Gardening and Agriculture

Creating a Courtyard for Contemplation Out of an Alleyway


I was walking through downtown San Francisco this morning on one of the busiest streets in the city center and I noticed this little alleyway to my left. What caught my eye is how with very little of architectural interest to work with, a few well tended plants have turned the space into a tiny little peaceful oasis in a busy city. It could have been piled high with garbage bags or the like (others I saw were) but someone has made the effort to make this little corner worth looking at. And everyone who passes, not just those who live and work down here can now have the pleasure of looking at the results of their work.

All it would need to perfect it would be little icon of Christ on the back wall, or perhaps a statue of the BVM, and a place of peace might even become a place of contemplation!


The cobblestones help too of course!






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The Christian Environmentalism the Media Chooses to Ignore - Man is the Answer, Not the Problem

We need more people in the world, not less, if we are to solve the world's problems. And we need more gardeners - I am serious here. For the true gardener is the man transformed in Christ who works in the world to raise it up to what it is meant to be.

It is common nowadays for people to think of man as an unnatural animal whose work necessarily destroys the environment. Much of the back to the land movement, I always feel, has a romantic vision of the past and assumes that only a man who lives as he did before industrialization can live in harmony with nature. This pessimistic view of modern man could be seen in various influential figures going back to to Rousseau in 18th century France who hated industrialization and thought that all modern society corrupted ideal man. The ideal for Rousseau was the noble savage  who could be conceived, unlike modern man, of living as an intrinsic part of nature as the animals do, rather than in opposition to it.

This may all sound fairly innocuous stuff - a high regard for the environment is good thing, surely? But in fact it is the neo-paganism we see today, that removes man from his a place as the highest part of creation to something separate from it, and lower than it. This false elevation of the rest of creation to something greater than man in the hierarchy of being has serious, deadly consequences. And I do mean deadly.

Man is not only part of nature, he is absolutely necessary to it - the eco-system needs the interaction of man in order to be complete. Through God's grace human activity is the answer to all the environmental problems we have, not the cause. This is the part of Pope Francis's message in his latest encyclical; a part that so many eco-warriors who were enthusiastic about the encyclical seem not to have noticed...or to have ignored. It is possible to have cities, heavy industry, mass production, and forms of capitalism that are creative expressions of the God's plan for the world, and which add to the beauty and the stability of nature. But, we do need a transformation of the culture in order to see a greater realization of this. The formation that I believe will lead to such an evangelization of the culture is derived from a liturgically centered piety and is described in the book the Way of Beauty.

For me, the flower garden is the model of natural beauty in so many ways. First, It symbolizes the true end of the natural world in which its beauty can only be realised through the inspired work of man. It symbolizes what Eden was to become. It is worth noting that Adam was the first gardener and Christ, the new Adam, prayed in the garden during the passion, was buried and resurrected in the garden and after the resurrection was mistaken by Mary Magdalene for the gardener.

Here is a quote from St Augustine from the Office of Readings on the Feast of St Lawrence, August 10th:

'The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes – includes not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to despair of their vocation; Christ suffered for all. It was very truly written about him: who wishes all men to be saved, and to come to the acknowledgement of the truth.'

This may seem a rather innocent little quote about flowers and the things of religion - martyrs and virgins and so on, but in fact reveals so much about the difference in attitudes between one of the Faith, and the modern world. Here's how: we see Rousseau's worldview today in many of the green movements that assume that any influence that man has on the eco-system is bad, because man himself is an unnatural entrant into it, he is not part of it.


Millions of people have been killed as a result of a simple philosophical error. If we believe that  civilized man's effect on the environment is necessarily destructive, then the only method of an effective damage limitation is to limit the number of people in the world. The most effective way to do this is to control the population and, because they do not wish to dispense of the pleasure of sex, the solutions offered are contraception and abortion.

The Christian understanding of man and his interaction with the natural world is very different. The first point to make is that both are imperfect. We are fallen and we live in a fallen world. Man is part of nature, and it is certainly true that his activity can be destructive on the environment (just as he commit the gravest crimes against his fellows). However, through God's grace and the proper exercise of free will, he can choose to behave differently. He can work to perfect nature. He has the privilege of participating in the work of God that will eventually lead to the perfection of all things in Christ. Then all man does is in harmony with nature, and with the common good. This is the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty.


There are so many signs in modern culture that reveal this flawed perception of the place of man in relation to his fellows, The changing attitude to the garden is one of these. Even in something that seems so far removed from the issue of abortion, we can see a change which has at its root, in my opinion, the same flaw.

What is the model of natural beauty? For the modern green, neo-pagan it is the wilderness. National parks in the US seek to preserve nature in a way that they perceive as unaffected by man (although this is an impossibility, even the most remote national park is managed wilderness!). I do not say that is a bad thing that some part of nature is preserved, or that the wilderness is not beautiful. Rather, the point is that it is not the pinnacle of nature and it is not the standard of natural beauty. When man works harmoniously with the environment, then he makes something more beautiful. Beautifully and harmoniously farmed land takes the breath away - as we might see in the countryside of France, Spain, England and Italy for example, places of which I am familiar. This the sort of landscape in which Wordsworth saw his host of wild golden daffodils.

Higher still is the garden that is cultivated for beauty alone. A garden is a symbol of the Church. Each part, each plant is in harmony with every other just as every person who is unique has his place in God's plan, as St Augustine points out in the quote given above.  Gardens will have their place in the New Jerusalem. We know this because the description of the City of God in the Book of Revelation contains gardens.

The activity of gardening for beauty is a symbolic participation in the completion of the work of God in the world for it raises creation up to what it ought to be, through God's grace. The garden itself is a sign to all others of the fact that all of creation is to be transfigured supernaturally. The act of gardening is both reflective of and points to, therefore our participation in the Sacred Liturgy by which we are transfigured and by which we participate in the work of God. Gardening for beauty is an act of love that is formed by our greatest act of love, the worship of God in the Sacred Liturgy. It can be likened to the action of Mary with our Lord, anointing his feet; and contrasted with the cultivation of the land in order to create produce to eat, which can be likened to an action of Martha. Both are good, but Mary's is the highest.


Pius X likens the activity of gardening to that of singing the Psalms in the liturgy: 'The psalms have also a wonderful power to awaken in our hearts the desire for every virtue. Athanasius says: Though all Scripture, both old and new, is divinely inspired and has its use in teaching, as we read in Scripture itself, yet the Book of Psalms, like a garden enclosing the fruits of all the other books, produces its fruits in song, and in the process of singing brings forth its own special fruits to take their place beside them.' (This is taken from the Office of Readings for August 21st, the Feast of Pius X).

The gardener is the symbol of the transfigured man who works in harmony with nature to create something greater for the delight and good of man and for the greater glory of God. The highest aspect of what he does is the beauty that he creates. This beauty has the noblest utility, one that takes into account our supernatural end for it prepares the souls of men to be receptive to the love of God in the Sacred Liturgy.




Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that man should be encouraged to cultivate the land. I have heard this cited by some Catholics in the back-to-land movement so as to imply that it is almost a moral obligation to have chickens in your backyard, to keep bees or to grow vegetables. I say, if you enjoy those things then go ahead and do it, but I feel no such obligation myself. I for one have little interest. I am perfectly happy to buy a ready-cooked chicken for under $5, jars of honey and vegetables and fruit from all over the world year round from the local supermarket.



However, what is not so often remarked upon is that Leo says that in cultivating the land, man will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].' I suggest we learn to love the soil especially when it yields beauty; and when it is through our own efforts that it does so. There is no need for three acres and a cow for this to happen. For some this might mean the tiniest patch of land around your house, or if you don't have that a window box; or if you can't do that some well tended plant pots inside your high-rise apartment. We don't need to head for the outback or escape from the cities or the suburbs. However, modest our resources, this can be an act for love for the glory of God and for the enjoyment of those dear to us. When this is done it can have the profoundest effect on a neighborhood, as we can read by this example in Boston.




When the garden is enjoyed for its beauty it can be a contemplation by which we are passively open to the reception of Beauty itself. This is why it is a good thing to approach a church through a cloister that looks onto a 'garden enclosed'. The garden enclosed from the Song of Songs, is seen by the Church Fathers as a reference to Mary, the Mother of God, by whom we approach the Son.




It is no accident, I suggest that today even botanical gardens and public gardens which used to be formally laid out, are now being turned into 'natural' or wild gardens, in which the aim is, it seems, is to reduce it's beauty (although they would probably argue that it is the opposite) and resemble something that is like the wilderness - base nature, unaffected by the inspired work of man. Even the lowest form of nature is beautiful, I don't deny it. But that is not a garden. When we make the standard of natural beauty its lowest form, then such a garden is a symbol of the banishing of man from the world altogether, of Unnatural Man so to speak, and an emblem of the culture of death. The next logical step after the misguided  glorification of Unnatural Man is to strive for the absence of man altogether and this is what we see through our abortion clinics.

Who would have thought that the simple cultivation of ivy, roses, lilies and violets could say so much! I would consider it the greatest compliment if someone would mistake me for the gardener.



Cristo appare a Maria Maddalena (Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene)" by Pietro da Cortona from Wiki commons 

I have written about this painting in more detail here.

— ♦—

My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

Don't Beat About the Bush...Change the Culture! More on Land and the Common Good

Landowners have a duty to leave some food for the poor and give people access to get it. Or that's what it looks like at least. Here are two scriptural passages taken from the Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) that  caught my eye when I read them. One is from January and the other is a Lenten reading. Office of Readings 24th Jan 2011, Commemoration of St Francis de Sales: "You must not pervert justice in dealing with a stranger or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I lay this charge on you. When reaping the harvest in your field, if you have overlooked a sheaf in that field, do not go back for it. Leave it for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees you must not go over the branches twice. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard you must not pick it over a second time. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why I lay this charge on you." (Dueteronomy 24) And Tuesday 4th week of Lent “When you gather the harvest of your land, you are not to harvest to the very end of the field. You are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are neither to strip your vine bare nor to collect the fruit that has fallen in your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.(Leviticus 19) I have written on a number of occasions, here, that land is considered by the Church a common good. This means that like air and food it is something that should be available to all people. This does not mean that there should not be private property however, provided that private ownership of property is viewed as an entitlement to work the land. This privilege of ownership brings obligations. Its use should be for the benefit of the common good. This is not so completely counter cultural as it might sound at first. Generally, growing crops on a farm; and then selling anything (beyond what is needed for personal consumption) for distribution through the market is in accord with this. This entitlement, however, and this part might be counter cultural in some parts of the world, is not always seen as extending to allowing the owner to exclude others from his land all the time, as the quoted passages above indicate.


In a number of European countries (I know of England, Scotland, Spain and Italy specifically) there is public right of way preserved in law, on privately owned land. This is a tradition that goes back to medieval times. While the landowner is obliged to allow people on his land, those who go onto the land are also obliged to respect the property and the crops that are growing respecting it's function as contributing to the common good. I don't know if any applications of this extend to being in accord with the passages from the bible, which clearly allow for "the stranger, the orphan and the widow" to go onto the land and gather food.

There is an American version of this approach, as I understand it whereby in some states the default situation is that people do have access to private land to hunt. In New Hampshire there is an option to pay a higher land tax and that allows you then to bar everyone else from your land. I wouldn't be interested in hunting, just the chance of finding a walkable path across farmland. I did find one farm west of Nashua, NH when I was living there that had a notice saying. Please do come an enjoy our farm land but we ask that you respect it. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but the was a large statue of he Virgin Mary very visible next to the farmhouse as we walk off the land.

It seems that perhaps the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequently who actually revised the Office of Readings considered this an important principle for today; otherwise it would not have been included in regular readings in the Church's liturgy. I believe that access to the land is important even for those who are not so poor that they need to pick the crops for personal use. It is important for the soul, I think. And this means access to cultivated land, productive land, not the wilderness. It is good to have firsthand experience of man's productive and harmonious activities with nature. This shapes not only the view of nature, but the view of man's proper relationship with the land. olivesThis access will also, I believe raise people's wonder at the beauty of cultivated land (whether ornamental garden or agricultural) and so perhaps help to offset the neopaganism that gives rise ultimately to the culture of death.  When the only country landscape available to man is wilderness, and all else he sees is modern suburbia or a cityscape, then it reinforces the idea that the standard of beauty is that land which is untouched by man, that is wilderness. This in turn reinforces the idea that man's influence on nature is always detrimental and the natural extension of this idea is profound evil: the most effective way to restrict man's bad influence on nature, so the logic runs, is to restrict his activity through population control, which means contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

I do not believe that this alone will reverse the culture of death (abortion exists in Europe too). However, if any discussion of these ideas in both Europe and the New World is combined with the example  of what people see if they have access to cultivated land it will, I feel,  speak of man's positive impact on the natural world. This then could help to change views on man's relationship with Creation. The change will not occur through engagement in discussion, so much as through a subtle influence that seeps into the thinking of society. Then perhaps, in some small way at least, it could contribute to the transformation a culture in the reverse direction to what is happening now and which is so anti-human.

So it seems that the dictum, spare the rod and spoil the child doesn't extend to olive trees! The photograph below of the Tuscan countryside. Above that we have Spanish olive groves and an illumination from Crete dating from the Byzantine rule.

Farms, Country Walks, Private Property and the Common Good

I am a keen walker and when I moved to the United States ago to take up my position as Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More College, I immediately started to investigate the local country walks. I lived Nashua, a town in New Hampshire, very close to its southern border with Massachussetts. Both are beautiful states and there are state and national parks with developed paths within striking distance of here. These are very different from the British country walks that I am used to however. The countryside in Britain is almost all farmland of some description. So whereas in the US, as a general principle, the state and national parks aim to present man with a ‘wilderness’, that is countryside unaffected by man, the British national parks preserve a traditionally farmed landscape.Creating a network of walks across privately owned farms is possible in Britain because in this respect the attitude to private ownership of land is different in England to that in the US. In England there are public rights of way across private land which the landowner is obliged by law to maintain. In return, the public is expected to respect the land and the farmer’s crops and animals and stick to the path. There are many thousands of miles of public footpath across private land. This is a system which would be impossible to police effectively, yet it works. On the whole the farmers happily keep the paths open and maintain them for the benefit of walkers, and the whole the public respects the farmers’ land, crops and animals. So although backed up by law, it is founded mainly on mutual trust and respect. It is working example of the good that arises when individuals go beyond a strict interpretation of the law and create a covenantal approach for the benefit of the common good.

As a result, everyone in Britain has the chance to see firsthand how man can cultivate and work the land for benefit of all of us. This goes further than simple recreation. For those who wish to accept it, there is profound lesson to be learnt. Creating the possibility for all people to come into direct contact with land that has been worked by man beautifully will teach us that man is capable of working productively with the land in harmony with it. This counters the false idea that man’s activity is necessarily destructive and ‘unnatural’. This latter point is one of the fundamental premises of neo-paganism. It is an anti-human principle, which leads ultimately to the culture of death.

Some Americans might react sharply and suspect that this an example of the state overreaching itself. However, the idea of the right of the public to cross private land goes back to medieval times. It could not be enforced by the state anyway, because as explained earlier, it relies not so much on the law, but on mutual respect for its effectiveness. The way it worked was this. The landowner, perhaps the lord of the manor, agreed to allow men to farm a strip of his land to grow food in exchange for a tithe, a taxation of a tenth of the produce. The tithes were collected in huge barns – ‘tithebarns’- the photographs, above and below show one example that still exists in Oxfordshire in England. However, there was a problem. Our serf might have the land to grow his food, but if it is situated in the middle of a large estate owned by someone else, how is he going to get to it without trespassing? To overcome this, a system of pathways developed that ensured that people could get to their land without fear of prosecution. They were allowed ‘right of way’. They could cross someone else’s land provided they followed the path and respected the property. This is part of an old tradition of noblesse oblige. This is a French phrase which means literally, ‘nobility obliges’. It communicates the idea that with privilege comes the responsibility to use it well in service of the common good.

The idea of a public right of way survived, surprisingly, the industrial revolution right through to the 20th century. By the 20th century, however, many landowners were doing the best to close the paths down and stop public access. The demand for access to the land arose now not from the need to cultivate a leased strip of land, but for the desire for recreation by city dwellers, who otherwise had no chance to experience the countryside. This natural desire to be in contact with the land was being thwarted. There were mass peaceful protest walks. This resulted in Britain’s national parks being set up in which not just the paths, but the traditional beauty of the farmed landscape was protected, as well as the maintenance of traditional public footpaths throughout the whole countryside (not just within the park boundaries).

As you can imagine, I would love to see a similar system set up in the US but was told that Americans' understanding of what private ownership of land means, as well as fear of litigation is less likely to allow this. To my surprise, however, I have found out that in New Hampshire at least allows there is the possibility of such a system. By New Hampshire law, the citizens have access to any land provided they respect what is on it. The same law protects landowners from litigation if the person who goes on to his land is injured in some way. The landowner can bar people from his land if he wishes however, by ‘posting’ it – putting up a publicly displayed notice which tells people that they are trespassing and if they encroach and they will be prosecuted. Landowners exercise this option by paying a higher rate of property tax to the state.

Also, I have recently seen some similar attempts working within American law in California, around the San Francisco Bay area, to create walks across pasture land rather than always 'wilderness'.

According to Catholic social teaching, land is a common good. It is created by God and all people therefore should have access to it. This would seem to mitigate against the idea of private ownership of land. However, in practice this is not the case. The best way to have a plot of land developed for the common good is to give favoured person the freedom to develop it and to exclude others only so far as they do not interfere with this. This is not a right to private property as many envisage it today, however. It is better seen as a privilege, an entitlement to develop it in accordance with the common good (and farming it for profit would qualify in this respect). In medieval times there was also ‘common’ ground, preserved for commoners who did not own the land, so that there was always somewhere for them to put their animals to pasture. Sadly, much common pasture land was seized for private ownership after the industrial revolution. There are exceptions however and Port Meadow in Oxford is one. You can walk across it today and see a charming hotchpotch of ponies, horses and cows grazing on this huge flat open expanse of grassland next to the Thames that reaches right into the city. Here in the US Boston Common exists right in the centre of the city today, admittedly as a public park and clearly it gets its name from the tradition of common pasture land. I do not know of its current status in law in regard to free pasture however. If any inner city goatherds can enlighten me in this respect, I would be grateful.

What is attractive about the medieval balance between practicalities and the preservation of land for the common good is that it allows for a blurring of the division between the two extremes of complete public access one hand and on the other a total exclusion of all those who d0 not own land.

It may be an unrealizable dream, but nevertheless I will end by encourage all landowners to consider the idea of noblesse oblige in regard to their land.  At the same time I would like to encourage citizens, if accorded this privilege, to respect the land they go on to. I am aware that the Americans' love of hunting with guns might during deer season might need thinking about if this is going to work - perhaps this might have to restrained as a condition of access in some cases - but if we can find a way of making it happen, I believe that we will have an even happier nation if we do!

Photographs: aside from the tithebarn in Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire, the others are from a day's walk in the English county of Northumberland. It was a wet day (well this is Britain!) with only a few breaks in the clouds. The purple flowers are of heather in bloom. The rougher looking areas are sheep fells (pasture) and the building at the top is a shepherd's shelter in the moorlands on the Pennine hills the form the division between east and west in northern England. The greener, lusher areas are given over to cows as well.

Why Men Cultivate their Masculinity When they Grow Flowers

In the Office of Readings, on the Feast of the Visitation, the first reading is from the Song of Songs.

It seems to have been a common theme  in late medieval art to portray Mary interpreted as the 'Garden Enclosed' as referred to in the Song of Songs. As someone who loves gardens I like the idea of the garden having a place in sacred art. I am talking here of the garden grown for beauty, the 'flower garden' as it would be called here in the US. In Britain, where I come from, 'garden' always means a place cultivated for beauty.

I am not aware of this being a common subject for artists to paint today and one wonders why? The first answer that comes to mind, almost as a knee-jerk response, is that genuine piety for Mary has declined and this is just one more casualty in the devotional lexicon.

It might be this, but also, it is very likely a reflection also of a different attitude to gardens and to man's place in creation that is prevalent today and especially strong in the US.

Historically, the wilderness was seen the place of untamed nature which is the home of the devil. Christ went to meet him there for 40 days and when monks and hermits went out to the desert, it was not so much as we might think today, to escape the city, but rather to engage in spiritual battle in the wilderness, the lair of the enemy. In the painting below by the Flemish artist Robert Campin (scroll down to the second last), we see the father of monasticism, Anthony Abbot (with St Catherine of Siena, John the Baptist and, I think, St Barbara), now resting in the garden having completed, one presumes, his spiritual battles in the Egyptian wilderness.

Today, however, the beauty of nature as wilderness is seen as the highest form of natural beauty, of greater beauty than cultivated nature (which would be thought of as unnatural because it is 'man altered'). Here in the US, for example, people particularly prize their national parks as places of wilderness unaffected by man. They are wonderful and beautiful places to visit, but nevertheless very different from those in countries that are of the Old World. In the UK, where I come from there is no part of the land, as far as I am aware, that is not man-affected. Our national parks preserve the look of ancient farmland. The Lake District, for example, in the northwest of England is a landscape that has been shaped by man for centuries through agriculture. It's beauty was admired by the Romantic poets - it is the place, for example, where Wordsworth saw that 'host of golden daffodils' that he wrote about.

The wilderness is beautiful, but it is part of a fallen world and we know objectively that by God's grace man can raise the beauty of nature up to something higher than the wilderness (it should be said also, that as a fallen creature with free will, he is also capable of destroying its beauty too). It is a neo-pagan philosophy that makes nature untouched by man as ultimate ideal for beauty. It arises from an attitude that man and his activity is not natural and the influence of civilization is always detrimental to nature. This attitude took hold strongly in the US due to the influence of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

For the Christian, man is meant to cultivate the world (or large parts of it at least) and if he does so well, he elevates it's beauty because he raises it up to what it was meant to be. So farmland is more beautiful than wilderness and a garden, grown for the contemplation of beauty is more beautiful than farmland.

The second point that arises in my consideration of this is the question as to whether or not gardening is a male or a female pastime? Talking to many here in the US, the impression I get is that people see planting vegetables or rearing animals for food as a masculine thing; but growing a garden for its beauty as something intrinsically feminine. I have noticed since I have been here in the US that it seems to be a fashion among Catholic academics (especially those with distributist tendencies) who have even a small plot of land  to use it for rearing chickens, keeping bees or growing vegetables. But I don't see much interest in creating a 'garden enclosed'.

Again, this goes against the tradition and not the case elsewhere. Adam was a gardener, Christ, the new Adam, was mistaken for a gardener. Christ went to the wilderness to meet the devil, but when he wanted to pray to his Father, he went to the garden. Also, while Mary is identified with the garden itself, it was the man in the Song of Songs who cultivated that garden and gathered lilies for his love. Furthermore, to add a personal note, my great grandfather was head gardener of the Duke of Northumberland (so the family lore goes); my grandfather was and my dad still is a very keen amateur gardener (my father's garden was even featured once on national television).

Aristotle it seems to suggest that the natural home for man is not the wilderness but the city, where he lives in association with others. Scripture seems to support this: for example, in psalm 106 the city is the place of culture from which the wilderness is banished; and in the Book of Revelation, our final home will be the city of the New Jerusalem. That city, however, is not a concrete jungle, but rather is a garden city in which the Tree of Life flourishes and Eden has been restored by Christ the Head Gardener. The garden in these accounts is a place of beauty, a retreat for relaxation and contemplation for city dwellers.  Everything is grown for its beauty and to delight the senses - taste, smell, vision - as well as sustenance. The little bit of reading  about medieval gardens seems to suggest that, consistent with this, they were designed with both utility and beauty in mind (just as with architecture it seems, utility and beauty are seen as two different aspects of what is good). By this the work of man adds harmony to the hymn of the cosmos in proclaiming the glory of God.

Furthermore, Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that men  (I assume here in the sense of all humanity) should be encouraged to cultivate the land. I have heard this used as an argument by those Catholic academics to support the idea that they ought to be keeping chickens and bees in their backyard and growing vegetables. If you enjoy it then I say go ahead and do it, but I feel no such obligation myself. Frankly, I can't see the point as long as the local supermarket sells ready-cooked chickens for under $5 and jars of honey and vegetables and fruit from all over the world year round.

However, what is not so often remarked upon is that Leo says that in cultivating the land, man will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].' He says specifically that he should cultivate for reasons that go beyond generation of food. This I suggest is the garden that man can contemplate for its beauty. I would even go so far to say that this is the higher goal. The Marian garden is higher than the Marthan.

In advocating that men grow flowers I am not suggesting that this should be the goal of unreconstructed men so that they can discover their 'feminine side'. On the contrary, the cultivation of beauty for contemplation should be seen as much a masculine occupation as a feminine one and a way in which the true masculinity is realized for it is part of what mankind is meant to do.

Perhaps there are parallels in the modern feminization of flower gardening with the feminization of prayer and contemplation that has lead to a drop in the number of priestly and religious vocations in the Church, and to the fact that in a typical congregation women always seem to outnumber men. Perhaps the antidote to both is the same - the reinforcement of the role of fathers in the family. In the first case, by leading the family in prayer, and in the second case by being happy once again to  cultivate natural beauty as an example to their sons...even if it is only by watering a window box to grow flowers to give to his wife!

Pictures below is  Noli me tangere by John of Flanders, 14th century - Christ with holy spade! And below that: Martin Schongauer, Madonna in Rose Garden, 15th century; and below: Gerard David, and Robert Campin, both late gothic Flemish. Picture above are from 14th century English psalters.











Come Out of the Wilderness and into the Garden

The garden is the symbol of the culture of life

Gardens and farmland are more natural and more beautiful than pristine, untouched wilderness. Or at least they should be.

Of course the wilderness is beautiful. I am not trying to change anyone's view on that. But I am seeking to raise the status of cultivated land relative to it. The assumption of most conservationists today seems to be the opposite. In fact, my experience is that for many if there is an objective standard of beauty, it is nature unaffected by man.

This is consistent with a neo-pagan worldview. Many people even take this idea - that man is inferior to untouched nature - a step further and consider man not to be part of nature at all. The work of mankind is assumed to be unnatural …by nature (if you’ll forgive the phrase, but it does seem to highlight the absurdity of the position). Man's activity is seen as something that necessarily defaces creation. This places wilderness above gardens and farmland in the hierarchy of beauty; and above man in the hierarchy of being.

In the Christian worldview, man is the greatest creature in God’s creation. Man is not only part of creation, but his work can act to perfect it, that is to restore a fallen world to what it ought to be. To the degree that he works in harmony with the divine order (which is a standard higher than anything in the created world) his work is beautiful, productive and in harmony with the common good; and nature flourishes. This is the true ecology.

As soon as one acknowledges the possibility of man perfecting nature, then the route to a ‘green’ world is not the restriction of human activity, but an increase in the right sort of activity.  If one seeks to change the form of human activity so that it is working beautifully, in harmony with the divine order, then the more people there are, the better.

The neo-pagan worldview, on the other hand, cannot conceive of this restorative human interaction with creation. His activity is just more or less destructive. The only solution therefore that it has to propose is the reduction of all human activity. There is only one really effective way to do this – population control.

In some ways, it is not surprising that this secular, neo-pagan world view predominates. Many would look at man’s work, especially of the last 100 years, and see destruction and ugliness. This is, it seems to me, just another reflection of modern culture, along with the art, the music, architecture and so on. And the solution is the same. The via pulchritudinis is as much the answer to the culture of death as it is the culture of ugliness.

 I believe that when man cultivates the land and farms beautifully, then it is in harmony with the natural world and everything including wildlife flourishes in those parts that are left; the food produced is of a greater variety, healthier and tastier and it is produced in abundance. A discussion of farming methods is ultimately one about economics. This should be no surprise. Economics and business are a reflection of the culture as much as high art. However, this is beyond the scope of this short article. I have included, though, a picture of myself out for a walk in the Shropshire countryside in England. This landscape was formed by centuries of sympathetic farming (although one wonders how much longer it will be maintained). I could have as easily picked out a photograph of Tuscany , Provence, Granada or any small farm in New Hampshire (although these are disappearing fast).

This article is in praise of gardening. Unlike farming, there is no need to discuss economics. Anyone with the smallest plot of land can create a beautiful garden as anyone who has visited England will know (England is a land of beautiful gardens). when I talk of gardens, I am talking here of the cultivation of land for beauty, rather than for food. If farming is the Martha of man’s relationship with nature, gardening is the Mary. Adam was the first gardener in Eden. I would love to see the adoption of beautiful gardens as a modern symbol of a true ecology where man works with nature to restore Eden!

The traditional European model of the garden is geometric in form. I always imagine that the cloistered pathway into the church, should look onto the cloistered garden which is a re-creation Eden and a preparation for entering the church, which should evoke heaven. It should be the place in which man elevates the natural world, through God’s grace, into the highest and most beautiful form he is capable of producing. The picture shown above is of a cloistered garden, not in a monastery but in a stately home in Wales. Although simple (I had hoped to find something more ornate, but couldn't) it is still beautiful I think.

The English tradition of the landscaped garden arose in the 17th century in imitation of paintings by the baroque masters of rural idylls in the neo-classical tradition. So for example we see a painting by the 17th-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain and a garden designed by Capability Brown at Stourhead in Wiltshire, England. There is even a ‘folly’ (a building that has no utility other than its place in the view) which mimics the Roman Pantheon.

My parents were avid gardeners who cultivated the back garden in the tradition of the English cottage garden. They are now retired and live in southern Spain (along with a host of British ex-pat retirees). Many English people recreate this style in the gardens of their villas in Malaga region. It is a year-round watering job just to keep the lawn, the tulips and petunias alive. My mum and dad, on the other hand, decided to use a similar design to their English garden, based upon foliage colours of shrubs and perennials, but by making use of indigenous species. Consequently, it thrives with a fraction of the watering. Mention this just to make the point that wherever you are, there plants that grow well and which can be ordered in a beautiful way. So you can plant your monastic cloistered cactus garden in Arizona, starting today!


At Work in My Parents' Garden in Cheshire, England

photoAs an antidote to the gloom of ever shortening days I am posting some photos taken in England in the summer. I was back there in August and took these photos of my parents' garden. Some will remember that I showed photos of this garden just a year ago, in an article here called A Gardon is a Lovesome Thing, God Wot. when just in its second season. Fifteen months later and it is maturing so that the herbacious borders look packed out! I was immediately put to work doing some dead-heading and weeding. I can't claim much credit for the beauty of it, though. What is remarkable given that my Dad and Mum haven't been able to do much work on it this year, is how beautiful it is when for long periods it has just left to grow on its own. The look of it is down to careful planning in the design and planting. My parents winter in Spain and the Spanish influence is obvious with the removal of the lawn and courtyard type layout with large terracotta plants (also another labour saver as there is no lawn mowing to be done).



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Two More British Walks - Farmland in England and Wales and a 12th century Welsh castle

Here are some photographs of two more walks in the British Isles. The first is walking from my parents' house in a village called Willaston in Cheshire. This is in the north of England, close to the Welsh border and the area where I grew up. This is just a short jaunt from my parents' place through gentle, flat agricultural land viewed from a disused railway line. As with all of the British countryside, there are footpaths that you can take off this public land onto privately owned farmland. As you can see in the photographs, this is agricultural land and when I was there, the farmer was harvesting wheat. The second is rural north Wales. This is sheep pasture land and a rugged terrain in Snowdonia, and mountainous region of Wales. The highest hills are 3,000-3,500ft above sea level. The village is called Dolwyddelan (pronounced Dol-with-ellen - double ds are pronounced 'th' in Welsh).

These two places are about 60 miles apart.

First Willaston:

This little diversion took us to a pasture in which just a month ago the field was full of orchids and the dog rose was in bloom too. The following photographs were taken by my dad.

And here we have the rugged sheep country of Snowdonia...

It was a rainy day in August...well this is North Wales. We climbed out of the village into the hills along a farm track, the views opened up behind us and then we approached the ridge

Here we are close to the ridge above the village, about 2,500ft high

Flora and fauna along the way - sheep, yellow gorse and purple heather

And the cairn on the top for lunch.

And back down through the windy and rugged sheep pasture. Most of the sheep we saw were sheltering from the wind on one side of the ridge

Our return route took us via a castle that was built by the Welsh of the principality of Gwyneth. The Welsh in this part of the country resisted the Normans for two-hundred years longer than the English Saxons and were conquered by the English until the late 13th century (under Edward I). It was not used for defence but as a garrison for soldiers to help the security of travel routes for trade within the principality.

We had to climb the stairs, above, to get into the main hall inside.

And from there, we climbed up a dark stone stairway up to the top, and here's the veiw. The mountian by the way is called Moel Siabod (pronounced Moe-ell Shab-odd)

Below us, a shepherd was training his two sheep dogs

A Walk in Central London: Public Gardens and Public Art (Good and Bad)

In my summer trip to London I spent a day walking around just looking at the sights. A great way to do this is to walk the parks - so we spent a day walking along the Embankment park, through to Trafalgar Square to St James Park, then Green Park and then Hyde Park. Along the way could see so many of the sights - the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Pall Mall, Hyde Park Corner for example.  We stopped regularly for a cup of tea bought at the kiosks in the park and enjoyed the gardens and public art as well as the more famous buildings. I am convinced that gardens are the height of man's interaction of with creation in which its beauty is raised up to something beyond the wilderness. The importance of public gardens in cities cannot be overemphasized, in my opinion, for it is through them that those living in cities can have direct contact with the cultivated land, which is I believe a fundamental need of man. I do not think that this need necessarily means that man ought to be able to cultivate his own food, so do not subscribe to the lan-reformers' slogan of 'three acres and a cow'. I personally have little interest in animal husbandry, aviculture, apiculture or agriculture and am very happy for others who are specialists to do this and supply supermarkets where I can buy their produce. I do believe in as much access to land as is possible, whether gardens or fields and so like the common European model of right to roam in which people have access to private property provided they respect it.

City parks and gardens derive their beauty as much from the public art as they do from the plants grown. Public art, of course has a greater impact also in those areas where there is no cultivation and Trafalgar Square in London is made by the Lions and Nelson's column as well as the beauty of the buildings on it. There is a plinth on in the corner of Trafalgar Square and that is always given to a piece of contemporary art which changes regularly. The latest fiasco to occupy this spot is time a giant purple cockerel that looks as though its made out of resin. What an absurdity! The scale of a piece of art speaks of its importance - the huge size of this, and its garish unnatural colour make it dominate the whole square, clashing with the otherwise harmonious arrangement of the other works in the square and working contrary to the natural hierarchy, in which cockerels come below man.

The one positive is the new memorial to the members of the RAF who died during the war which was dedicated withing the last 12 months at Hyde Park corner. In contrast to the previous piece, this was set in a columned arcade and was something worthy of public attention. the style of the sculpture was traditional and accessible, and was aiming to make a statement about those who died and not the artist. I think that public art should be making a statement that has relevance at a public level. This does, the giant cockerel...well if it is, it isn't communicating it to me.

So we'll start with the new war memorial and then show pictures of the gardens.

The Greek columns support the roof over the sculpture of the bombers

 And here's another modern piece next to it...who knows what this is about. It might be important, but nothing about it makes you want to care.

And now the gardens: the park on the Embankment is a thin slither of land that lines the river, with high buildings on the other side. It is barely any wider than what you can see here.


St James park. below  next few, has an ornate entrance from Pall Mall and even the path up to the public toilets is beautifully tended beds on either side.


Next is Hyde Park. Within this there is a rose garden that has charming groves with a benches focussing on a fountain or statue. I am not usually a fan of rose gardens. While the blooms can be lovely they are usually rather dull rectangular borders with heavily pruned rose bushes surrounded by bare ground. This rose garden consistedof lots of rambling and shrub roses and no bare ground at all. I much prefer this.

And here is a nearby but different floral alcove:

And finally here is the boathouse on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I'm guessing that this was built in the 1920s. Notice how even this faux Elizabethan, half-timbered look has an elegance given to it by the three tiered division of unequal size the design in the walls. This is classic harmonious proportion. So the first layer is brick, the second is larger and then finally at the top, just below the eaves you have the smallest division (broken up into squares)

Photos of Naumkeag House and Gardens, Stockbridge, Massachussets

naumkeag19The Way of Beauty gardens reporter, Nancy Feeman has sent met me another missal, this one following a trip to Stockbridge, Massachussets. "The name of the house is Naumkeag," she tells me, "and the house itself was built in 1886. It is absolutely enchanting and charming. The gardens were redsigned from 1926 to 1955 and they are in the process of restoring them now. The idea of garden rooms is present in the design and a lot of the garden is heavily landscaped because the house sits on a hillside. The stairs are really interesting and have water flowing down to each level. Mabel Choate - the daughter who worked on the gardens - traveled to many countries for inspiration. This was was popular thing to do in the early 1900's and as a result of this she wanted a Chinese garden. The rose garden is lovely but the rose bushes are very young. In general there were not many flowers which is what I really love but nevertheless it it was still beautiful and of course the views of the nearby mountains, the Berkshires make the whole scene so picturesque. The website is here.  


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