The idea of a garden is implicitly antithetical to that of a wilderness. A garden is inherently a place of order, peace and security, and for that reason is of necessity bounded, if not fenced off from the outside world. The Virgin Mary is regularly shown, in medieval and renaissance art, sitting in an enclosed garden, a hortus conclusus; often the barred gate of the garden is shown too, recalling her virginity.
But this image in its turn echoes a much older precedent. “God Almighty first planted a garden,” wrote Francis Bacon, chancellor of Queen Elizabeth I, pioneer of empirical scientific method and essayist, “and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.” He was in turn quoting the verse from Genesis: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”
This is the beginning of the second of the two versions of the creation story that are combined in the first pages of Genesis — the one concerned not with cosmology, as the first narrative is, but with the fall of man and the origin of sin. Accordingly, while the first narrative represents the creation of man and woman together as the natural culmination of the process of making the world, the second starts with the making of man, then puts him into a sheltered garden, where woman is created, and from which they are both expelled into the harsh world outside after their temptation and disobedience.
The Garden of Eden is thus the Hebrew myth corresponding to that of the Golden Age in Greek tradition, projecting the intuition that humans could be better than we are into the hypothesis that we once were better, and seeking to explain how we came to fall from that happiness into our present state.
The Garden of Eden was translated into Greek in the Septuagint as paradeisos, borrowed from a Persian word for a walled enclosure, and its use was probably inspired by the first large-scale formal garden — and its many later imitations — built by Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, where his palace once stood and where his tomb remains to this day thanks to its misidentification as that of Bathsheba, mother of Solomon. The outlines of a vast garden, with a network of irrigation canals, can still be seen: memories of a time when what is now an arid plain was a luxuriance of trees, water and shade.
The ordered and controlled environment of a garden, the subject of an absorbing exhibition at the State Library of NSW, is designed to offer us the most pleasurable and harmonious experience of nature. So the garden is not about the sublime, the breathtaking or the overwhelming. These are experiences encountered well outside the garden, in the setting of the wilderness; the domain of the garden, in Edmund Burke’s dichotomy, is not that of the sublime but of the beautiful. Consequently light and shade are of the greatest importance, for these are vital to our comfort and pleasure in a natural environment; and the relative proportions of sunlight and shade required vary according to the environment. In ancient bucolic poetry, written in Sicily and Italy where the summers are very hot, the pleasure of shade is constantly recalled; in England on the other hand, Keats writes with longing of “the warm south”.
The title of the State Library exhibition, Planting Dreams, evokes the way gardens compose ideal environments, specifically in the Australian context, but including a range of books and other materials that invite us to reflect on the earlier history of gardens. One such volume is a 1697 edition of Dryden’s Works of Virgil, open at the title page of Book II of the Georgics, which is devoted to growing trees.
The image represents contemporary gardeners working in a formal garden that is, as one would expect from Restoration England, a compromise between French and English sensibilities: plantings are in orderly rows and beds, governed by long vistas, as in the great gardens of Andre Le Notre at Vaux-le-Vicomte and later Versailles. The trees, however, are not sculpted into square hedges or other geometrical shapes but allowed to grow into natural crowns, antici- pating their later almost complete liberation in the 18th century. The English garden of this period artfully mimics the informality of nature, while actually allowing trees to grow into a fuller expression of their own form than they can in nature, where they are usually constrained and crowded by rivals.
Another remarkable image is the frontispiece of a late-16th-century German volume on the Americas. Adam and Eve are depicted, elon- gated in late mannerist style, among the flora and fauna of Brazil. The plate is not meant to be polemical but alludes to the kind of problems that the expanding world of the 16th century posed for those who sought to take the scriptural texts literally.
For while the myth of Genesis implied a single creation and a single nature, voyages of exploration in Africa and Asia and, above all, the discovery of the Americas had revealed what