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The Inner Garden

The following is a copy of Cynthia Seavey’s Sermon delivered by her at the First Universalist Church of Normay, Maine, on April 9, 2006.

The Inner Garden
Metaphor: Reality

What do the words “Inner Garden” conjure up for you? Could it be, as for me, a memory of the children’s classic, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, “The Secret Garden”? With its sickly, motherless heroine, a remote and pining father, and the ever plucky youth Dicken? Was it that story of resurrection to life of Clara and her father that stayed with you? Or was it the actual rediscovery and reflowering of the secret, gated, wild, forbidden space? It was both for me, for as a romantic, I longed for Clara to know the love of her father, and also the sweet, painful, secret of the locked garden. Yet I also felt pleasure in the very real process of the garden’s rebirth. Certainly, both the phrase “Secret Garden”, and its image were both etched in my childhood psyche.

Does this bring to mind another story about a gated garden, lost to humankind? One which we metaphorically continue to try to regain? Paradise, the Garden of Eden was such a place of comfort, security and delight. And what of the Greek mythical “Arcadia”, that dreamy pastoral landscape of meadows, groves (sacred or otherwise), and pools of pleasure? Where men, women, gods, and demi-gods, with all the animals, cavorted in daily life, full of fecundity and whimsy – ever to be recalled as the hazy, innocent days, the Good Life. The very word “Paradise” derives from a Persian phrase (spoken similarly, though spelt quite differently) – and, it actually means “enclosure”. For, traditional Persian and Islamic gardens were enclosed, cool, calm sanctuaries from the hot and dusty countryside, full of water, the source of life. They portrayed a vision of heaven, a foretaste of the delights to come.

Meanwhile, Buddhist mandalas picture enclosed, square gardens centered around circular pools. They were meditation gardens, where one centered oneself, focused on the still pool, symbol of the central axis of the whirling universe.

European Medieval Gardens, largely built and tended by the church and its institutions, featured walled courtyard spaces, combining the meditative element with the purely useful, with pot herbs and medicinal herbs filling the raised beds, alongside flowering fruit trees and a few perennials. Among these enclosed gardens was the “Mary Garden”, or “Hortus Conclusus” (“enclosed”). Traditionally described or pictured as a walled garden with mixed fruit trees and plants along the walls and a “flowery mead” underfoot, it recalls the naturalistic sacred grove of antiquity – but converted to Christianity – a safe, holy garden where Mary and her woman saints might gather. Metaphorically, it represents her virginity; the flowers and fruit mirror the flowering of that virginity. It was a symbol of redemption, Paradise regained.

A few hundred years later, Italian Renaissance gardens still maintained “Giardino Segretos” (secret gardens). No longer physically attached to the villas of the wealthy Romans and Tuscans who built them, they often were thickly hedged pleasure gardens perched on the hilltop crest of the villa’s site, catching not only the splendid views of the green valleys below, but the cooling breezes as well. And they retained the ambience of the enclosed garden – the Giardino Segreto.

Before ending our travelogue of Inner Gardens, ponder with me those jewels of the East, Japanese Gardens, which arose out of a strong religious world view so very different from that of the West. Rather than regaining a lost Paradise, Shinto and Taoists seek “Union with Nature” by balancing contradictory elements, thereby attaining a state of Bliss. Their gardens, strongly allegorical as to design and materials, were and are sites for contemplation and meditation. The lines, the forms, the materials all conform to the ideas of yin and yang – the still female element and the moving male one. Water and stone are the original essential elements. The water may move (a waterfall), or be still (reflecting pool). Moss-covered, weathered stones represent mountains, with sand or pebbles the fields or vales. Placement is asymmetrical, following the lines of nature. Both the raked-sand temple gardens and the smaller home sites are traditionally enclosed by a stone wall, or a high bamboo fencing. Very private and serene, very much Inner Gardens.

Why do these synchronicities as to place and meaning resonate, in an almost spiritual sense? It’s very “UU”, isn’t it? For we honor the sacred beliefs of all peoples, we study them and often borrow from their spiritual concepts. And we honor as well the spiritual resource of the interdependent web of all existence – life, nature, the Universe (including gardens!). Created in the aura of the Enlightenment, itself a reconstruction and extension of the Renaissance and its focus on classical humanism, Unitarians and Universalists for the most part, welcomed the pursuit of Comparative Religions and ideas and theories such as Jung’s “Collective Unconscious”. It gives us tools to find connections (meaning), not only between cultures, but between entirely different spheres of reality, such as, for instance, the essence of sanctuary and contemplation on the one hand, paired with rocks, water, and plants on the other. Metaphor – Reality! One by one we peel away the layers of meaning and we wonder at the Interconnections. Sophia Fah’s miracles.

As a questing religious (agnostic) humanist, I sometimes reflect on my own life’s path with, almost, a sense of awe. Well, luck, anyway. So many of the interests and goals I dreamed of in childhood came to be, fortuitously, as if, dare I say, as part of “A Plan”. Here are some of the stations along the way to my Bliss, which I’ve found in the art and practice of Landscape Design.

ITEM: I was always mollified on long car trips as a child and they were all long because Dad never drove over 35 MPH! Who cared? I looked out the window – period. Human activity was interesting; but it was the landscape, and the built landscape that grabbed me. The summer I was eight, while vacationing on the Cape (Cod), Mom, Dad, sister Nan, Aunty Edna, Granddad and I piled into the Chevy for a day trip to Provincetown. Perched between Grandpa’s knees, I enjoyed the passing scene from the front window as well as the side. At a certain point, I spied a house – simple but satisfying in form, shuttered, a door in the center, a modest border of shrubs and perennials, and an elm taking pride of place. It was a Cape, of course. I know not why, but just then, driving (slowly) by that house, I understood the essence of the word “house” (It imprinted). That evening, returning in the gathering gloom, I looked for it, and yes, I found it. Through the windows I could see soft lights, a fireplace, books on shelves. The glowing image lingered, and became the essence of the word “home” for me, a place where people lived. Soon after this, I began to draw houses, design floor plans, create families to people them. It became an island community of families and their habitats. I was intrigued not only with the way things looked, but how they worked, as well. Design. For my new obsession, I was gifted with pads of paper, straight edges, rulers, triangles, pencils and pearly erasers, and ….. hurrah! A briefcase to tote it all!

ITEM: I loved aptitude tests. No studying, just all about ME, what I liked. Test results were in graph form, the vertical plane registering Degree of Interest, while the horizontal named the areas of aptitudes. Along the bottom were lists of potential job/careers matching your aptitudes. My charts showed two prominent humps: The first, “Mechanical/Construction”; the second “Aesthetics”. Well, guess what those two prominent bumps signified as to my future career. Yep, “architecture” lead all the rest! (At the very bottom of the heap the term “landscapist” might just barely be perceived – but frankly, friends, except in very rarified circles, landscaping was barely on the radar scope, which of course wasn’t yet reality either.)

ITEM: To prove my seriousness about this penchant of mine, I spent 3 years doing shop drawings in a High School drafting class, loving the connection between T-square and triangles on the sloped desk, and excelling in lettering. I was rewarded with some actual architectural projects in my senior year. Bliss!

But, life happened – no one really guided me, and I secretly feared the math requirements that loomed in architecture. I ended up, happily enough, drifting through four basically good years of liberal arts, a satisfying exploration of the classics (ancient history, ancient languages, philosophy), fine arts, geology. A perfect prep for life – yuk, yuk! – and, as it turned out, for marriage, a few weeks after graduation.

Segue to a warm, summer Sunday afternoon several years later. Perusing the “Sunday Globe” in dissolute fashion, I was about to discard the Education section without a glance, but I, for some reason, opened it. I checked out the Law School ads. With our oldest in college and the youngest entering 4th grade, I felt itchy. It was the 70’s, women were on a roll, and mid-life career moves were not only possible, they were “chic”. My life as a wife/mom/housewife had also been hugely invested in volunteerism, to wit, 1st our UU-church (A-street in Boston); 2nd, my other church, the League of Women Voters; 3rd, numerous other town commitments. It was time for my next phase. Then it happened – do I dare use today’s favorite cliché? Yes, indeed, an epiphany! My eyes, sliding slowly down a busy page of newsprint, were lured by an open, elegant ad, which simply stated “An Introductory Lecture; The Radcliff Seminars on Landscape design; Sept. 12 in Radcliff Yard”. Pow! A bolt of lightning! Yes. That’s what I’d “do”, “be”. No law school. No long parade of painful classwork and casework that might well lead to disillusion. No! But YES to that which had already consumed a great deal of my creative energies, repaying me with pleasure and achievement. If not architecture, then, by golly, planning the landscape for the buildings. It seemed a perfect fit.

So began 4 years of study, and constant involvement with the history, plant materials, elements of design, hardscape and construction. And, of course, the Presentation – both the graphic (pen and ink — my years of lettering served me well); and, the spoken presentations (read here “jargon” – designers do acquire a marvelously flowery verbiage). But I loved to talk to folks abut their unfolding spaces, untangling the web of assets and debits, usage and potential. Somewhere in the process of talking to people, plumbing their thoughts, measuring the land, setting all the data and the dreams on to paper, choosing plant and other materials – there comes a moment when there is a perceived “click”; the pieces have come together, it will work, now and in time, growing in beauty and function, the whole indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Reality, and metaphor!

Building a garden or a whole landscape, is, indeed, a life long endeavor. All the aesthetic elements are involved: the shape of the space; line itself – on both the horizontal and vertical plane; the feeling of mass; color in blossom and foliage; texture both visual and tactile; light/shade; aroma and even sound. There’s the whole lay of the land to consider – rural, urban, in between? Wooded or pastoral? Contoured? And forget not the “borrowed” landscape – the views. Beneath all, we still seek the “genius of the place” – the darling of 18th c English landskipers – atmosphere, history, the found and to be found relics. Your garden will command a commitment of hand and body; the stretch of intellect both as to history and to horticulture. And, yes, the tuning in to intuitive sensibilities, to feelings. For it is a state of mind (metaphor) as well as a living, growing actuality.

Julie Muir Meservey, one of my particular goddesses, is a landscape architect who leads the way in the articulation of what she calls the “Inward Garden”. She says, “…a garden resides in the imagination, as a series of personally satisfying images. It is set apart in time and space. It satisfies the need we have to help things grow, to share and participate in nature, and to leave our mark – a tree, a boulder, a fern.” Isn’t that wonderful – do you ever admit it? That you’d like to leave your mark?

“Landscaping”, a pretty pretentious and self-important term, has its place and function. Now lets think of your inner image, of your secret garden, vernal sanctuary or refuge where you may lose yourself tending your babes; a place to heal – from anger, pain, sadness. Or, indeed, a social, sharing space to enjoy with others. Does your image include enclosure? (A fence, hedge, wall, or natural growth augmented with broad or needle-leaf evergreens)? Is ther water in your dream? A winding path, a focal point, a gateway? Perhaps a trellised, framed structure? Are there archetypal plants with personal or historic association? (Include lilacs, roses, and violets; herbs, box, heathers and yews; spring bulbs, summer lilies and iris Phlox, of course) Perhaps a fountain, a Japanese lantern, a pebbled path or floor; a bench, a mnemotic boulder? Universal icons, readable over time and throughout cultures. And they belong in our gardens.

About 10 years ago, I found myself at the opening session of a class with Julie Meservey, covering both Japanese and Inward Gardens – and I was looking forward to it. (She had made her mark by being the primary designer/builder of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Japanese Garden.) She placed a sheet of newsprint and a box of crayons on everyone’s desk. Assignment! Draw a garden from your childhood that has special meaning, now and long ago. Folks around me laughed a little, and without much conviction, began to doodle (kind of). But, in a heartbeat it all came back to me – the “Fairy Garden” at the Farm, the wonderful 19th century property of my Dad’s older sister, who was off in Hawaii during the 2nd World War doing her patriotic duty. So we all ended up doing ours – by spending weekends and summer holidays – April to October – tending a huge Victory Garden, canning, preserving, and “setting by”, which friends and family shared, back in the ‘burbs. Granddaddy and Auntie Edna were still on board, and we all had our jobs. Somehow, my aunt fell into the role of general groundskeeper and flower gardener, and she shanghaid Nancy and me. We didn’t mind. The house, set back about 100 feet from the country road, was the typical Big House, Small House, Wood Shed, Barn model, stretching out parallel to the road. It was approached by an arced driveway, a complete half-circle which, even in its untended state, had a “touch of class”. But what enhanced this demure but rather stately drive was that it hugged an 8 to 10 foot tall, feathery green, circular mass of arbor vitae (“trees of life”). Untrimmed for years, that circle uttered echoes of association which, as a child, I felt – dark, aromatic, orange barked – but could not name. There was but one opening, facing the house, which gave access to the inner circle, probably 20 feet in diameter. An overgrown wilderness of classic Victorian perennials competing with goldenrod, asters, and myrtle. The hours of cleaning out and dividing root stocks, endless weeding, re planting – the rebirth of that iconic Paradise garden – never bored me. In fact, the three of us were hooked, both by the Fairy Garden itself, and by our three-way partnership.

While I recreated with those crayons that deep green wreath of hedging, I suddenly understood why I (alone of the sophisticates of the gardening world), still wanted to place the odd arbor vitae in a shrub border; always sought to recycle the “found” materials in harmony with the new, and why, most profoundly, I grasped every opportunity to form garden “rooms”, and incorporate circular (or at least elliptical) lines in my plans. As I “presented” my “recollected” garden to the class, I realized the mythical, iconic form of the “cedars” (arbor vitae), so often picture in Mediterranean and Italian medieval paintings. I recalled the enclosed, inner gardens of history – the iris, lilies, and myrtle; and yes, yes, the Secret Garden! The enclosed Paradise.

It is not often that one has such telling moments of enlightenment, of connection of past and present, the real and the metaphoric. And so I ask, “Do you have a secret garden? Will you draw it?”

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