Gardens of the Soul

In his Defense of Poetry (1595-ish), Philip Sidney compares the world of Nature to the worlds created by the Poet:

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [to what is supposedly true and factual], lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

In the early modern period, gardens provided a powerful metaphor that the aristocracy in particular seized upon. What Sidney describes—the Poet’s “golden” world, inspired by Nature but improved upon—is itself a kind of imaginal gardening. As Amy Tigner observes, early modern gardens served

as the crossroad between culture and nature…a space imagined as removed from the harsh realities of the outside environment…Imbued with religious significance, the garden—always a synecdoche for Eden—offers the possibility of reparation for personal sins and societal ills.[1]

Gardens can serve as microcosmic expressions of the larger world, and the idea of the kingdom as a garden tended to by the sovereign is an old one. Shakespeare uses this image often, perhaps most famously in Richard II, where the royal Gardener compares Richard and Bolingbroke as rulers and as gardeners of England. In a biblical sense, gardening is humanity’s—specifically Adam’s (and thus men’s) first profession, divinely ordained. The world is men’s to perfect as they co-create the world as co-creator’s in God’s image. The idea of gardening as recovery and reparation can include not only nature but also the soul.

Michele de Montaigne gestures at this notion, I would argue, in his essay “That to philosophize is to learn to die”:

I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can; and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden. I saw a man die who, in his last extremity, complained constantly that destiny was cutting short the history, on which he was at work…[2]

The “unfinished garden” is not only Montaigne’s cabbage garden but also the “unfinished garden” of his life and his soul—that which he uses philosophical inquiry to cultivate. As he observes a few pages later:

All the time you live you steal from life; living is at life’s expense. The constant work of your life is to build death.

Life is neither good nor evil in itself: it is the scene of good and evil according as you give them room.

And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days. There is no other light, no other night. This sun, this moon, these stars, the way they are arranged, all is the very same your ancestors enjoyed and that will entertain your grandchildren.[3]

Life and death are things, scenes, places to shape and build.

The garden is archetypal. For as much as Renaissance gardens have their very particular rigidly defined and controlled structures, it’s interesting to note the garden’s significance elsewhere. In describing the Runa experience of the forest’s dreaming/spiritual side in How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn notes how

In a metaphoric human dream people recognize a gap between their mode of perception and that of the animal masters [the spirits ruling the forest]. Through dreaming, they are able to see how the forest really is—as the domestic gardens and fallows of the dominant animal masters. This, however, is always juxtaposed to how they see the forest in their waking life—as wild.[4]

In a way, the spirit masters of the forest tend to and cultivate the forest—to them, the forest is their garden. To the humans in the waking world, the forest is a wild locale—except when they dream or encounter the forest’s spiritual aspect. I can’t help but then reflect on my own experience of Paracelsian “gnomes” and other “elementals” “tending” the local environment.

The Runa’s—and at that point mymetaphoric experience of the natural world as a “garden” might be how human minds and perspectives can make sense of the way ecosystems work in the first place. There are billions of processes going on in the world as fungi, bacteria, algae, plants, animals, wind, sun, earth, temperature, rain, water, and, yes, even humans are all shaping the world—“gardening” in a sense.

And as the Runa experience shows—as the Renaissance humanist idea of the garden shows—that action happens not just in the visible, physical garden but in the imaginal, as well, including the gardening of the soul and the spirit of the world, which although often treated distinctly are not necessarily distinct. However, just as Renaissance gardens were elaborate and overdetermined structures, unsustainable without continual upkeep, so too were spiritual gardens similarly elaborate and overdetermined, and perhaps  unsustainable.

The microcosmic purpose of gardens—as Tigner notes, often providing a way to demonstrate in miniature the power of a noble or royal authority in the larger world[5]—reflected human attempts to constrain and shape the world wholly in terms of one man’s vision. The enacting of that vision requires violence—consider the shaping of the hedges in the garden above, the social violence/force necessary to sustain the labor to maintain the garden while excising all undesired, unplanned additions: plants growing out of bounds, or unwanted, “invasive” plants taking root.

Indeed, the colonial project was figured in not only terms of gardening but also the violence of rape. In The Discovery of Guiana, Walter Ralegh concludes that

Guiana is a Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead, never sackt, turned, nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not beene torne, nor the vertue and salt of the soyle spent by manurance [cultivation]…[6]

Gardening, cultivation, is a form of violence in this system, entailing control systems to control labor and landscape, and I cannot help but wonder how much the “spiritual gardening” of the Churches serve as spiritual and imaginal control systems. And how different is this “gardening” from the kind of gardening the spirit masters known to the Runa perform?

From an occult perspective, the Golden Dawn treatment of the Kircher Tree of Life as something to internalize and imprint within one’s Sphere of Sensation is also a kind of gardening. The GD notes on “The Garden of Eden before the Fall” and after make it clear that the Order was engaged in this kind of work, albeit through their own understanding of mythology and the archetypal. The cultivation of the “Tree of Life” in the magician’s soul is practically explicit soul-gardening.[7] It’s arguably the point of the system. That said, it has always struck me as a very rigid garden plan that seeks to tame the inner wilds while also projecting that vision of the garden onto the world at large.

Enchantment as Ecosystemic Process

At some point early into my revived practice, I had several visions of myself in a desert wasteland, and I came across a desiccated stump of a tree:


A lot like this one, actually. Dry Tree Stump (Petr Kratochvil)

I’ve seen this place in my fiction…and in poetry I’ve written—why is it barren? I’m standing over a lone system of roots [a stump] in a wasteland—What do I allow inside? Who? Surely there should be something? Have I ravaged it, scoured myself?

Or am I in some kind of barren region, have isolated myself? Have I cannibalized myself?

I need to garden, I want [my world tree] to reach its roots into my mind and soul, forests and waters and skies.

You’ve kept everything out, even what you wanted—you starved yourself, fed yourself on—something? But you can let the Dream…[and] others in. You can love yourself even, nurture yourself and soul.

As my practice continued, I could tell that the wasteland was renewing itself. For a time, I had an “astral temple” that was little more than a camp in the wilderness, the husk of a tree by a big stone, a bonfire, and some more scenery. After a point, the tree was a tree! It was even in a grassland—and eventually, I stopped seeing even the former wasteland but a wood with a river running through it.

That “Wood” is one I often begin at or return to. I mean, I have my more permanent residence in the Otherworld—by the sea in a city. When I meditate in mornings, I often find myself by the shore. At other times, I find myself in a Wood, by the Waters. And none of these locales are “gardens” in the conventional sense we use for the word in the west.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My residence in the City has a walled garden with fountains and more—hedges and herbs and trees. As I began getting my sigil craft underway, I often saw myself in some version of that garden, the sigils coming to life often as little animals or as beings who would burrow into the garden or who would scurry off to live in it, or even out into the city or countryside. That’s expanded and adapted as time has passed, but there’s still a strong sense that my practical enchantments entail some kind of extradimensional gardening.

But it’s really more so a kind ecosystemic process. I have gone through enough bits of paper for about 800 sigils at this point, all of them living beings, spirits, of some kind. I have worked to get in better—or even to just get in with my local spirit ecology, which in turn affects me. I had closed myself off to the world, and I withered into a wasteland, and I try to remember that I am not a closed system–nothing is.

I have gone through a succession of spiritual encounters and allies (or acquaintances)—Well, see, I’ve begun to wonder just how much I’ve had “pioneer species” and “ruderal species” effects in my soul garden. And as spiritual ecodiversity has increased, and as my own inner landscape has been reconnecting to the larger landscape, I have to wonder if more can thrive in my life? Some Anderson Feri-style pioneer and soul recovery work—some various “gods” and helping spirits coming through the cracks—finding the spiritual ecology of the Jungian Depths and the local environment—grimoires, prayers, spirits, gods, ancestors, saints, fae, river spirits, dragons, and so forth and so on. And while no one may be an island, per se, except when they are, they can certainly wind up becoming edge effect environments—or creating and living with them.

I have maintained an altar for quite some time—I have a large one with lots of space, and the top is crowded, and the wall is a witchy iconostasis. And despite my own tendency towards trying to arrange or systemize things into a “cohered” order—some kind of hierarchical or totalizing or taxonomical or Neo-Platon-ish system—I’ve tried to resist doing so, and in part, trying to do so has wound up feeling either like LARPing or like trying to make a hideously regimented “garden” that I don’t want. I don’t want to be a garden.

So, I’m a bit more a compost heap, and a Wood with Waters that entangles the celestial, terrestrial, and chthonic, and a home with a garden in a city by the shore of a sea—and maybe even a sourdough—

But as I had put up some new images the other day, I sat down before the altar and wall and I was struck by the sheer—richness, the vibrancy that had developed, just beyond what my eyes were physically looking at—and that’s pretty damn cool.

Featured Image: tree and river

[1] Amy L. Tigner, Literature and the Renaissance Garden from Elizabeth I to Charles II: England’s Paradise (London: Routledge, 2016), 10.

[2] Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1976]), 62 (emphasis mine).

[3] Montaigne, 65 (emphases mine). I also note some interesting cycle thinking there, Montaigne.

[4] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, Kindle edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), locations 3088-90.

[5] Tigner, 10. That said, given the hermeticism rampant in the Renaissance, highly ornate, microcosmic gardens become instances of practical enchantment, as well—attempts to further express the image and reality of that control and mastery over nature and humans into the larger world. Sidney’s description of the power of the Poet to imagine better worlds—and how art in general provides ways to shape the state and peoples in far more effective manners than just history, philosophy, or theology is straight up image magic along the lines that Frances Yates and Iain Couliano describe.

[6] Walter Ralegh, The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana, edited by Robert H. Schomburgk (London, 1848), 115. Given the colonizers’ associations of colonization with rape, it has been observed that naming Virginia Virginia, after Elizabeth I, might reflect some latent, male, and imperial desires regarding England’s queen.

[7] Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn, 6th edition (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989), 73-6.

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