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 again. Nataraj is the traditional representation of this cosmic dance of creation and destruction, as well as Shakti, the Hindu word for 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 of the garden, 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 apt metaphor for my relationship with the garden, and 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.
Years ago I was 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 hodge-podge. 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 in turn to her lead, setting up the next lead with my response.
My garden is very small, and because I like an abundant look I’ve loaded it up with many plants. But rather than the usual garden design of massed sweeps of a small number of species with one or two focal highlights, I chose many different small plants of contrasting shape, texture and foliage colour to give visual interest while keeping everything to scale. I also chose plants with well-defined form, some naturally so, others requiring regular pruning to retain the strong shape. Altogether it requires a lot of attention for such a small garden. Which is wonderful because I get such pleasure and satisfaction from tending my garden. I wander contenedly through the garden, noting and attending to tasks that need doing according to the seasonal rhythms and natural processes of the garden.
But the garden is not static, frozen in time. While I keep the garden largely true to its original design, the garden changes as it ages. It evolves. Some plants, unsuited to pruning, eventually get too big, need replacing. A plant suddenly turns up its toes after years of sturdy service. These are not failures or disasters, just the ongoing process of the garden. And as the garden evolves it offers new possibilities. You can replace an overgrown or sick plant with a new one. Or perhaps not. Maybe 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. An unexpected shoot here, a death there offers unforseen directions. 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 downward arc of yellow green across a dark green background of the rear lilly-pilly hedge.
I have never been a total control gardener, working methodically towards a clearly envisaged final product, to be kept locked in stasis once complete. I find total control, planning and working towards a specific outcome, impossible. I’ve never had that capacity for imaginatively visualising what isn’t already there in front of me. So no vision. I do it by feel. And Australia’s notoriously variable climate, so far removed from the clockwork seasons of the Northern Hemisphere, does not help with that predictive approach to gardening. And to be perfectly honest I was never methodical enough in my approach.
No, my approach is to set things up according to the fundamental requirements of a site, and then allow Nature to do her thing. I take my next step from there. And she takes hers. It is an interactive, creative engagement with nature. All that is asked of me is that I come into the garden eyes wide open to the suggestions, hints and possibilities proffered by the garden itself, an openness, happy to go with whatever Nature throws up, balanced with a willingness to intervene, to impose some order and definition, informed by sound garden practice and my own aesthetic sensibilities. Over time you get a feel for it. And over time I have become more and more attuned to the garden’s rhythmic processes. And 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 this state of attunement becomes the purpose in itself. The unexpected beauty of the collaboration is mere icing on the cake. And so the garden becomes this cosmic dance slowly changing, unfolding across space and time, an endless performance that never repeats itself.