Come Out of the Wilderness and into the Garden

by David Clayton on May 7, 2010

Hampton Court, London

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.

French formal garden

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.


Aberglasny, cloister garden

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).


Shropshire countryside

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.


Stourhead, Wiltshire

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!


English cottage garden


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Elisabeth Rochon May 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Hello, Mr. Clayton!
I really enjoyed this post, and the picture of you in England is quite lovely!
It’s quite amazing that you teach AND paint AND keep a blog!
See you this fall when I begin at TMC!


davidicons May 7, 2010 at 5:21 pm

thank you Elizabeth. I have found myself doing a lot at the moment!


Michelle May 7, 2010 at 10:26 pm

David, it’s so wonderful to imagine your parents puttering about in their Spanish English garden – would that be a Spanglish garden? :) I’m so excited about our little garden this summer, and we’ve thrown in some flowers as well (as vegetables). It’s incredibly satisfying to work in the garden, digging, building the fence, planting the seeds…our first seedlings just came up yesterday! I must agree with Elisabeth, your blog really is amazing – such depth and breadth of knowledge.


Anna Runkle May 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Hi David — I have really enjoyed your blog, and as someone who was raised in the “man is a blight on nature” school of thought, I am delighted and relieved to open my mind to this new and (for me) radical notion that I am *part of* nature. Like almost everyone, I have always loved gardens and farms and found them beautiful. Your last line about the cloistered cactus garden made me want to share a story of my first taste of Catholicism, which took place in exactly such a place! I spent 10 years of my childhood in Tuscon, Arizona — home to what is considered by many to be the most beautiful desert in the world, the Sonoran Desert. Long before my conversion, but in a time of difficulty, I returned to Tucson for a week of silence at the Desert House of Prayer. Here is a photo of one of the buildings. It was May, already quite hot during the day but cool and fragrant in the early mornings. Out in the courtyard, the sisters would set out water, seeds and fruit treats, on the ground and in the trees and cacti, for the dozens of birds — doves, quail, roadrunners, woodpeckers, wrens, owls — and other animals. Dawn, before morning prayer, was the perfect time to sit on a bench in the garden and watch and listen (silently!) to the abundant and chattering life that sprang from the landscape that I had always seen, until then, as barren and brutal and short on greenery. This garden really was an entry to the Church, and it evoked heaven.


davidicons May 10, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Thank you so much for this Anna. It’s a pleasure to get comments like this. David


Jon Watson July 14, 2011 at 9:24 am


Excellent post. I think, however, I want to quibble with this one statement:

but [man's] work can act to perfect [nature], that is to restore a fallen world to what it ought to be

It seems to me that man’s work of perfection is actually pre-lapsarian. Genesis suggests that even unfallen nature required the work of man to bring it to perfection:

while as yet there was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted, for the LORD God had sent no rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil (Genesis 2:5, NAB, emphasis mine); also, God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, NAB, emphasis mine).

I actually think this strengthens your main point.

Another thought I had while reading the article is that notwithstanding the modern anti-humanistic attitude towards nature, there is also a contrasting strain of argument, a kind of via foeditatis, against the existence of God based on the characterization of nature as “red in tooth and claw”. So for modern society, the natural world is so beautiful that man has no business interfering with it or cultivating it … and it’s so ugly that no good God would have created it in the first place.


David Clayton July 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I agree with your first point John, thank you. It’s the choice of the word restore that is wrong. I wasn’t so much thinking about taking it back to what it was before the Fall (although that is what it says – sloppy writing i’m afraid), or perhaps only in part, but more, as you say, to take it beyond that to what it will be when redeemed, which is greater still. As you say this strengthens the argument.

In regard to the second, this is interesting but new to me. I need to ponder over it. Also, my Latin isn’t good enough I’m afraid, what does foeditatis mean? But once again, thanks for the comment.


David Clayton August 14, 2011 at 7:53 am

I recently read a passage from one of the Church Fathers and they used the word restore, and I remember now why I started to use it. It was in the sense that it is restoring it into that participation in the dynamic of cultivation that I describe. I do admit, that this wasn’t clear from the column. Anyway, I don’t know if you’ll get this comment so late after the posting?


Leave a Comment

{ 5 trackbacks }