A couple of weeks ago, Sydney newspapers carried a happy story about a much visited and much appreciated garden. The garden is the creation of Wendy Whiteley, who lives in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Lavender bay in a house she shared with her ex-husband, the artist, Brett Whiteley, and their actress daughter, Arkie.
The house backs onto State Government land where there is a disused railway line. Two decades ago the piece of this land immediately behind the house was weed infested, overgrown with Lantana and an unofficial dump.
Soon after Brett’s death in 1992, Wendy set about building a garden on this very unpromising patch. She had no authority to do this and risked seeing her efforts swept away, as the Government had refused to commit to keeping the land as a reserve or park.
But caught up in the creative nature of the project, she pressed on, spending a great deal of time and money and eventually employing the services of two gardeners.
The result is this beautiful place – Wendy’s “secret garden”.
Wendy thinks that Brett and Arkie, who passed away nine years after him, would both approve of the garden. The ashes of both are buried there.
The good news reported by newspapers was that the future of the garden had been assured by the government’s decision to lease the land to the local council on a 30-year renewable basis. As the Government Minister announcing the lease remarked, “I’m pretty sure it would be a game politician in 30 years’ time not to continue what is absolutely beautiful.”
More than a beautiful place and the creative realisation of a dream, the garden is a powerful example of what the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore described as “the wooing of the earth”. Like the wooing of one person by another, the wooing of the earth is the forming of a bond of love and respect that is achieved through reciprocity and mutuality. Wooing is being moulded as well as moulding . For Tagore, the wooing of the earth is the “perfect union” between humanity and nature.
He arrived at this idea when marvelling at the beauty of the English landscape and realising that it was the product of centuries of collaboration between people and the elements and processes of nature – soil, water, wind, rain and so forth.
The eminent microbiologist and pioneer in the development of antibiotics, the late René Dubos made wooing nature the centrepiece of his environmental thinking. In his book, The Wooing the Earth: New Perspectives on Man’s Use of Nature, he pointed out that many of the landscapes which we admire and seek because of their “naturalness” are the result of successions of adaptations – of people to nature and nature to people. This process, which has been going on for tens of thousands of years, rests on the belief that we can manage the Earth and improve on Nature.
This is a belief with deep roots in the past. We see manifestation of it, for example, in the Stone Age people who domesticated animals and plants some ten thousand years ago; in the farmers of all ages who created agricultural land by cutting down the primeval forest, draining the marshes, or irrigating the deserts; in the planners of all historical periods who have converted natural landscapes and waterscapes into artificial parks and gardens; in today’s homeowners who maintain lawns where brush and trees would naturally grow.
And we see it in Wendy’s secret garden where her intervention has not only restored nature but enhanced it. This is the essence of wooing the earth – working with, rather than dominating, nature to achieve a result that is to the benefit of the Earth as well as ourselves.
Dubos called himself a “despairing optimist” as far as the future of Earth is concerned. He was as alarmed as anyone about the environmental crises that we have brought upon ourselves. But he drew optimism from his conviction that by working lovingly, respectfully and insightfully with nature, we can satisfy our own material and societal needs while taking care of nature at the same time.
Dubos called this a “new” perspective even though it has been around for a very long time. It is new in the sense of having a new relevance.
Broadly speaking, conversations about the environment tend to be dominated by several mind-sets or positions, especially those of:
- The eco-warrior – human intervention in nature must be kept to a minimum (downplays the reality that humans have survived only by both adapting to and changing nature);
- The eco-dominator – nature exists to be exploited for human benefit (ignores the reality that human and planetary wellbeing are interdependent)
- The eco-indifferent – nature can look after itself (ignores the reality that humanity is capable of inflicting irreparable damage on the natural world)
- The eco-romantic – nature is there primarily to enrich the human mind and spirit (ignores the fact that humans need to and are programmed to interact with nature in a whole range of other ways)
- The eco-concerned – nature is under threat and needs our help but knowing what to do for the best is difficult (ignores the strength and potential of Dubos’ famous rallying call: Think globally and act locally)
There is truth and legitimacy in all of these positions but when held fanatically and to the exclusion of other points of view, they are unhelpful, often dangerously so.
“The wooing of earth” straddles all of these positions, taking what is valid from each without losing sight of the realities they ignore or downplay. It is unavoidable and inevitable that we will continue to intervene in nature, but this has to be done with a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the Earth as well as humanity. If we do this we will create conditions in which both humanity and the Earth retain the essence of their wildness – and are more likely to flourish as a consequence.
Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is flourishing in its “wildness” while nourishing the wildness in all who spend time there.