Useful and Ornamental

New book looks at cultivating gardens and the self
April 25, 2003

Can human nature benefit from cultivation? Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists thought so--they often used gardening comparisons in their writings on education. Rebecca Bushnell, professor of English and dean of the College, wondered what these analogies might have meant to readers of the time. What would they have understood by "the culture of nature, human or otherwise?" To find out, she turned to gardening manuals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Her discoveries animate Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens, published recently by Cornell University Press.

"I was surprised," she says, "at the presence of serious literary themes in these supposedly utilitarian 'how-to' books. What is truly English? What is the proper balance between beauty and profit? What is beauty in nature? Why, I asked, were these ordinary gardeners so concerned with these matters?"

"Some community boards in certain subdivisions have banned annuals as vulgar, along with clotheslines and metal swing sets!" - Rebecca Bushnell

Part of the concern was pragmatic, she found. In an era of increasing social mobility, of enclosure of common lands by private estates, the yeoman or husbandman might advance his station by turning gardener to a gentleman avid for "curious" plants, or by becoming himself a plantsman to supply the trade in fashionable specimens.

Writers of manuals betrayed the age's anxiety about the degree to which nature could be manipulated. They berated each other for promulgating old wives' tales, or "whole Volumes by imagination only." As the "new science" spread in England, they saw themselves as neither pedant scholars nor vulgar gossips, but practitioners of direct observation recorded in a plain rational style. This too, as Bushnell observes, served social aspirations, as the gentleman reader became a collector of rarities and an amateur experimenter.

Plant choice as a class marker did not end with early modern gardening manuals. These days, it's annuals vs. perennials in the status wars. "Some community boards in certain subdivisions," Bushnell reports, "have banned annuals as vulgar, along with clotheslines and metal swing sets!"