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January 14, 2003 - The Question of Beauty
We ascribe beauty to that which is simple,
which has no superfluous parts;
which exactly answers its end;
which stands related to all things;
which is the mean of many extremes.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s January, snow is “mulching” the garden (and yes, during
the next thaw I intend -- yes, my fingers are crossed - to mulch
the roses with the composted cow manure that lie frozen by the
shed), and 'tis the season for ruminating about what makes a garden
Philosophers and artists have been defining and debating aspects
of what is “beautiful” for centuries. I think Emerson’s words
apply to garden making and raise many thoughts and questions that
In his first phrase, Emerson suggests that beauty is simple.
Notice he doesn’t say “easy” but simple. Simple means revealing
the essence, the heart or core of a thing. That thought begs the
question what is the essence of a garden? Is the essence plants,
shaped spaces, or lines? Is it the bold curve that winds its way
in perfect relationship to itself and the space it lies within?
Or is the curve, simply, a beautiful part? Consider that the essence
of a garden is the energy of connection. Energy connecting to
all its parts, to me, to you, to insects, to sky, to the smallest
“As in no superfluous parts”, this phrase, translates in terms
of garden making to all the parts of a garden. The parts or elements
include the architectural elements of walls, paths, bed shape;
plant composition; flowers; color palette and bloom sequence,
lighting. Superfluous refers to no “extras”. Elements are used
sparingly and precisely to create a harmonious whole. One element
may set the theme or tone or structure. The design holds an intended
balance between order and chaos which the Greeks identified these
two forces of nature as Apollo and Dionysus. It is what Michael
Pollan in his book Botany of Desire, A Plant’s Eye view of
the World describes as the struggle between the Apollonian
celebration of the “one” versus the Dionysian impulse for “variability”.
“Which exactly answers its end”…I suppose that you could think
that the “end” is the creation of a beautiful garden. But I actually
think that beauty is the symptom or outward reflection, that the
end is the experience of life itself. That the end is to create
a garden with “presence”, a garden that feels alive, engages our
attention long enough to nourish the human spirit and thereby
helping to connect with the presence within, and thus joyfully
proceed with our day. The “end” is the Dionysian variability,
the impulse to get lost in a moment of fascination, the impulse
to celebrate our being, all while feeling safe within the Apollonian
structure or order. It is the necessary structure that frames,
focuses, provides viewpoints; actualizes access providing entrance
and exit; and limits the Dionysian splendor, the wonders within
so that we can partake of the miracle of life without losing ourselves.
It is a delicate balance of Apollo and Dionysus…too much of either
presents sterility or madness.
To make a garden “which stands related to all things” is an art
form that orchestrates the simple component parts into a harmonious
whole relating the smallest pebble and the universe at large.
Again, this refers to balancing Apollonian universe or the BIG
picture and Dionysian earth/people celebration. It also refers
to the interdependent web, the web of life that Chief Seattle
speaks of when he says, “All things are connected. Whatever befalls
the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did
not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever
we do to the web, we do to ourselves”.
”Which is the mean of many extremes”. In garden language, extreme
weather pops into mind and the extremes of human psychology, site
conditions, and budget. All of these kinds of extremes may influence
the design and construction of a garden. Yet, I think Emerson
is talking about ideas, concepts. He’s talking about honing, paring,
whittling to the simplest and graceful. Physical grace described
by Brian Doyle in Grace Notes as a kind of ease, fluidity.
Or grace as presence as in spirit or blessing. Doyle writes of
“people telling of the moments when they felt grace arriving and
they use words like calm, serene, harmony, peace, symmetry.”
Amazing! The same words people use to describe a beautiful
garden and the experience within.
Beauty may truly be in the eyes of the beholder, but in order
to behold you must permit yourself to see, you must take that
moment to glance out a window, peer down a path and follow it.
Yet a truly beautiful garden will seem beautiful to all. While
Jane may prefer color of the flowers and Bill is drawn to the
sound of beckoning water or bird song. A path winding out of sight
asking to discover what lies beyond may enchant another. Yet not
withstanding the engaging element, you have been called, beckoned,
engaged. A beautiful garden is one that engages the senses and
draws you in to discover …yourself. Yourself as the large and
the small, the connected and disconnected, the graceful and the
graceless, the blessed to engage in the beauty of the garden and
become reacquainted with the beauty of yourself.
I am available for garden consultation, design, and installation.
Please refer to my website for additional information: www.mariavonbrincken.com
Please feel free to e-mail me with any comments that you may
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Enjoy a garden moment in your life today.
Copyright 2003 Maria von Brincken
Maria von Brincken is a landscape garden designer, lecturer,
and writer who lives in Sudbury.