The fundamental question posed by this intriguing little book is how to explain the “immense significance that human beings locate in the making and experiencing of gardens.” This question, David Cooper claims, is not concerned with the historical, anthropological, or biological significance of gardens – for instance, the ways in which gardens bring out salient aspects of the cultures in which they are embedded, or, in blending open vista and shelter, are reminiscent of natural landscapes that were of survival value to our ancestors. Rather, the question posed concerns the often implicit structures of meaning that sustain the reasons we have for making, appreciating and engaging with gardens.
The task Cooper sets himself is not the delineation of a series of basic problems and issues of the sort that arise in the philosophy of mind, or the philosophy of art, but rather, drawing upon the ancient Greeks and elements of the phenomenological tradition, the explicit articulation of the significance of gardens in relation to “an understanding of the good life”. This, Cooper explains, is the reason the title of the book starts with the indefinite article. Cooper makes use of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of a background “atmosphere” or “style” of a place in order to argue that the significance of gardens for people cannot be reduced to our appreciation either of nature, or of art, or of a fusion of the two – principally because these models, each in its own way, factor out the affectively attuned “sense of the whole”. He then proceeds to offer a positive description of what makes gardening practices, and not just the gardens which make them possible, distinctive elements of a virtuous, happy life.
The “intimate sharing” between “a gardener and the vegetables he grows” is a practice which, when carried out with the appropriate understanding, induces a number of inter-related virtues. For example, the care involved in a long term commitment that is never going to result in a finished product; the humility that involves dedication to the demands of the “materials” and to the imposition of a pattern and structure upon the gardener’s own life; and finally the hope or trust in the co-operation of nature, captured in the idea that the “best is ahead of us”. The final part of the book attempts to demonstrate how the virtues induced by gardening practices relate to the good life, one lived “in the truth”. Borrowing heavily from Heidegger’s later philosophy, Cooper suggests that such a life involves awareness of the co-dependence of human creative activity and nature, in which nature requires of us that we receive and return the gift that it gives. This awareness, the author concludes, is the implicit meaning underlying the significance we attach to what he calls “The Garden”: virtues such as care, humility and hope, induced by the gardening practices that are in turn made possible by the very idea of The Garden, are therefore “aspects of a life informed, however implicitly, by a sensibility towards a fundamental truth of the human condition”. As an interpretation of Heidegger, Cooper’s rather cosy phenomenology of The Garden perhaps fails fully to capture the idea that our reception of the gift of Being involves the experience of something radically Other. Likewise the assimilation of the interesting concept of “creative receptivity” to gardening practices could be seen as neutralising the originality that underpins any unveiling of new horizons of meaning. Nonetheless, these minor worries should not detract from a book that is eminently readable by non-philosophers as well as philosophers, and which contains many interesting citations from a host of historical, philosophical and religious authorities, including Seneca, Pope, the Buddha and Alan Titchmarsh.