‘The sympathy of very lofty and sensitive minds usually reaches so far as to the conception of life in the plant, and so to love.’
—John Ruskin, Modern Painters II.i
It was 1871, and John Ruskin was walking to work. It was a good six miles, from his rooms at the Crown and Thistle inn to Oxford University. On the way, the Slade Professor of Art saw a group of girls in ragged clothes, playing in a ditch by the side of the road. They were gathering buttercups. Curious, the Professor watched for a while, then asked what they were playing. ‘This is my garden,’ said Annie Brickland, who was about nine years old. Ruskin disapproved, telling Annie that real gardens were useful, not just for picking a few scattered wildflowers. He recommended that she cultivate strawberries. Annie replied that she had none to plant, and the implication was obvious, even to the well-heeled Ruskin: this was a poor young girl with no wherewithal or backyard of her own. Ruskin offered her some strawberries to plant, and a plot to tend to—if she agreed to the responsibility. She did, and Ruskin made good on his promise, renting a patch of good soil from his landlady at the Crown and Thistle.
For Ruskin, this was more than a random act of generosity. With gardening, he was trying to reform England. In his Letter XLIV of Fors Clavigera, he wrote:
With what can be spared for charity, if anything, do this; buy ever so small a bit of ground, in the midst of the worst back deserts of our manufacturing towns; six feet square, if no more can be had, —nay, the size of a grave, if you will, but buy it freehold, and make a garden of it, by hand-labour; a garden visible to all men, and cultivated for all men of that place. If absolutely nothing will grow in it, then have herbs carried there in pots.
It is an eccentric proposition, but Ruskin outlined several social and psychological benefits. Most directly, gardening got Britons outdoors, and offered physical and mental exercise. ‘What Egyptian bondage was ever so cruel,’ he asked, ‘as a modern English iron forge, with its steam hammers?’ Instead of this deadening mechanical repetition, horticulture was a slow, thoughtful craft. New gardens would also produce fresh, cheap fruit and vegetables, instead of expensive, unhealthy sweets or low quality meats. It was economically sound: an investment in year-round food, which encouraged a modest self-sufficiently. Instead of squandering money on trinkets, expensive clothes or mass-manufactured patterns, workers could also introduce cut flowers into the home, and designs inspired by nature – the sort of work taken up by William Morris, who was initially inspired by Ruskin.
As this suggests, beauty had a profound moral significance for Ruskin. For all his ardent reform recommendations, the Professor was really championing a philosophical cause, which united morality with the appreciation of beauty. The garden, in this, represented a ‘higher’ metaphysical and ethical order.
In Modern Painters, Ruskin labelled the right attitude theoria: a more transcendent sight, which looked past the world of tangible things to more transcendent truths. Whereas the aesthete looked with aesthesis—that is, with normal physical perception—the true lover of beauty looked to Ruskin’s divine blueprint. The man of theoria saw past brute material lines, colours, textures, to the divinely-given principles and purposes of living things—including plants. ‘If we see a leaf withered or shrunk or worm-eaten, we say it is ugly,’ Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters, ‘because it seems to hurt the plant, and conveys to us an idea of pain and disease and failure of life in it.’ A healthy plant, in other words, was a sign of a higher moral order—botanical beauty was an ethical achievement.
Ruskin’s deifying of nature will smack many moderns as piffle. And there are good reasons to be suspicious of his ‘second sight’, which gave a select few access to eternal truths, and damned all the blind. This easily becomes a metaphysical sleight-of-hand, in which a leader’s moral and social prejudices are smuggled into cosmology and called ‘God’.
Yet Ruskin’s description of theoria is less rarefied than it looks. Suitably revised, it is not a pseudo-scientific account of some supernatural reality, waiting to be discovered by just the right conservative art critic. A more naturalistic account will do: to garden well, an ideal state for each plant is envisaged; we keep in mind the signs of health in shape, colour, texture. It is a kind of biological sensitivity, which combines perception, imagination and care.
In this light, Annie’s rented patch of dirt was a training in virtues, like attentiveness, perseverance and modesty, which took her out of herself. This has a Victorian ring to it, partly because the terminology has fallen from fashion. But in any era, virtues are simply valuable character traits – beneficial physical and mental dispositions, encouraged by habit. Annie’s borrowed strawberries were promoting the distinctive character traits of gardening, underpinned by a central psychological shift: away from selfishness, towards sympathetic attunement. Ruskin’s fantasies of a revitalised England were never going to eventuate, but his gift to Annie Brickland was a more realistic revolution: consciousness, briefly departing from its habitual self-absorption.
Damon’s book Philosophy in the Garden will be published in December 2012 by MUP.
Illustration ©Daniel Keating© Damon Young