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HomeHealthThe Radical Act of Gardening

The Radical Act of Gardening

On a Sunday afternoon in May, the Elizabeth Street Garden, a serene public park wedged between Manhattan’s SoHo and Little Italy neighborhoods, was filled with people undeterred by the gray sky and spitting rain. Visitors sat at tables among fuchsia azaleas and yellow irises, and in the shade of loping old trees, talking, eating pizza, and drinking iced coffee. A painter faced an easel at the back of the garden and composed a watercolor.

As with most public green spaces in New York City, it is remarkable that the Elizabeth Street Garden exists at all. It thrives on a portion of a previously abandoned lot that was leased in 1990 to the late gallery owner Allan Reiver, who cleared it of debris, cultivated many of the plants that survive today, and furnished its mythic stone statuary: several lions, a sphinx, and cherubs that add a touch of the fantastical. Amid the fiscal crisis of the ’70s, citizens began to reclaim deserted lots and transform them into community gardens fit for quiet contemplation, public gathering, and growing food; many of these gardens are now protected by land trusts. The Elizabeth Street Garden can claim no such immunity. After a 12-year legal struggle between the city and advocates for the garden, it will finally be evicted in September of this year. The lot will be sold to a conglomerate of three developers, which plans to build luxury retail storefronts and affordable housing for seniors.

In her new book, The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise, the English writer Olivia Laing presents gardens as an expression of utopian ideals, including one that’s at the core of the fight to save the Elizabeth Street Garden: the belief that people’s lives are enriched with access to land they can use freely. Surveying some of the most beloved gardens and landscapes in the United Kingdom—such as Suffolk’s ornate Shrubland Hall and Prospect Cottage, the artist Derek Jarman’s humble seaside retreat in Kent—she examines how each upheld an aspect of utopianism, or failed it completely.

Gardens have long fostered the idealistic yearnings of writers, artists, and philosophers. The Christian creation myth, for instance, conjures the Garden of Eden, a lush paradise where food was plentiful and pleasure abounded. Utopians see their project, at least in part, as a return to such a way of living, one in which everyone is provided for. It’s an improbable goal, perhaps, but there are more practical, even urgent, applications for gardens in our time. As the drastic effects of climate change destroy agriculture-based economies around the world and dismantle complex food-distribution systems, gardens—particularly those that are tended collectively—may very well gain larger significance in our communities. And as cities and neighborhoods grow denser and more developed, places like the Elizabeth Street Garden will provide more necessary open space.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2020, when the importance of accessible green spaces became very clear, Laing and her husband, the poet Ian Patterson, moved into an 18th-century house in Suffolk, about two hours northeast of London by car. Behind the house, and enclosed by a high brick wall, was an overgrown and long-neglected garden. Others may have noted the sandy, wormless soil and the decaying fruit trees and seen only ruins, but Laing saw something else—a vision of blousy flowers, box hedges, and leafy trees, a fragrant garden abundant with new life. Her enchantment with her garden is evident in her lissome prose: “Banks of lady’s mantle were foaming onto the flags, and in the far border a single cardoon was in full sail, crowns of imperial purple burning in the unsteady light.” She gets to work, keeping a diaristic record of her progress as she uproots dead plants, hacks away at overgrowth, enriches the beds with manure, and plants new things: peonies, foxglove, hyssop, cosmos.

These scenes provide Laing with the opportunity to describe how working toward a “common paradise” might begin with individual acts intended to improve one’s surroundings; instead, she demonstrates her ability to correctly identify plants (admittedly impressive) and describes the gratifying transformation of the garden from unruly catastrophe to sculpted idyll. These passages, and Laing’s delicate bouquet of language, are certainly reason enough to read The Garden Against Time. But there is little here for those interested in specific ideas about how investing in green spaces might bring about a better, more equitable future. I had hoped Laing might explain how the work she performed in her garden—slow, often frustrating, inglorious—offers a rich metaphor for activism. Instead, she mostly focuses on how her garden offers her space for meditation, isolation, and respite from the calamitous news cycle.

Perplexingly, Laing does not meaningfully acknowledge the paradox of relishing her private garden while insisting that we would all benefit from more public access to more land, an argument she forms by probing the U.K.’s troubling history of property theft. She recalls the tragic story of the English poet John Clare, who was born into a family of agricultural workers in the late 18th century in the village of Helpston. His popular first book of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, espoused the virtues of working the land and extolled the beauty of the open fields and woods that surrounded him. That land was seized by Parliament, a form of land theft later ratified in legislation such as the General Enclosure Act of 1845, which expedited the privatization of large areas that had previously been owned and used collectively. Uprooted from the place that so moved him, and forced to give up his way of life, Clare suffered a psychological disturbance. He continued to write, but his success as a poet waned, and he struggled to provide for his family. In middle age, he voluntarily entered an asylum, and was later declared insane.

In another chapter, Laing demonstrates how the economics of slavery in the United States engorged the estates of already wealthy British families. One family, the Middletons (unrelated to Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales), amassed a fortune from the slaves and plantations they owned in South Carolina. They poured their profits into the lavish ornamentation of their home—the famed Shrubland Hall—and its elaborate private gardens, not far from Laing’s house in Suffolk. Its resemblance to an Italian palazzo made Shrubland Hall one of the most extravagant properties in England, and burnished the Middletons’ social standing—all at a hideous and inhuman cost.

Here, and throughout the book, Laing calls attention to the devastating toll of such abuses of power. Again and again, she identifies the social and political forces that have permitted the wealthiest to dictate who has access to land, and to accumulate enormous riches from the immense suffering of others, seemingly so that she can mention that these issues persist today. It’s a well-crafted argument, and true, of course, and yet it’s so irrefutable that I did not immediately recognize it as one of the book’s animating observations. At one point, Laing bemoans gardens’ “hidden cost, the submerged relationship with power and exclusion.” In our era of intense profit seeking, such costs are hardly “hidden,” nor are these relationships “submerged.” To the contrary, they are on full display in numerous instances in which land is privatized, and thus denied to the public. The investors and municipal leaders who plan to destroy the Elizabeth Street Garden, for example, are prioritizing new development over a cherished community resource.

At the end of the chapter about Shrubland Hall, Laing concludes, “There are better ways to make a garden.” But she fails to offer more than a few familiar ideas, dashed off vaguely, late in the book. We need “large-scale land redistribution” and “to improve garden access,” she recites. “Parks instead of new airports, allotments over motorways, a grand reinvestment in our public resources.” She does not elaborate. Laing seems to expect the reader to infer a better future primarily from her highlighting the disastrous mistakes others made long ago.

In Laing’s previous books, including The Trip to Echo Spring, in which she examines several writers’ infamously troubled relationships with alcohol, and The Lonely City, about loneliness and creativity, she has composed insightful and strikingly resonant observations about aspects of contemporary life by drawing from the lives of historical figures. But here, her historical lens enfeebles her overall project. With a few exceptions, her subjects hail from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when land ownership in the U.K. was available primarily to white men. The Garden Against Time, therefore, mostly excludes figures outside of that demographic. Laing’s argument might have felt more relevant if she had profiled the more recent work of activists and movements whose efforts reflect some of the pressing environmental concerns of our time: the reclamation of land by Indigenous people and the descendants of formerly enslaved populations, for instance, or the redistribution of private land to increase food sovereignty among otherwise disenfranchised groups.

In the book’s last pages, Laing is forced to watch her garden wilt in the record-breaking heat waves of the summer of 2021. Because of a mandate that temporarily limits public water usage, she is unable to offer her plants relief. When temperatures begin to fall that autumn, she’s moved to discover how many of the plants she thought had died came back: “Plants, I had to keep reminding myself, are so much more resilient than I seemed to think.” I immediately thought of the Elizabeth Street Garden. If it is indeed destroyed, that will be an extraordinary loss to New Yorkers. Those of us lucky enough to have experienced it might carry on its spirit elsewhere, and imagine a future in which gardens are not concealed behind high walls or stifled by corporate greed, but flourish freely, for all.

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