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Gardens & human nature



‘What explains the immense significance that human beings locate in making and experiencing gardens?’
Professor David Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens, 2006, p. 3

Rodin the Thinker

Professor Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University in the United Kingdom, poses the above question as the ‘fundamental’ question about gardens.

As a philosopher of ‘meaning’[1] Professor Cooper is at pains to point out that our appreciation of gardens cannot be simply reduced to our appreciation of art or of nature, nor is he concerned with a garden’s ‘scope, design and function‘ and he is not searching for any ‘historical, anthropological or biological significance’. He points out that his enjoyment of the view of an orchard from the refuge of a gazebo has nothing to do with what had survival value for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. What he is looking for in answering the question posed at the top of this page is something more – something akin to Francis Bacon’s observation in 1606 that gardening is ‘the purest of human pleasures’ or celebrity English gardener Alan Titchmarsh’s observation that, apart from having children, gardening is ‘the most rewarding thing in life’. He is asking what significance gardens have for people (I think).

Why do gardens attract?

As the author of this article I have been engaged with gardens and horticulture all my life and for most of that time as an academic: a reflective gardener from a Botanic garden who has a vegetable patch at home, not much of a hands-on gardener or designer.

In Australia, where I live, I have often been told that more people engage in gardening than in following sport. If that is true then you should be impressed. This fact, together with the general observation that gardening has played a major role in human history ever since the first settled human communities, leaves me totally convinced of the importance of Professor Cooper’s fundamental question. I have often wondered why the subject of my study has held so many people in its thrall, myself included: to me its attraction is undeniable. You can understand why I sought out Professor Cooper’s book as soon as I saw it mentioned on the web. Here was a professional philosopher who was prepared to give my life-time study some long-denied serious thought.

So what is the significance of the garden according to Professor Cooper? It takes a while to get into the book but the professor does not shirk his task and he does give us an answer, there is a Poirot-style dénoument. The professor’s web site I believe summarises his thinking most succinctly:

‘The meaning of the garden is to be understood in terms of the garden as an epiphany of the relationship between creative human activity and the mysterious ‘source’ of the world’.[2]

In the book:

‘Gardening or cultivation [is] a practice which, engaged in with an appropriate sensibility . . . embodies more saliently than any other practice the truth of the relation between human beings, their world, and the ‘ground’ from which the ‘gift’ of this world comes.[3]

Even granting the list of professor provisos listed in the opening paragraph of this article this is not what I had expected.

I just do not find such a definition satisfying. But rather than engaging in an unproductive argument with the professor, which I would undoubtedly lose, let me just say simply that I think such an important question deserves other answers and different perspectives, and I would like to share my thoughts with you on this matter because I think there will be others who would also find Professor Cooper’s question enthralling even if his conclusions are unsatisfying.

Meaning & empiricism

I return to the original question posed by Professor Cooper and agree about its overwhelming importance. I suspect we have different approaches to ‘meaning’.  For me, when we ask an extremely broad question like ‘What is the meaning of life?’ it seems we can answer in two very general ways. Either we can say that meaning derives from outside ourselves, that meaning is given to the cosmos and our lives by some external factor like god(s) … or we can say that meaning is something that comes essentially from within us.

For me the answer must come from within us, it is we, in interaction with gardens, who give those gardens meaning. In the same way I think that the cosmos itself does not have meaning, that it is we who give it and our own lives meaning (See Meaning & purpose). Further, it is absolutely legitimate to ask what it is within us as human beings that gives rise to this meaning. What are the chords within our human nature that are struck by gardens? No doubt professor Cooper would regard such a quest as illegitimately biological but I think that the question he poses for us can and must have an empirical answer.

I agree with a review of this book written by Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Donald Crawford of the University of California at Santa Barbara who regards this book as being for philosopher-gardeners who have … assimilated Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty … and that we should be aware that it is addressed to ‘exemplary’ gardens and ‘thinking’ people … what Kant referred to as the supersensible substrate of nature.[4] I agree with Professor Crawford’s assessment. When we talk of ‘exemplary’ gardens for ‘thinking’ people we are entering a rarified intellectual atmosphere that will not appeal to many when other explanations will do the job. Most gardeners are much more earthbound, both literally and metaphorically. We can answer this most important of questions empirically, without being mysterious, metaphysical, phenomenological, or transcendental.

Human nature

Since appreciation of gardens appears to be a universal characteristic across cultures, then it seems reasonable to suggest that it is initiated by something that is within our human nature. If we are going to build an evidential foundation for this claim then we need some agreement about what we mean by human nature.

Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker suggests that human nature is the ‘commonality of basic human responses across cultures … it encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly‘, it is the totality of ‘Universal patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour‘. Most importantly human nature is not something mystical. We lie within an intellectual tradition that has looked to many of the apparently unanswerable questions about human nature (for example, why do we seem flawed, imperfect, sinners? What does it all mean?) as questions that can only find a solution in religion and metaphysics.(See Meaning & purpose, human nature).

Our task now is, in principle, straightforward. We need to single out those universal characteristics of our human nature, our predispositions, that are triggered by or resonate with gardens and gardening.

I suspect that the number of factors we find will be many. This is an ongoing project but I will begin with just two: our response to space and time.

1. Space & time

Our perceptions of the world are guided by the way our minds have evolved to structure it: we are born with innate mechanisms and predispositions. As philosopher Kant and others have observed, our minds structure the world along two dimensions, space and time. Natural phenomena within the world that excite our awareness of space and time give us pleasure, or at least a heightened sense of awareness of our ‘being within the world’. It makes us, perhaps unconsciously, aware of an interaction with what is in the physical world outside our minds.

Perhaps a good way of understanding this is to think of the way that sports engage our minds. The changing location of a ball in space and time as influenced by our actions has crucial outcomes. Almost all sports are tests of our space-time skills working on the physical world external to our bodies, perhaps in the manner of the ancient hunt of our ancestors. This direct and meaningful physical engagement with the ‘external’ world gives us a distinct sense of pleasure.


As an art form it is a fusion of art and nature that engages the fourth dimension so that nothing is final, all is ephemeral, as all things change with the seasons and the organic characteristics of birth, growth, maturation, senescence, death, decay and renewal meet us in real time as well as changes in light, temperature etc. Gardens reveal the passage of time visually in a manner akin to the way music presents the passage of time audibly.[5] As a living, transient art they present constant challenge, lacking the finality of painting and sculpture.  It can recall gardens of the past while incorporating the predilections of the present.  We are ‘in’ a garden and move through it, it is not ‘framed’ like a picture even though there may be vantage points and vistas.  We experience the ambience or atmosphere as a whole.

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