaping of trees and bushes into living sculpture in the garden, derives from the ancient Greek word, topia which is the diminutive of ‘place’ — ‘a little place’. It also came to mean the illusionistic landscape painting on the end of the garden wall. These first landscape paintings were thought of, then, as magical little places or paradises.

In Roman times the ‘little places’ grew into frescoes all along the walls of the peristyles and also into miniature landscapes with dwarfed and trimmed trees in the garden.

It was a diminutive garden/paradise for the little people who inhabited it.

Jean-Paul Hallet likens the Pygmies to the fairies or elves, even linguistically: the Pygmy word for man or the first man is Efe. Compare the English ‘elf’ or ‘fairy’, the German Fe or the French fee. He also locates the Garden of Eden paradise as the original home of the Pygmies on the eastern edge of the Ituri Forest at the headwaters of the Nile.

Fairies are often associated with gardens in Western lore. The fondness for putting sculptures of cherubs (child-like little people) and dwarves in gardens serves as a nostalgic reminder, however subliminal, of a race of little people inhabiting the original garden/paradise.

The perfect, integrated image of the Pygmy, the elf, the original man and the pang of nostalgia, is bound up in the person of the child-size god, Cupid or Eros, the oldest of the classical gods, who with his Pygmy-like bow and arrow, strikes at the heart – the Centre of humankind’s original spirit in the garden/paradise.

The Pathway – A maze of paths through paradise

The simple, seemingly aimless path has its beginnings in the remotest antiquity. Ivan Sanderson in his Book of Great Jungles, describes a curious phenomena he observed during many years spent in the jungles of the world.

Animal highways… are followed by everybody from mice to the large cats and plodding tortoises. None of them will deviate from these paths… If you just give up all your preconceived notions of trekking… and let yourself drift, you will find you are following the highways of the wild world.

The perception of the path and what it passes through constantly changes by the act of movement. It might lead from a meadow into a woods or along a stream, but it is the sensation or awareness that it will continue to lead wherein lies the mystery of the path.

The path may take the form of the whole garden as in the pathway pattern of a maze or labyrinth. According to J. E. Cirlot,

The terrestrial maze, as a structure or pattern, is capable of reproducing the celestial, and both allude to the same basic idea — the loss of the spirit in the process of creation — that is, the ‘fall’ in the neoplatonic sense — and the consequent need to seek out the way through the ‘Centre’, back to the spirit.

The path through the garden is the connector — the way between all of its parts. The path can be straight, it may climb or descend, or it may be apparently aimless. All of these connotations of the path lead to different interpretations and consequently the path often lends itself to the particular symbolism of any of the garden’s parts. When the path climbs to a higher level, especially if it rises by steps, it becomes closely associated with the mountain and heaven. Mircede Eliade states,

One attained the ultimate heaven by ascending the seven stages of the Babylonian ziggurat, or travelled through the different cosmic regions by scaling the terraces of the Temple of Barabudar… Death… is symbolized by a climbing of steps and funerary rites often make use of stairways or ladders. The soul of the deceased ascends the pathways up to a mountain, or climbs a tree or a creeper, right up into the heavens. We meet with something of this conception all over the world, from ancient Egypt to Australia… But we also know that the symbolism of climbing up and of stairs recurs often enough in psychoanalytic literature, an indication that it belongs to the archaic content of the human psyche and is not an ‘historical’ creation… The ideas of sanctification of death, love and deliverance are all involved in the symbolism of stairs… because it is thought to be set up in a ‘centre’, because it is a concrete formula for the mythical ladder, for the creeper… the Cosmic Tree… that connects the three cosmic zones — the underworld, the terrestrial world and the heavens.

The Fields and Cloister – The patterns in paradise

The sense of place or site is paramount – sacred ground, a temenos. It is surrounded by calm and perfection as much as by walls or trees, which harks back to an archetype such as Colin Turnbull describes, remembering a Pygmy campsite.

It was a natural clearing a couple of hundred yards across, with a patch of trees and bush in the centre breaking up the clearing so that it was really two… The ground, instead of being covered with leaves, was covered with a kind of grass… Apa Lelo, or the Camp of Lelo, will always be one of the most beautiful parts of the forest for me.

The primordial clearing — the circle plus free interpretation — is essentially a mandala. Geometrically it is counterbalanced and concentric — the squaring of the circle, a visual, plastic struggle to achieve order within diversity and a quest to be reunited with the Centre as it is conceived in all symbolic traditions.

The natural clearing in the forest, a defendable prominence or an area by some benign stretch of water becomes the campsite or centre of man’s social activity.

This centering activity corresponds to many ritual acts which have the sole purpose of finding out the spiritual Centre of a locality, which then becomes the ‘site’ of an image of the world.

This quest for the Centre is often enacted in the garden/paradise as a labyrinth, maze or parterre.

In the convergence of the path and the patterned field, the mover is moved from the biological to the geometric, from actual forms to the spiritual.

The denseness of the centre can be likened to the cloister, the courtyard or the patio, in the sense that they are enclosed and private as opposed to the idea of patterning on an open field. The field and cloister are actually two aspects of the centre – the field is open and manifest – the cloister is enclosed, private, a protected space. They both express the centre but from different points of view.

The association of water and the fountain with the cloister or courtyard is central to the quintessential image of the earthly paradise. As in the Garden of Eden, four rivers are shown emerging from the centre, that is, from the foot of the Tree of Life which is translated in the garden as four paths or water channels from the central pool or fountain.

This is evident in the courtyard plans common in Spain, Italy, Holland, Persia, India and other places. to branch out in the four directions of the cardinal points in the cloister as four paths leading to the central pool or fountain.

Waterways – water in the garden/paradise

Water is an essential element for life and in the garden/paradise, in its primary image, it is seen as the ‘font’, the ‘source’, or the ‘origin’. The fountain, situated at the ‘Centre’ of the cloister or courtyard, gushing up, satisfies this image very well. But in its primordial image it springs up or spurts forth from the earth or rock in a cave on the heights of a mountain.

Another way of apprehending the Centre in terms of water is in the context of the island. The island surrounded by a sea of water corresponds to a clearing or courtyard surrounded by a forest or walls. It is like a mountain rising from the ‘plains’ of the sea.

Steepness in the garden landscape indicates a primordial regression which is characterized as the ‘return to the mountain – a return to the mother’.

From the heights of a mountain , water moves downward into its secondary phase – the channel, stream and river.

A stream or river is ambivalent; it signifies fertility in nature by irrigating the land but it also stands for the unrelenting passage of time, a sense of loss or oblivion.

Bathing in the sacred rivers of India is equivalent to shedding the body and achieving salvation – losing a former self in the oblivion of ‘the ocean of existence’.

The four rivers (often substituted by four paths) issuing from a common origin in the four cardinal directions is an image of the world. This image combines fertility and life with timelessness in a similitude of the garden/paradise such as the cloister.

Water in its third stage comes to rest in a pool, lake or ocean and has two seemingly contrasting attributes. Both are relative to the symbolism of level.

The depths of the abyss are inherent in the pool or lake, which has the symbolism of the underworld and death. The other essential aspect of the pool is its stillness and resultant mirror-like surface of self-contemplation, consciousness and revelation. The heavens are reflected on the water surface, thus uniting the high with the low.

The pool with vertical connections to both the abyss and the heavens and to the horizontal earth, meeting at the surface of the water, yet again , express the total image of the Centre of the earthly garden/paradise.

Metaphorest – The sacred trees of paradise

Trees are the major, natural structural element in the garden/paradise – the original ‘bower’ home for human’s ancestors. The Centre trunk of this early home in the evolution of humankind has been re-enacted in many cultures by the symbolic and ritual use of the centre post in houses to affirm access to heaven. Spiritually, the tree pathway is vertical — the branches, a stairway or ladder soaring up to heaven, the roots extending down into the underworld.

The tree also represents fertility and proliferation, inexhaustible life, food, growth and regeneration. The bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California reach ages of four thousand years — the world’s oldest inhabitants. Both in symbol and reality, the tree can truly be described in the image of a ‘Tree of Life’.

The Centre symbol of the tree is elaborated further by the association of the original home with the abode of deities in a sacred grove, sacred tree or bower in the garden/paradise — a home for nature’s wisdom and immortality. The Ginko tree, unknown in the wild any longer, and probably the most ancient or primitive of existing flowering plants, was preserved and revered in Chinese temple gardens through the centuries.

The fruit of trees, as well as providing food and symbols for stars in the universe, were considered the sources of wisdom, as were the apples in the Garden of Eden myth.

All Neolithic and Bronze Age paradises were orchard-islands, in particular, apple orchards. The pomegranate, date and fig were also important fruits in other paradise myths.

Nemesis, the life-in-death goddess incarnation of the Greek Triple Goddess, carried an apple hung bough in one hand and a wheel in the other. The apples were a passport to paradise — the Elysian Fields. the spokes of the wheel signified the seasonal transformations, ending in the annual drama and festivities of the death of the king, i.e. the old year and the marriage of the new king with the priestess of the moon goddess, i.e. the rebirth of a new year. Nemesis bestowed her apples on the new king in the knowledge that his death was inescapable – the promise of immortality in paradise.

The Mount — The sacred mountain in the garden/paradise

The mound in the garden/paradise is a symbol of the archetypal breast — the mountain mother – mother earth. Mughal gardens are usually comprised of seven terraces corresponding to the seven stages of paradise outlined in the Koran.

Just as the tree is the symbol of the living spiritual Centre attaining to heaven, the mound or mountain is the symbol of the earthly Centre — ‘the site’ in the earthly paradise, often in the middle of a forest or a large sacred grove.

The Centre as mount is particularly explicit where it is an island where it is surrounded by water — a symbol of creation itself.

In the garden/paradise, the mountain/island is sometimes an enchanted place where everything is tiny — a navel-like mount. Morgana the fairy dwells in Avalon, the magic island of apples far in ‘the navel of the deep’.

The ancient Indian sacred site — the concept of tirtha is characterized by noteworthy rocks, isolated blocks of stone or mounds.

In the Rg Veda the universe is conceived as expanding outward from a central point. All Indian spatial and communal schemata follow the same pattern of axial orientation.

The umbilical cord of a Coorg’s eldest son is buried in a central plot of the ancestral estate. This has been a widespread custom in India. The curving spiral path up the mountain — a pattern of the universe — represents attainment with the cosmic forces in action. This spiral navel/mount conveys the vital movement, conveys the divine word. The first letter ‘A’ is related to the cone, the pyramid, the mountain, the first cause. These images bind together as the first manifestation of the world’s beginning, like in Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word”.

The world-axis tree was sometimes located on the mountain, uniting the spiritual Centre symbol with the earthly mountain Centre symbol in the garden/paradise. In early times, the tree on the mount symbol was assimilated by the building of temples in the form of a geometric mountain. In Buddhist times the stone ‘chattravali’, the symbol of the sacred tree and its branches, crowned the building which was continued on Hindu temples. With the Mohammedans, the tree on the mount symbol is used on the tomb or ‘baradai’ set in the middle of a garden from which four waterways issue in the four cardinal directions. Christian churches are often surmounted by a cross, a symbol of the sacred tree.

Inner Sanctum – The grotto in the garden/paradise

The cave or grotto is the natural end of the journey through the garden/paradise — the end of the symbolic journey of life from birth to death, but it is also the entrance or opening to another world, a new beginning.

The more precise image of the mountain-mother or mother earth is in the opening in the mountain — the womb/cave — the collective source.

According to Hermetic doctrine to ‘return to the mother’ was equivalent to dying.

The cave or grotto is the link between the Abode of the Dead, nostalgia for the paradisiac state, mother earth and the collective unconscious, but it is also another beginning, a rebirth, a gateway or opening into paradise which brings the journey full circle – a reminder of the seasonal wheel of the goddess Nemesis and her life-in-death promise of immortality with the branch of apples.

Like the tree, the abode of the live spirit, the cave is the abode of darkness and the primordial unconscious.

The cave is a place of passage between earth and heaven, a womb where wondrous miracles are hatched in another world. Some cult sites in prehistoric caves were later made into miraculous Christian shrines. Lourdes, for example, is a religious cave of the Quarternary.

The grotto-mother is both the symbol of death and the source of life – the original water source issuing forth from the darkness of the cave. They are one and the same thing in paradise — the timelessness of nature.

In Medieval thought the cave was the symbol for the human heart, the spiritual centre — the interior paradise. This new beginning, through the opening of the grotto in the garden/paradise, centres on an interior journey — the garden/paradise as a necessary condition to reflect the true nature of the human spirit. Joseph Campbell puts it well,

Taken as referring not to any geographical scene, but to a landscape of the soul, that Garden of Eden would have to be within us. Yet our conscious minds are unable to enter it and enjoy there the taste of eternal life since we have already tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. That, in fact, must be the knowledge that has thrown us out of the garden, pitched us away from our own centre so that we now judge things in those terms and experience only good and evil instead of eternal life — which, since the enclosed garden is within us, must already be ours, even though unknown to our conscious personalities.

The garden and its elements is a remarkably intact symbolic language of the primordial interaction of humankind and nature and a way to that original vision — the utopic nostalgia for paradise.

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