On the Meanings Of Gardens

IT is a paradox of the New England Spring Flower Show that it occurs on schedule, indoors, under reliable and controlled conditions - that is to say, it is notably unlike spring itself in New England.

The flower show, sponsored by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and well into its second century as a local and regional tradition, is what an economist would call a leading indicator of spring, not to be confused with the actual event: Even as the days lengthen and headlights are no longer needed on the ride into or home from work, we might still need to brace ourselves against the last sharp jabs of a cold snap.

And so the fragrant, moist air of Boston's Bayside Exposition Center, home of the flower show, is a brief whiff of paradise to an army of winter-weary New Englanders.

This year's flower show got under way shortly after the arrival in my in-box of a volume entitled, "The Meaning of Gardens: Idea, Place, and Action," from MIT Press, edited by Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester Jr. The book is drawn in part from papers presented at an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of California at Davis in 1987. The book, like, presumably, the conference before it, occasionally veers into places where the air is rather thin: There is a quirky discussion, for instan ce, of parking lots as a form of garden and/or "temporary art," a potentially aesthetically pleasing arrangement of objects.

But the interdisciplinary approach is just right for the way we experience gardens in our lives. We delight in color, fragrance, form, arrangement. And yet the garden is also a refuge enabling us to think, to meditate, to pray. The Bible is full of gardens, from Eden to Gethsemane, and surely "Thou shalt be like a watered garden" is one of its sweetest promises.

Gardening, we read, is enjoying a new cachet as environmentally correct, and is much on the upsurge as cocooning yuppies decide to stay home with the kids.

The old traditional concept of "Mother Earth," of the planet as a whole as a unified living organism, has been picked up in contemporary scientific circles - the so-called Gaia hypothesis. And gardening itself is an activity that balances values often seen to be in conflict with each other. In "The Meaning of Gardens," Clare Cooper Marcus writes, "We garden because that activity requires knowledge and intuition, science and nurturance, planning and faith."

The gardening universe as represented at the flower show runs from the rarefied conceptions of the high-art flower arrangers to the displays of urban schoolchildren's horticultural efforts. The kids, one suspects, are in it to get their hands dirty during school hours.

Do gardens have specific intellectual meanings? Francis, Hester, et al., would argue that they do, that Versailles, for instance, was a statement of political power by an absolutist monarch; the great landscaping projects of Frederick Law Olmsted, New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace, to name just two, were assertions of an ideal of civic culture, of public space as available to everyman as the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

The gardens on display at this year's flower show, with a theme of "Rediscover the Americas," have specific intellectual meanings of another kind: meanings having to do with Columbus and his voyages to the Americas, with the great exchanges of flora between Old and New Worlds.

The show-stopper this year was supposed to be the elaborate rain forest, complete with its own little weather system, including rainfall and thunder effects that sounded like the roars of angry dinosaurs.

But I suspect that the garden displays that strike closest to people's hearts are the more modest ones that, while still quite lovely, are somehow just possible enough to set people thinking: Yes, they say, I can imagine such a bench, and a modest little fountain like that, nothing fancy, and a few rosebushes; then I would have a perfect little place to sit and enjoy and be absolutely centered, be right with the cosmos.

And then they go back out into the last days of winter.

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