I’m no expert in landscape architecture or the history of garden design, but in my work over the years I’ve found it interesting that trends in these fields seem to closely track a culture’s dominant ideology about Nature, and the human presence within it. The Baroque, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic movement all had their particular twist on the sculpting and presentation of vistas for the human spectator.
In Europe in the latter half of the 19th century, on the heels of the Romantic period in a Gothic revival, strategically placed ruins among wild Nature came into vogue. The absurdity of this practice was famously highlighted and mocked in Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, a novel about two copy-clerks who after a financial windfall stumble from one field of knowledge to the next in search of their true calling. In one episode they attempt their own Gothic garden landscape, but the result is ridiculous. They invite some neighbors to enjoy their creation, and comedy ensues. In the end, after trying out every conceivable vocation and failing, they wind up where they began, as copy-clerks.
Ruins, cycles of history, and the inevitability of decay were popular subjects in 18th and 19th century art, and it was this trend that drew Flaubert’s ridicule. Following Claude Lorrain, J.M.W. Turner painted several scenes of imperial decline and faded grandeur. Inspired by Turner, Thomas Cole took the cyclical theme to new heights of pomp, most clearly in The Course of Empire. This artistic changing of the guard matched the real passing of the torch of Empire. In Cole’s day the British Empire was at its height while the American was witnessing its dawn. Cole seemed to be issuing warnings, but from the safe distance of the speculative daydreamer. It’s more likely that he was simply capitalizing on the Romantic ruin craze that was the aesthetic fashion of the times.
There is also the question of whether these artists foresaw decline, or if perhaps they were engaging in the very popular practice of ruin envy. The reigning British Empire and the nascent American Republic both emulated the forms of antiquity, in order to puff themselves up, but also to create a mythological narrative to rationalize something as morally treacherous as Manifest Destiny. So one could say that artists depicting the rise and fall of past civilizations were actually engaging in a propaganda campaign. This is the same impulse that led Hitler and Speer to design the outrageously monumental architecture of the Third Reich specifically for its ruin potential. After a thousand-year rule, the ruins had to look good.
Today’s trend is to do away with the human presence altogether, to exhibit the landscape in its “natural” (that is, pre-human) state. So it’s really just taking the ruin craze one step further to total elimination. We long to see native plants in their wild habitats. The Highline in Chelsea and Grant Park in Chicago are good examples of this. And now the New York Botanical Garden has a new Native Plant Garden (pictured above). Edward Rothstein has an excellent review in today’s New York Times. He writes: “The contemporary interest in ‘native’ gardens is related to these concerns about nature and its processes: in some ways, the interest is in restoring a habitat, trying to reproduce an ecological world that is premodern, freed from the disruption of external forces.”
Now, by identifying this as a trend, in no way do I mean to adopt Flaubert’s mocking stance. I love the idea of creating native landscapes, and I can’t wait to visit the new Native Plant Garden. I’m even trying to do the same in my own garden. I think it’s a good thing to let Nature be Nature, and to attempt to reintroduce native plants and wildlife back into our suburbanized and sanitized landscapes. However, I can’t help but notice that as a trend this has a certain meaning and suggests a shift that we should pay attention to. One of the things about trends and styles is that when you’re caught up in them it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. That is, when the trend is first upon us, especially when it carries the weight of moral virtue, we may be blind to its cultural implications.
In the above photograph, notice the beautiful wooden walkway. This reminds me of the catwalks in the ancient Chauvet Cave, in Werner Herzog’s documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The message is that humans are not meant to be here, and if you are, then it is a privilege. Humans are by nature rude, inconsiderate and destructive, and given half a chance they will despoil a pristine environment. This is how it looked before you came along and fouled it all up. This is what it should look like. Humans are sinful creatures. We have tasted from the forbidden fruit, and we have been expelled from the Garden.
For those of us concerned about ecological threats, which would of course be pretty much everyone in the world except the radical base of the Republican party, the movement to restore native habitats might seem to be mostly an attempt to assuage the massive guilt we feel from screwing everything up so badly. (Nietzsche would scoff, but then how exactly would he respond to our present crisis, one mostly caused by an Americanized mass production of the Übermensch?) And while I think it’s a good trend, something we should all support, I believe that at the end of the day it represents wishful thinking, and it’s not nearly enough to address the scope and magnitude of our true problems. It also dangerously reinforces the message that humans are separate from Nature, rather than a part of it. Then again, are we human, or is it more accurate to say that we are Homo Colossus, to use William Catton’s term?
In the 19th century paintings functioned as cultural touchstones, much like our blockbuster movies of today. A single painting could tour the country, sell tickets and fill halls. Thousands would flock to witness the spectacle. Painters were catering to a market and to the whims of the public, just as the movie studios do today. They give us what we want. They tap into and then reinforce the Zeitgeist. There’s no need to list examples of the post-apocalyptic genre so prevalent every summer in our multiplexes (and on our TV screens). The craze of the ruin aesthetic is alive and well today, over a hundred years after it was mocked by Flaubert. It was passé back in 1880 when he wrote it, and yet for us it remains a trite summer entertainment ritual.
The main difference between then and now is that while the 19th century exalted the ruined landscape as an end in order to emphasize how far we had come, we fetishize the feral landscape as a beginning, in order to imagine where we might be going. Bouvard and Pécuchet decorated their garden with relics of the past for the enjoyment of the present, engaging in a morbid and sublime angst. We seem to be asking, what happens after? The assumption here is that there will be an after, we just don’t know when it will hit. But when it does, how will it unfold? How will things revert? How should this landscape look? Is the feral landscape a decline, or a healthy rebirth?
Art and culture (even gardens) have a way of sending out signals to society at large, much like Jung felt that dreams contained messages from the collective unconscious to the conscious individual. Is the native landscape such a dream?
What does it mean when we fantasize about our own disappearance?