A fresco from a triclinium (Latin for “dining room”) from the villa of Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, at Prima Porta. The fresco, with its fruit, its trees with vigorous foliage, and birds, exudes with abundance!
When Lori and I lived in Maryland we would occasionally go in the spring to the Ladew Gardens, which, while famous for its topiaries, also boasted a number of rambling, lovely footpaths boasting beautiful flowers and specimen plants. In a shady spot in Ladew I recall coming across a stone with an inscription of a Chinese proverb that read as follows:
If you want to be happy for a week, get married.
If you want to be happy for a month, kill your pig.
If you want to be happy for life, plant a garden.
I never forgot that inscription. I internalized it. I translated it into Latin. I made it a part of my “catch-phrase for comfort” DNA – it lives next to other similar words of wisdom or pithy and sage phrases that live in my brain, wedged tightly between Aeschylus (“Difficult it is for all but the gods to bring anything to fruition, for none is free, save Zeus!”), Marcus Aurelius (“When you wake in the morning, put your feet on the ground and say to yourself: Today I will be met by ignorance, arrogance, greed, and folly”), and a favorite sura from the Qur’an (“The web of the spider is like the soul of the unbeliever, for he lives in the frailest of all houses”). It is a part of the lived personal truth that gets one through another day of history, whose pages are filled with unwise wishes, misplaced passions, lethal foibles, and assorted small-mindedness.
Our circle garden this spring has finally exploded as our roses have now had two years to grow and develop.
Gardens are deeply etched in the human consciousness. The ancient Persians called a garden a paradeisos, a word transliterated into Greek that comes into English as Paradise, a place for their King of Kings to refresh himself. The first human residence in the Old Testament’s creation story is the Garden of Eden. The great Athenian statesman, Kimon, endeared himself to his fellow citizens by making his gardens accessible to the demos. So, too, did Caesar, by giving his gardens as a legacy to the populus Romanus to enjoy. Sallust, one of Rome’s most famous historians and a personal friend of Caesar’s, had a renowned set of gardens in Rome located in the northeastern part of the city. Lucullus, a rich grandee who lived during the late Republic was known for his gardens as well; the empress Messalina, Claudius’ wife, had the Roman senator who owned the gardens in her day executed on a trumped up charge in order to confiscate them, although in a very ironic twist it is also where she was arrested and executed on charges of adultery and conspiracy against her husband the emperor.
The two above images of our chain trees out in front in a lovely mellow evening glow.
Our ancient love of gardens predates even the Bible. Gardenscapes date back to the Minoans, who inhabited Krete between 3000-1500 BC. The Romans loved gardenscapes – from the townhouses of Pompeii to the imperial villas at Oplontis and Prima Porta, vistas of flora with a myriad of birds were depicted in frescos in porticos, dining rooms, and day rooms. The whole idea was to bring the exterior world inside, something reflected in the prevalence of gardens that were nestled inside Roman houses themselves, where the deepest interior of a house almost always opened up into a colonnaded portico that surrounded a garden adorned with statuary and beautiful mosaic and tile fountains. Olive trees, pomegranates, oleanders, rosemary, grape vines, and roses were among the plants found in such courtyards, which sometimes also featured fishponds or long narrow water courses imitating the flow of streams or rivers. I recall the first time I saw the gardens in the houses of Pompeii and thinking to myself, now I understand the corruption of Roman provincial governors.
Our front yard has been glorious this spring.
Indeed, an entire philosophical school, that of Epicurus, was centered on a garden in Athens, and his school where he discoursed with his disciples was simply called “The Garden”. The notion was that the garden would instill a sense of peace and well-being necessary for the contemplation and inquiry of Epicurus’ followers. The Roman author, Seneca the Younger, relates in his Epistulae Morales (letter XXI) that there was an inscription over the Garden that read, HOSPES HIC BENE MANEBIS, HIC SUMMUM BONUM VOLUPTAS EST (“Guest, here you will enjoy a pleasant sojourn; this pleasure is the highest good”). And who would gainsay this effect that the green world has on us when we enter a pleasant garden spot? The Japanese, in their gardens, believe that the various shades of green bring peace and a calming effect on the individual. I doubt this is cultural or a placebo effect enforced by suggestion.
We’ve been busy putting in a series of raised front beds in our garden this year protected with shade cloth and equipped with over-head sprays to keep cool weather crops going through the summer (gods willing!)
I’ve planted two boxes of lettuce this spring, the first is a combination of two types of Romaine, Little Gems and Devil’s Tongue, the second is Butter Crunch.
I could say the same about many of the gardens I’ve visited or planted over time: the Generalif of the Alhambra in Grenada; the Alcazar in Seville (the setting currently for Dorn in Game of Thrones); the small garden I put in place at our house in Cannon Beach and the gorgeous container garden I planted on our big deck at our house in College Park; the reconstructed gardens of the Roman houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Taken on a much larger level, as I reflect on it at any rate, it seems remarkable how much need there is for such green space. The garden that was at the center and literally inside of every elite Roman house is, in a sense, a microcosm that speaks to this greater need. On a macro-level it takes the form of large green spaces in our cities: the Boston Common; the National Mall in DC; Central Park in New York; our own city park blocks nearby in Portland. The green space is reflected on every college and university campus in our country, from the large campus green at the University of Maryland where I used to teach to Linfield College in McMinnville where I now teach, and at almost every college and university in between. Humanity seems to need that green space.
This pic was taken a few weeks ago, and our garden, with its peas, potatoes, cabbage, garlic, asparagus, and assorted crops is doing very well indeed!
This year we’ve discovered Rapini, which is delicious sautéed in garlic and olive oil!
In Maryland peonies always bloomed during graduation weekend; out west here they bloom a full month earlier, and were spectacular.
One of our favorite roses has a deep red giant floribunda blossom and is called Oklahoma.
We have an excess of galvanized containers kicking around these days that now act as containers for some lovely flower combinations. In this one we have a fire cracker fuchsia, begonias, gerania, and lobelia.
As I further reflect on it these days, the creation and tending of such a green space played a key role in the life changing decision for me to change up my life radically, relinquish tenure at Maryland, and repatriate myself to Oregon. Looking back, gardening for me became an act of self-realization; it started with a new lawn mower when we bought our house in Maryland. Before I knew it I was putting in a raised bed on the side of our house for tomatoes; I was planting a minor fig orchard around our house; I was landscaping our front with deer resistant shrubs and flowers and terracing the front. I was communing less and less with the ancient world of Tacitus and Sophocles and instead being totally absorbed into the present moment as I tended tomatoes, flowers, and assorted plants. The ancient world invariably draws one in to the milieu of current politics, leaving one feeling helpless, depressed, and enraged; gardening is Zen. It is about the present, about nurturing, about empowerment, about the maximization of happiness. I once wrote an article about Tacitus’ Agricola that garnered a fair amount of praise and citation; it was a tough article to write, one that stretched me to the utmost of my creative and scholarly capacity. It took me a year or two to write and perfect it. How many people read it once finally published? How many people did it make happy? I don’t know. But sit a group down in front of a concoction of eggs, feta, and fresh picked greens, or a pint of hard cider, or a fragrant plate of tomatoes, all from your land, and you will win instant praise and smiles. But a book you work on for years? A generous review here, kudos there, and the expected jackass who loves to tear you down to preen (and who, more likely than not, is misrepresenting your work). Not all, but I suspect most scholarship is a form of madness.
An ancient Roman garden complete with a water feature from the house of Loreius Tiburtinus in Pompeii. The house has always been one of my favorites, and must have been quite a pleasant spot prior to its destruction in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. How pleasant it must have been to have unrolled a scroll of Vergil’s Georgics, poured a bowl of wine, and enjoyed the mellifluous flow of the villa’s gentle waters on a warm spring day.
Oh to be a provincial governor! Or at least on his payroll! The interior portico with garden in the House of the Vetii in Pompeii. This house has always been one of my favorites, and its interior gardens with its statuary and marble tables and fonts no doubt were lovely!
Gardening is for those of us in recovery – whether from alcoholism, academe, or any other myriad addictions! There is something very real about the calming influence of the green world, of the sound of water if present, of the gentle wind brushing the trees, of the perfume of blossom and leaf, of the song of towie and finch. Those who wander a garden generally experience a relaxing sensation, a relinquishing of diurnal concerns, a slip in blood pressure. I feel it every time I walk our property, which, while mostly woods and pasture, has a fair amount devoted to gardens and orchards. Our farmhouse is situated in such a way that, even in our daily living spaces, the kitchen, the dining room, the living and family room, we are surrounded, by gardens and trees. We literally live in a garden. Yes, Paradise requires sweat, dedication, thinking, and planning. But at the end of the day it rewards with beauty, abundance, and peace. HIC BENE MANEBIS. Be happy for life.