“Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.” ― Robert Macfarlane,
I love this Australian digital publication, The Planthunter. Each issue, almost 50 so far, has a theme (e.g., Revolution, Fear, Play, Ephemeral, Feast, Pattern, Desire, Decay) and this issue’s theme is Wild.
Two essays in this issue caught my attention. The first was Wild: the Healing Relationship Between Nature and Grief, by Freya Latona and Daniel Shipp, particularly as I’d just been commenting on a friend’s Facebook post about the emptiness many people feel inside — from loss, suffering, perhaps a focus on individuality vs. community, perhaps just part and parcel of mortal existence — and how it’s often assuaged (temporarily) by addictions to sex, drugs, power, wealth, status seeking and status symbols, shopping and buying material goods, and also by care-taking to feel needed and valuable. I’d replied that I don’t feel the emptiness he describes but I have had significant losses in my life, and when I am grieving, feeling small and sad, feeling misunderstood, etc., my comfort urge is to get outside — on the beach, in the woods, in a park or garden. Being surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells, and/or tactile elements of natural places, the natural world — trees, plants, fungi and ferns, shells, wild animals (even insects, fish), rain, snow, ponds, rivers, brooks, mountains, oceans, marshes, bogs, sand, wind, sun, moon — and walking in those places, usually alone, seems to comfort me and enlarge my soul in a way that nothing else will. Neither of my parents was a caretaker (and I am not) but my father consistently modeled hiking, beach walking, and being in the woods as a way to live, a way to heal.
So when I came across this in Latona’s essay, I wanted to share it:
“Meghan O’Rourke, New York based writer and memoirist, lost her mother younger than most and writes openly about bereavement. In an essay published in Slate on her experiences of grieving in nature, she writes, ‘Having my sense of smallness reflected back at me —— having the geography mimic the puzzlement I carry within —— made me feel more at home in a majesty outside of my comprehension. It also led me to wonder: How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it does matter, to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural. The sheer sublimity of the landscape created room for the magnitude of my grief, while at the same time it helped me feel like a part —— a small part —— of a much larger creation. It was inclusive.’ … [P]erhaps being amongst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I had done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.'”
Second, I saw Swedish photographer Helene Schmitz’s work in “Helene Schmitz and the Sublime Power of Nature” by Lucy Munro. There are ten or eleven photos in two series, the first of which is The Kudzu Project:
“The Kudzu Project, documented by Helene during a field trip to the Deep South of America, is an example of the powerlessness of humans in the face of the natural world. Captured in a series of sinister, apocalyptic, black and white frames are the monstrous forms of one of the world’s most aggressive and invasive plants, kudzu (Pueraria lobate).”
The second, the Sunken Gardens Project — “a series of images that document the ferocious tropical jungle of Suriname, a former Dutch Colony on the coast of South America” — particularly interests me. The photos show enclosed spaces filled with plants:
“‘The enclosures may be interpreted as a garden of sorts. We often regard gardens as a part of our culture, wherein nature is disciplined, trimmed, and formed,’ says Helene. ‘A garden is an aesthetic human construct of nature, a rationale of the wild, a taming of intractable forces into a space for recreation and pleasure. In my photography, the very opposite takes place. The enclosed gardens bear witness to an impossible colonization project where he who attempts to discipline and exploit the jungle instead finds himself trapped behind vegetation that grows increasingly terrifying. What is the outside, what is the inside? Is the door leading to an enclosure or out of it?'”
(Other than the first image on this page, which is a screenshot of Planthunter’s “Wild” issue banner, you’ll have to go to the link to see her photos, as they are copyrighted; the other photos here are mine)
Gardens, as I’ve mentioned before, are a kind of heterotopia — subverting conventional attitudes and actions, melding a real place with an idealised place, blending the past with the present, with access (entrance and exit) to the garden limited in some way (money, status, structure, etc.); in Schmitz’s conception and in her photos, these enclosed gardens are a kind of anti-heterotopia, still subverting normal life and throwing into question our customary, habitual existence, but this time by melding a real place with a dystopia, blending past (contained garden) and present (devolving garden) while hinting darkly at the future, with the garden’s access limited in some way, not by an admission fee, turnstiles, or friendship with the person who owns the garden, but because you may pay for entering by becoming lost or trapped, and exiting is limited by being able to find the way out and make it through without plant tentacles encircling you, hauling you back into the smothering, pulsating ecosystem. “What is the outside, what is the inside? Is the door leading to an enclosure or out of it?”
Jorge Pérez Falconi, in his “The Festival Internacional de Teatro de La Habana (FITH) and the Festival de México (fmx): between Place and Placelessness” in Latin American Theatre Review (Fall 2014) writes that “[A] garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space that is intended, through its incorporation of plants from around the world, to be a microcosm of different environments. It contains the world in one place and, as such, is both particular and general at the same time.”
Schmitz’s enclosures do not contain different environments but in their way each is a microcosm of the larger world, both particular and general at the same time, a sort of literal synecdoche, one small enclosed untameable space representing and evoking the world as an ultimately untameable place. The enclosures are metaphors for the way we have tried to cordon off safe, rational, well-ordered spaces that separate us from “nature, red in tooth and claw” (to quote Tennyson), only to find ourselves “trapped within the threatening space ourselves, fearful of impending doom and suffocation as the available space for human intervention in this wildness becomes less and less.”
“I am interested in the forces of nature. How these, in a threatening and terrifying way, can take over and destroy the fragile social edifices we have built in our vain need to control and dominate.” — Helene Schmitz