Outside the CERN high-energy particle accelerator in Bern Switzerland a polished bronze statue of Nataraj (Sanskrit for Lord of the Dance) stands two metres tall. In Hindu cosmology, Lord Shiva dances the cosmos into existence and also dances its destruction, so that all may be reborn. Nataraj is the traditional representation of this cosmic dance of creation and destruction, as well as Shakti the Hindu life force. The bronze statue is considered ideally suited to the CERN facility, as Nataraj has often been linked with ‘the cosmic dance of subatomic particles’.
There is a far more modest statue of Nataraj in my garden. When the statue was given to me by an Indian workmate years ago, I put it in the garden, just because it looked good there. I placed it in a quiet corner, but over the years it slowly disappeared from view hidden behind undergrowth. However, when I uncovered the dancing figure in a fit of weeding recently, I decided to relocate it to a position of greater prominence. In the intervening years I have come to see dance as perhaps the most useful metaphor for my relationship with the garden, with nature, making Natarj not just aesthetically appealing, but philosophically relevant to the garden.
Here’s a shot of Nataraj set amongst the rockery. The dynamic interplay of form, colour and texture looks as carefully composed as a Chardin still life. Well, it is and it isn’t. The garden was originally carefully designed and set out. Over twenty years the weeping Japanese maple planted in the background has grown forward and down to become an important element of the arrangement.
About six years ago I planted black bamboo to protect the delicate maple leaves from the searing afternoon sun. Be damned if the maple didn’t grow around the pillar of bamboo, chasing that afternoon sun to centre-stage. Who would’ve thought? I delight in these unpredictable effusions of vegetable matter, nature’s spontaneity. You never know what to expect, or where they will appear. When they do appear, rather than trimming them back into predetermined shape, I like to leave them go, see what happens. And lo, a whole new element emerges, changing the entire garden composition.
A long time back, I used to be a landscaper. I loved the creative satisfaction that comes from constructing well-designed, beautiful gardens. The funny thing was, my own garden remained an unreconstructed hodgepodge. Only after I changed careers and left the profession behind did I discover the joy of creating one’s own garden. And only after I relocated to Sydney and established this garden did I discover the pleasure of gardening as ongoing process rather than the set and forget product of professional landscaping.
That’s when I began to think of gardening as a kind of dance, and my relationship to the garden as akin to a danced duet. Not your traditional dance forms with set steps and designated leader and follower, but more like contemporary dance such as contact improvisation or modern tango. In these modern forms, when two people dance, one initiates a movement and the second person responds in any way they feel moved to – improvising. This response, in turn, becomes the next lead, triggering a further improvised response from the first dancer. Each partner initiating, each responding, the two dancers move as one, in an active, embodied relationship. Initiator and responder roles become blurred into a single Dance. And so it is in the garden. I do something in the garden. Nature responds as she sees fit, and I respond to her lead, setting up the next lead with my response.
Here’s some pictures of the garden over the years, showing just how it has changed through this process of improvised gardening.
Now I didn’t design those changes. It’s all improvised. All that is asked of me is that I come into the garden open to the suggestions proffered by the garden itself. An unexpected shoot here offers unforseen possibilities. A plant that suddenly turns up its toes after years of sturdy service, allows new directions with its replacement. Or not – perhaps the resulting gap, that space between plants that Japanese gardeners revere, adds more to the overall appearance of the garden than merely refilling the gap.
Several years ago, one of the twin trunks of the robinea suffered a fungal disease and died back. I removed the dying trunk before the disease spread to its twin, leaving a large gap in the back corner of the garden. This year, a solitary branch from the remaining trunk grew vigorously down into the vacant space, creating a striking arc of yellow green across a dark green background seen in the last photo here. After some deliberation I nipped out a small upgrowth of the branch, clarifying and reinforcing the downward arc of lemon-lime.
As I wander about the garden I am not looking for anything, but I am open to suggestion, to hints and possibilities. And over time I have become more and more attuned to the garden’s rhythmic processes. So, like two accomplished dancers who learn to move together as one in dance, a resonance has emerged. And beauty happens the more attuned we become. Actually, I find the state of attunement becomes the purpose in itself. The unexpected beauty of the collaboration is mere icing on the cake. Gardening is my cosmic dance.
This approach to garden making sits somewhere between the rigidly defined, clipped, formal gardens, and the naturalistic bush gardens that largely died out with the 1970s. It requires an openness, happy to go with whatever nature throws up, balanced with a willingness to intervene, to impose some order and definition, informed by my own aesthetic sensibilities. But total control is impossible, planning for a particular effect, futile. It is a dynamic approach that embraces change in the garden rather than attempting to remain fixed with a certain look; gardening as a process rather than product; an interactive, creative engagement with nature. And the garden becomes this cosmic dance slowly changing, unfolding across space and time, an endless performance that never repeats itself. The evolution can be seen in this series of photos taken over the years. The cosmic dancer has found home.