"We must cultivate our garden"
With these words Voltaire concludes his novel Candide. Throughout this absurdly funny and fiercely political narrative, he had subjected his young hero to the most savage cruelty. Countless humiliations, threatened executions, torture, floggings, theft, shipwreck and a gigantic earthquake. These were just some of the ordeals Voltaire had devised to break Candide's spirit, and cure him of his boundless optimism. Yet the young adventurer's good nature survived all things, and he was finally rewarded with a satisfying conclusion - a life of horticultural contentment.
The meaning behind this ending is still discussed today, close to three centuries after Candide was first published, and then quickly banned for its satirical assaults on Church and State. Voltaire's status as Europe's most celebrated writer-philosopher was never enough to keep him out of trouble. On the contrary, his sharp tongue and biting wit had frequently exposed him to ordeals of his own, including two terms in the Bastille prison, threats and beatings and many years of exile from his homeland. Like most Parisians, he could think of nowhere better to be, but he distracted himself from the pain of separation with an outpouring of words. In his unsettled lifetime Voltaire wrote 2,000 books and pamphlets and more than 20,000 letters. He was an author so prolific that he was said to have knocked off Candide in three days. The truth, of course, is more prosaic. Voltaire wrote his most influential and generally admired work over two years and more, and even revised
it after completion.
After a demanding stint in Prussia, as Frederick the Great's philosopher-in-residence, Voltaire exiled himself to Switzerland, in a grand house called Les Delices - Delights! Here he could enjoy the daily grind of fine wines and contemplation, safe from the hostility of the French king, Louis XV. At Les Delices Voltaire cultivated a garden of his own, a much grander affair than the pretty smallholding he had granted Candide. Having become rich, in part through some dodgy financial dealings, he could afford to employ two master gardeners and twenty labourers. Although it is hard to imagine him with trug and trowel, Voltaire certainly gave his garden his personal attention. He wrote to his agent asking for “artichoke bulbs and as much as possible of lavender, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, rue, strawberry bushes, pinks, thadicee, balm, tarragon, sariette, burnet, sage and hyssop to cleanse our sins, etc.”
I assume that Candide was the kind of gardener who liked a little dirt under his finger nails, but Voltaire would surely have shuddered at the idea. He commissioned the planting of thousands of trees in eastern France, though it's hard to think of him heaving an axe. Yet he was not someone to end his days in pampered indolence. He never lost his sense of purpose. In Switzerland he threw himself ever deeper into his fight for what we now call human rights, and he continued his often brave support for the victims of injustice. This was certainly his true garden, a garden of ethics and ideas. Voltaire had given Candide a simpler life than his own, and a less complicated mind, but no less a sense of resolve. I see Candide, the constant gardener, living in the moment, unfettered by distracting desires and imagined needs, blessed with a consciousness of the bounty that surrounded him, driven by a sense of duty to tend all of it with sensitivity and care. He lived what the ancient philosophers might call a good life. Voltaire even suggested, in at least one of his many letters, that Candide's was a life superior to that of the philosopher: "I have only done one sensible thing in
my life – cultivate the ground. He who tills a field, renders a better service to mankind than all the
scribblers in Europe."
Candide has come into my mind frequently in this time of the Great Pandemic. I recognise something of our our own fate in his narrative of chaos and catastrophe. It seems that everywhere we look we can see victims of cruel and arbitrary forces beyond all possibility of control. Few of us feel so entitled or detached to imagine that we won't, one day, suffer such a fate ourselves. What makes it worse is that for so many of these afflictions we have only ourselves, the human species, to blame - not some omnipotent author with a desire to teach us a lesson.
The global events we face are so overwhelming that they seem beyond the inventive powers even of Voltaire. We are plagued by spiky phenomena too small to see yet gargantuan in their effect. They are forcing us to reorder our daily lives and inducing panic at every level of society, everywhere we look. Alongside all this we continue to experience weather events which wipe away whole coastlines, drown great cities and burn to death 3.5 billion living creatures in a single episode. And we are slowly, painfully realising that we humans have triggered a global extinction on a scale not seen for 65 million years, one that might soon lead to our own collective demise. In those areas of existence over which we might hope to have some small influence, politics, a new collection of monstrous figures has taken power across the world, to replace all ideas of good governance with criminality at its crudest. There were many such people in Voltaire's time, of course, but our monsters have so much more destructive power at their fingertips. And to a man (sic) they are ready to ignore the larger catalogue of catastrophe. Why should they care, they feel above it all?
For those of us unable to detach ourselves from the idea of impending apocalypse, there is the creeping feeling that belief in human progress might have been a fantasy all along, a delusional concept no more elevated than the ancient motivation system of bread and circuses. It is as if Pangloss, Candide's companion and tutor through much of his odyssey, has been whispering his notorious catchphrase into our ears: "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." I suspect that our forebears put their faith in this nostrum not because of its truthfulness but because they wanted to, needed to. They protected themselves from terminal despair by believing that even the worst disaster could eventually be recovered from, and that they could always learn the lesson which each new calamity had taught them. But what if that faith, in progress at any cost, is the worst disaster of all, the one that got us into this mess.
Voltaire created Pangloss, the idiot sage, to argue that blind hope at the expense of rational thought was the most foolish of human traits. The full title of his book is Candide, or Optimism. So I assume he would not be surprised to see us now, haunted by the deepening anxiety that this time we really might have reached the end of days - not through the workings of a divine order, beyond our comprehension, but through our own shortsightedness, greed and stupidity. Yet perennially hoping for the best.
Now I too am going to succumb to this game of clutching at straws: could it be is it possible, even at this late stage, that we could learn something from Voltaire's constant gardener? Could we be inspired by him to remove ourselves from the Gadarene gallop over the precipice, and slow things down as he did? Could we alter our imperatives? Could we too become gardeners on a grand scale? But this time not by focussing on the fountains and statuary but by viewing the whole world, in its sorry, half-ruined state, as a garden itself, a single garden with countless rooms. Like Candide's, a garden -part metaphor, part reality- that must be tended with care and intelligence and, yes, love.
I have the privilege of living in Somerset, in south-west England, a rural county of quiet beauty and considerable diversity. It has been a relatively easy place to be locked down, filled as it is with fresh air, big skies and a munificence of space to think, with a generous scattering of wooded combes and boggy moors to get lost in. It is somewhere that encourages you to engage with the world immediately around you, as the non-human dimension carries on regardless of pandemics and other such concerns. Of course, aggressive farming and climate change limit the freedom of nature to fully take its course but the process continues as well as it can.
Across the northern hemisphere the spring and summer of 2020 have appeared to be especially bounteous, affirming the stirring presence of the lifeforce even as our minds have been preoccupied with danger and death. It seems that people, from Okinawa to Oregon, have had their spirits lifted by the almost silent spring of 2020, not in the sense of Rachel Carson's poisonous nightmare but of a season filled with the soft sounds of birdsong and buzzing rather than the mechanical din of modernity.
During lockdown friends and neighbours have talked about the special enthusiasm they have felt for their own gardens, not boasting about how beautiful they have become but describing the sense of wellbeing and hope they have gained from their modest plots. They have embraced the way that the simple business of weeding and tilling, planting and pruning, can feel like gestures of defiance against morbidity. My own garden is very small -less than half the size of tennis court- but this means I get the fanciful idea that I can attend to every flower and leaf, not with thoughts of regimentation and control but in an act of celebration and gratitude, as I see what turns up as the seasons unfold ... even if what turn up are slugs.
Like so many, I have been provoked by this plague to go in on myself. To dig deep. I have given myself the time to see what emerges from this enforced introspection, rather in the way I have looked at my overflowing garden, with patient curiosity. What has gradually revealed itself is a new clarity and determination, not so much a change of direction as a concentration of purpose. I feel especially fortunate that, throughout this period of reflection, I have not been paralysed by grief or the threat of poverty that has befallen so many. Thus I can make use of my new focus and tend my garden with vigour and determination. My metaphorical garden that is. The larger garden. The global garden.
What Voltaire did in his years at Les Delices (and at another chateau he later acquired, just across the Swiss border in France ) was to commit new vigour to his attacks on injustice, inhumanity, irrationality and the other items in his own catalogue of catastrophe. In the conclusion to Candide he had made an implicit connection between such aberrant behaviours and humankind's unsteady relationship with the natural order. He allowed Candide to disconnect from the world of monstrous disorder to engage with a task he could actually manage. Some critics have argued that this was Voltaire encouraging us to run away from reality -the hard stuff- but I see it as his way of allowing Candide to run into reality, by detaching himself as much as possible from a world so distorted by monstrous hubris and petty ambitions.
It is no coincidence that the monstrous throughout history have failed to give a damn about the natural cycles of growth, decay and renewal. That is emblematic. But let's remember, it is not only the monsters who have polluted far away Antarctica with toxins, plastics, radiation and the rest. Nor melted the ice of the Arctic and the high places. Nor ravaged the oceans and treated them like a sewer. Nor made our cities so dangerous to live in. Nor turned fertile lands into poisonous deserts, green in colour but in no other sense. Nor treated animals as disposable machinery and vulnerable people as virtual and even actual slaves. At long last, increasing numbers of us agree, influenced in part by our children, that something must now be done to end the psychotic behaviour we have accepted as normal for so long. Day by day more people become convinced that this global psychosis can no longer be simply talked about, it must be dealt with. Now.
Thanks to a chance encounter, I have recently become artist in residence in an actual garden. The Walled Garden at Mells is a gem, in one of Somerset's most gem-like villages. It is on the site of a long-demolished medieval monastery, and it is believed that it was once the kitchen garden. We can assume that nearby, as part of the monastery complex, there was a hortus conclusus, a walled garden dedicated to meditation and prayer. Today the Walled Garden at Mells is a nursery and visitor attraction. It is also a community asset, giving a wide range people the possibility to explore cultivation as a source of wellbeing and confidence.
During my year-long residency I shall prepare work for an exhibition in Mells that I'll be curating during the summer of 2021. The exhibition, and its associated events, will be put together in collaboration with Samantha Evans, who runs the garden and shapes its social role. We won't hold our contributing artists too closely to the theme of gardens per se but encourage them to explore, in their own terms, the larger relationships of which gardens are a vital expression: humankind's interaction with the cycles of growth, decay and renewal. This has always been a problematic relationship, part sensitive engagement and part thoughtless exploitation, but now it is in its deepest crisis.
As an artist, I shall be seeking to use the garden as a lens through which to explore humankind's larger relationship with nature. At the beginning, when the first humans walked the world, we can assume that their gardens were found rather than made. They were a source of nourishment. But can we also assume that they were a source of pleasure, even a sense of wellbeing? Could early man share with Votiare feelings of delight? Is, as some people will claim, biophilia bred into us?
The end point in my inquiries will be the Global Garden, as a way of connecting gardens half the size of a tennis court to vast parklands, to farms and forests, to great cities and wild places under threat, to ecosystems the size of Amazonia or the Pacific, to the global survival system itself.
This is a thought process that responds to the same influences as the redefinition of our present epoch as the Anthropocene, the age in which nothing on Earth can escape human influence. Some say this definition is simply one more vainglorious positioning of humankind at the centre of all things. But I see it more as yet another decision born of desperation, intended to provoke us into acting with responsibility for the conditions we have created, and continue to create. What it urgently demands is that we work, as nature does, across boundaries, in every place, at every scale, using the thoughtfulness, care, creativity and respect of good gardeners, good scientists, good artists, good citizens, good people.
This does not imply total, obsessive control, what you might call the Dominic Cummings approach. One of our priorities must be to create conditions in which environmental systems can eventually work as independently as possible from human intervention, on the principle that Gaia knows best. This is not only because Gaia is the protecting goddess, Mother Earth, who has been in our minds since the beginning of human society, but because Gaia is the name we now give to a principle based on rational observation, a scientific principle. James Lovelock was working as a space scientist when he conceived the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the Earth is a self-correcting system which helps to sustain the conditions for life to continue, a system we are doing so much to break down. Gaia is a product of reason and imagination. Just like Candide.
The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:
"There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts."
"All that is very well," answered Candide, "but we must cultivate our garden."
Candide, or Optimism VOLTAIRE