Back to the Garden

By Christopher Shipley

Barry Nemitt, Detail,  Stone Houses and Garden , Lehón, 2012. Gouache on paper, 70 x 96 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Barry Nemitt, Detail, Stone Houses and Garden, Lehón, 2012. Gouache on paper, 70 x 96 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”

MY FATHER GREW up on a tobacco farm in Anne Arundel county, not far south of Baltimore. The farm has been in the family for centuries. On a little rise of land, not far from the main house, he and my mother are buried in the sandy Anne Arundel soil next to other members of the Shipley/Smith clan. For many years, an airy tobacco barn stood close behind the little graveyard, a stark and silent witness to death and the past. I recall running through that barn and others on the farm as a kid, racing between the rows of hanging sheaves of curing tobacco leaves, breathing in the rich and tantalizing aroma.

I was not a farm boy like my father. He, like so many of his generation, moved to the city as a young man, and so I was born and reared in Baltimore. My running through the tobacco barns was restricted to visits to the old family homestead, my older brother and I always included in those pilgrimages by my parents back to the land.

Two decades later, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Jane and I lived in married student housing on Hyde Park Boulevard, just west of Lake Michigan. Occasionally I would see Muhammad Ali pull his beautiful gold Rolls-Royce to the curb on the boulevard near our apartment building to pick up a Tribune or Sun-Times.

The apartment building’s caretaker was a tall, powerfully-built black man with tightly curled salt and pepper hair. His name was Cecil; I never knew his surname though he knew mine. Cecil and I became sort of friends, two people who would on a fairly frequent basis stop to talk, not about anything important, perhaps the fierce Chicago weather or some oddball tenant or maybe the Cubs or the White Sox or the Orioles. Cecil once told me I walked like a farm boy, taking long, unhurried strides that carried me quite efficiently, so Cecil claimed, along the streets around our apartment building or up its endless steps to the top floor where Jane and I lived.

I loved that Cecil said that about me, had recognized something in me, something observable, that harked back to my antecedents on the tobacco farm in Anne Arundel county. I believed then and continue to believe that there is something noble about farm life, something dignified and almost sacred in its deep affiliation with the land. Not that everything on my family’s farm was thus exalted. Down in what I remember as a sort of brush-ridden gulch was a tumbledown structure with a partially caved in timber roof and stone walls that anchored rusting iron shackles about waist high. I wonder what Cecil, or Muhammad Ali, would have said to me if I had told either about those shackles on the farm.

In my nearly five decades of college teaching, peering out at thousands of mostly young students arrayed before me, I always found a way to ask about their connection to the land, for when I was their age nearly everyone in my city neighborhood had a grandfather or grandmother or, as in my case, a father, mother, or other close relatives who grew up on a farm. Not anymore, I consistently discovered.

Unlike my students, I was doubly lucky. My father grew up on a farm, and his ancient agrarian blood ran urgently in my veins. Yes, he did resettle in the city, marrying my mother, a first generation American beauty whose parents emigrated from the Schwabenland in southern Germany, and he forfeited his piece (and mine and my brother’s) of the ancient family farm. But behind our house on Bentalou Street in the heart of southwest Baltimore, a sturdy and scrubbed piece of postwar, working class, urban prosperity, miraculously remained a huge tract of woods and fields belonging to no one and everyone, at least for a good chunk of my childhood.

The survival of our miracle piece of the country stuck in the middle of the city—you might almost stretch the description of parts of it to wilderness—amidst the concrete and asphalt and the bustle of burgeoning Baltimore was owing to the tangled and unsettled nature of an old estate dating back to a time in America when the land was still the land. So I was not to be a farm boy, but day in, day out, and at night too, this city boy ran through those woods and fields, caught snakes, sledded down icy hills in winter, swung from the branches of the trees, rafted in low spots filled by rain, and fancied myself much more Huck Finn than Tom Sawyer.

That precious piece of the country is gone now, a shabby strip of stores and other cheap consumer constructions sitting over it, its fields and woodland, its fruit trees and wildflowers smothered by asphalt and concrete. Paradise lost. My teenage friends and I wept at the passing of “the lot,” our simple title for our country playground. But following Milton’s advice, Jane and I, at least, have fashioned pieces of another paradise.

These days we spend much of our time in an old cape on Nova Scotia’s enchanted south shore, in a fisherman’s cottage on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and in a stone house in a medieval village nestled in a wooded valley in Brittany. We are never far from the “garden,” even at our home on traffic-plagued Twenty-Fifth Street in Baltimore, where we have a mini-forest in our backyard.

Barry Nemitt,  View of Valley with Open Windows , Brittany, 1998. Gouache on paper, 48 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist, Collection of Mrs. Geri and Dr. Bruce Schirmer.

Barry Nemitt, View of Valley with Open Windows, Brittany, 1998. Gouache on paper, 48 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist, Collection of Mrs. Geri and Dr. Bruce Schirmer.

Forty years ago while in that city backyard, I spied what I thought was a huge snakeskin near our fence. When I picked it up and examined it more closely, my shoulders sank: it was only a used typewriter ribbon. I suppose I expected too much too soon, for not long before I found that typewriter ribbon, we had broken up and carried off the concrete that had covered the narrow but longish strip of property that ran back from our mid-nineteenth-century brick house. Not enough time had passed for our newly revealed earth to entice a snake to inhabit it.

Clearing that concrete was difficult, for whoever laid it had reinforced it with old wire fencing, likely the very fence that had once enclosed the property. We also collapsed the springs of Jane’s uncle’s pickup while hauling away the debris. Once, when it was built, our Twenty-Fifth Street house had sat by itself among fields and woodland—something  almost impossible to believe now standing on Twenty-Fifth Street looking at it. But we saw our house drawn in on an old bird’s eye map at the Pratt Library, the only structure in the area when North Avenue was the city line. The startling fact is, we live in a country house, a house that was built in the country, and we had liberated a tiny piece of that old country when we tore up the concrete.

***

For a while we planted things in the backyard—some roses, a few ornamental bushes, and, when our daughter Rosalind was born forty years ago, a tiny sweet gum sapling from a friend’s farm in Vermont. The bushes and flowers did not survive long, but the sweet gum flourished and is now much taller than our very tall, three-story house. Along the way, other friends gave us a small piece of holly that we stuck in the ground, and now that has become a massive and magnificent red-berried tree. The same transformation occurred with a small juniper bush we rescued and planted that someone we knew was going to take to the dump, the little juniper deeply grateful, one assumes, for another chance at life. Rosalind’s sweet gum tree has begotten a number of offspring, five of which scattered just beyond her boughs now rival her in height if not in girth.

Long ago, we fenced the backyard, Jane carrying Rosalind on her back as we drove posts and hung stringers on which we nailed the fence boards. Ivy now covers most of the fence and Virginia creeper steadily creeps along with the ivy. We do not plant anything anymore and haven’t for some time. We watch in wonder as things plant themselves and prosper unaided under our gaze.

The fence was necessary to keep out the ever-present urban machines. (My beloved Aunt Kate, born during horse and buggy days, called her old husband’s Plymouth coupe “the machine.”) Our backyard invader machines were the cars and trucks of neighbors that parked on our unfenced concrete before we ripped it up. People would drive smack up against the house and leave their vehicles right there for days on end. The fence finally kept them out and off the land we’d freed and gave us some green space to put between us and the jagged edges of the city. From our backdoor, you can no longer see the alley and its grey, lifeless structures for the trees in our backyard.

Just a few months ago upon our return from Nova Scotia, another miracle occurred. I did indeed discover a real snakeskin over three feet in length entwined among the ivy in our backyard on Twenty-Fifth Street. No typewriter ribbon fake-out this time. That skin (shed from a black snake probably) is a clear sign that our little arcadia has achieved a significant victory over the city world of machines just beyond its borders. Our resident snake and the merlin, who often perches hidden in the holly to sweep down to snatch an unwary pigeon for lunch or dinner, and the pair of peregrine falcons I have spotted on the cornices of the large houses that line our block of Twenty-Fifth Street are indicators that the garden is alive and well in our otherwise urban midst. Once Jane saw an American woodcock, a particularly secretive bird, strolling outside our kitchen window, having stopped by our little backyard garden/oasis on his way from and to who knows where.

I am not talking here principally about gardens in the sense of a little patch of ground given over to rows of vegetables or to a decorative arrangement of living flowers and shrubs although such places can be encompassed in the range of the term as I am using it. By “garden” I mean a real-world manifestation of the idea of Eden, Arcadia, ancient Boeotia, a landscape mostly untroubled by human greed and division, constraint and enclosure, a landscape not wholly and unnaturally arranged and ordered, but also one not without the impress of human desire and expression, precisely those desires and expressions that embody our species’ ancient connection to, and affection for, the land.

I mean both the real and the ideal farm of my father’s and my childhood, not a place solely of endless toil and struggle and the noise and pollution of machines, as farms can be, but a space also filled with birdsong and the susurrus, a landscape with room for the freedom and joy of things uninvented, a stubborn green prospect in the face of the ever encroaching unnatural, the necessary, and the mechanized.

My idea of the garden and the various physical approximations of it that Jane and I have surrounded ourselves with is always a mixed space—an amalgam of the natural and the natural reshaped and indeed, in many cases, disfigured by us, by the human hand. We live in the fallen world after all, adrift in postlapsarian times.

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Cast out of the transcendently perfect garden, we humans have necessarily become artificers, you might even venture to say bricoleurs, and we are forever meddling with things we find around us.

Trapped as we believe we are in our singular consciousness of ourselves as living and dying beings desperate to survive, we seem to spend much of our time insulating ourselves from death, collecting money and objects to wedge between us and our end. We eagerly pave over remnants of old, “useless” gardens to make a buck or two to buy something cheap and new, seldom stopping to consider the deeper value of what is lost forever.

We are fearful beings, rightly so, as life often seems precarious with death always shadowing us. A garden can offer a haven, even reassurance, if we have the eyes to see it for what it truly is and not remove and replace it without ever fully understanding and appreciating what it is we are obliterating (a species of wildflower or owl or an ancient tree or the shape of a knoll or the bend of a river, whole valleys). In Nova Scotia, we cut the patch of grass around the house with a machine, a gas-powered Husqvarna mower. The proprietor of the local garden shop told us that even in a country setting, people cut and maintain their lawns to eliminate pests—ticks, mice, rats, moles—from around their houses. Thus with the mower, we are just following a very old human pattern, yielding to fear. But the narrow sliver of land that rolls down to the ocean beyond this little manicured patch we leave to itself, to the alders and rose willow herb, to the meadowsweet and wild roses, to the coyotes, foxes, porcupines, and deer. There are bobcats about and black bears too.

* * *

I am a runner and have been for all of my life. As a kid, I ran the lot both day and night, chasing and being chased, in joyful games that over and over told each of us running that we were alive and fully able to stay that way, carried along by legs that never seemed to tire. In my eighth decade, I am still running, five mornings a week, and now, as long ago, almost always through some greensward, a garden—the Wyman Park Dell, or along the paths that shadow Stony Run or among the massive and ancient oaks and London plane trees of Druid Hill Park.

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Running is the perfect way to feel the land, its shifts and shimmies, its rise and fall, its hidden beauties and surprising dangers. Runners must be vigilant to be safe, and so we see much in detail that is missed entirely by those sheathed in metal and glass machines spinning along on asphalt and concrete, the land’s beguiling irregularities smoothed away to invisibility.

I was pretty fast when I was young, not as swift, perhaps, as Robert Pepke or Clarkie or maybe not even as quick as little Raymond Freshour, but I was up there in the pack of the fleetest. Now I amble along, my fast-twitch muscles twitching at an age-reduced rate, but I see even more of the world as I mosey by. I’ve run wherever I am—around the Île St. Louis in Paris, along the River Rance in Brittany, up Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath outside of London, down and up Las Ramblas in Barcelona, in the lashing rain in Dingle, in the searing heat past fields of lavender in Provence, across the flat strand of Eagle Head Beach on the South Shore of Nova Scotia.

A number of my runs have been through conventional gardens, like Luxembourg and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, or the Jardin Public in Bordeaux, but many, if not most these days, have been through the kind of garden I am trying to evoke here, half or three-quarter wild places where the natural world maintains an honored place, having somehow fought off and resisted or at least kept at bay the busy and reshaping hands and feet of us humans.

Some of these runs are unforgettable, permanently imprinted in muscle memory and vividly available to me in recall whenever I wish. With my mind’s eye I can watch a full-color rerun of each step I took on them, each twist and turn, ascent and descent, through sunlight or starlight, across fields or along narrow wooded paths. All are restorative, in body, mind, and spirit. These memorable and comely nouveau garden amalgams of mine are no better exemplified than one I took in the Devon, England, five years ago. Mysteriously working in harmony, human history and nature’s ceaseless touch fashioned the perfect “new” garden run for me to discover.

Barry Nemitt, View from Montecastello, Triptych, 2017. Gouache on paper, 83 x 67 in. Collection of Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation.

Barry Nemitt, View from Montecastello, Triptych, 2017. Gouache on paper, 83 x 67 in. Collection of Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation.

Jane and I were staying at the East Dyke Farmhouse B&B during a visit to Devon. Astonishingly, the B&B sits immediately against the impressive remains of an early Iron Age hill fort amid the lovingly cultivated fields on the plateau, nearly a thousand feet above the village of Clovelly down on the coast. Before my run, I walked the grass covered mounds of the hill fort now so completely blended into the landscape as to appear to be wholly natural formations.

Outside the boundaries of the fort, I began to run, not following any plan, just willing to let my feet take me where they would. I dropped precipitously down the skinny lane from the East Dyke Farmhouse and the broader A39 that runs the seabound western periphery of the county to Clovelly, the spectacularly situated village appearing to have grown, not been built, out of the red sandstone cliffs that hold back the sea. After a few minutes, I emerged out of the narrow, main cobbled lane of the village and veered southwest on a wide wooded path and, rising always, passing neatly tended fields of wheat and barley on one side and tall, watchful oaks on the other.

Beyond the fields and the looming oaks, I entered a stretch of dense and dark woodland, tree trunks on either side of me crowding my way, tree branches intertwined above me, severing the sun and enclosing me in a dark green tunnel. Then, having mounted higher and higher in the dark wood, I suddenly, unexpectedly burst out of the gloom into the brilliant light, and found myself awash in the fragrant blue and gold air of a wildflower meadow high above the sea hundreds of feet below.

I followed the narrow path, dancing wildflowers on my left, the cliff edge and the churning sea to my right, and simply wanted to keep running that morning, just run forever chasing the sun. I later discovered that I had stumbled onto the well-marked southwest coastal trail that circles North Devon and all of Cornwall for over 600 miles, a path that has been walked for millennia by sentries looking intently seaward for smugglers and by fishermen, just as eagerly, searching for shoals of fish.

* * *

We humans are changers; we change things, actively and intentionally but also simply by our mere presence (so say Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and quantum mechanics). Our impress then on everything that is not us is not only the result of our inclination to combine intent with capacity, but is beyond (or beneath) that; we change things because of who and what we are. Thus the alteration we wreak on the “natural” world is inevitable.

Thought about in these terms, we are the world’s first machines, conscious contraptions altering the environment and everything in it. What’s more, if not worse, we have, through the millennia of our “development,” become toolmakers, the creators of (hopefully) subordinate machines. As the first machine, we can (still) dig a hole in damp soil with our bare hands, feel the earth as it slips through our fingers and becomes wedged under our fingernails. But the minute we fashion and use a second machine, a hoe, or sit on a tractor dragging a plow then a harrow behind it, we lose our fundamental bodily connection to the land.

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We are, then, not only machines making machines, taking steps away from the earth, we are mediators, incessantly placing things—all sorts of secondary machines, the walls and roof of a house, asphalt, concrete, glass and steel, a camera, cell phones, an easel, canvas and a paintbrush, a pen and notebook—in the gap that widens as we continually estrange ourselves from the land. Of course, a roof over one’s head and walls to keep out the freezing cold, to say nothing of the beasts of the forest, are reasonably accounted mediation that is necessary for survival.

Indeed, the land and even the garden can be dangerous places. I have gotten lost, frighteningly lost, on beautiful runs through the woods. I have had bad falls in my various gardens, injuring myself seriously. I have made my way along muddy logging roads with fresh bear tracks just to the left and right of the imprints I was making with my running shoes. Jane and I have kayaked in ocean waters that we were sharing with great white sharks. I have been attacked by untethered pit bulls while navigating the path above Stony Run, and I have been warned to watch out for the sanglier (wild boar) on my runs through French fields and woodland. I have also carefully picked up used syringes tossed over the backyard fence of our Twenty-Fifth Street house into our little urban garden.

We are changers. We are adulterers. We breed pit bulls and let them loose. So the gardens that we manage to find or fence off are always brokered spaces, impure, minglings of us and not us, of mistakes and accidents, sites of unintended consequences, places of inspiring beauty and ugly scars made by those who invented beauty and ugliness. The family farm in Anne Arundel county, my golden boyhood idyll and proud connection to the land, was marred horribly by a slave house, after all.

Two famous paintings come to mind that suggest just this sort of impure union, J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) and Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1627). Turner’s painting, fittingly positioned on the rising arc of the industrial revolution, presents a locomotive threateningly steaming toward us (and a scampering hare) but the machine is surrounded by a largely unspoiled pastoral landscape. Much of the green of England was indeed lost in the nineteenth century, newly girdled by thousands of miles of tracks and crushed by pollutant-belching factories, a loss lamented by writers as diverse as E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, and J.R.R. Tolkien. London’s encroachment on the country house and its surrounding landscape that form the unifying center of Forster’s lyrical novel Howards End, testifies to this loss, as does the imagined destruction of the Shire at the hands of an undefeated Sauron and his manufactured army in The Lord of the Rings.

The most potent image of the terrifyingly destructive force of the human machine set loose in the garden from the work of these three novelists, however, is a chilling scene in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In it, threshers, poor farm workers, cutting down a large rectangular field of grain with their scythes, work methodically in straight lines along the sides of the rectangle of grain, relentlessly diminishing the size of the rectangle of still standing wheat. Finally when the last stands of the field are cut, all the small animals that had fled into their smaller and smaller natural refuge are fully exposed to the surrounding workers who methodically club them to death.

Still, even today, after more than a century and a half of almost unthinkable technical and mechanical “progress” and the increasing mechanization of work and workers, little England still possesses many gardens, stretches of deeply affecting green fields, rushing streams, and patches of ancient woodland. It would seem, against all odds, that the Green Man yet lives deep in the English countryside.

Et in Arcadia Ego (both versions) is usually described as symbolizing the intrusion of death into the garden, a kind of memento mori as it depicts seemingly innocent shepherds contemplating a tomb in the midst of an otherwise beautiful and untroubled pastoral scene. Erwin Panofsky, in a seminal 1936 essay on both versions of this Poussin painting, elaborates the subtle variations  of this “death, too, is in the garden” interpretation of the paintings. The cumulative effect of his admittedly learned and elegant pinhead-dancing, art-historical discourse busily manufacturing meaning, however, is to leave us lost in a thicket of words and clouds of endless deferral. This sort of criticism substitutes itself for the object of its contemplation, and we no longer see Poussin’s paintings at all, shrouded as they are by Panofsky’s words. We see only Panofsky. Of course we are also farther than ever from the garden.

Panofsky’s essay itself, then, is another example of the machine at work—a distracting, even blinding and destructive word-studded incursion into the image of a garden. Whole books have been written about versions of the invasion of the machine in its various manifestations into our pastoral dreams, notably Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden and Raymond Williams The Country and the City. These two literary and social historians follow a remarkably similar argument tracing the conflict and disjunction between the mechanical and the natural from Virgil, to modern American (Marx) and English (Williams) literature.

Inspired by Marx and Williams, in Poussin’s paintings, I align death with the machine, that often moving but lifeless device that intrudes between us and the non-human natural world, our first home and mother, but from which we are increasingly estranged and for which we ever yearn, however much we disguise that yearning. There is no death in the natural world, not the all-consuming, all-obliterating death invented by human consciousness; there is only the everlasting stream of life.

As beguiling as Joni Mitchell’s entreaty is, especially as delivered within the tight harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in their rendition of “Woodstock” on their Déjà Vu album, we can’t get back to the garden, to Eden, because any garden with us in it can’t be paradise; any landscape that admits us is necessarily mediated, machined, and instantly changed to something less and different than what it was. But we can follow Voltaire’s advice to go and tend your own little garden, find and protect those brokered places befitting of us as hopelessly mixed creatures ourselves, both sacred and profane, and trod its paths as often as we can, if only to remind us of who and what we really are, from whence we have come, and where in the end we must return.

Barry Nemitt,  View of Valley with Open Windows , Brittany, 1998. Gouache on paper, 48 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist, Collection of Mrs. Geri and Dr. Bruce Schirmer.

Barry Nemitt, View of Valley with Open Windows, Brittany, 1998. Gouache on paper, 48 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist, Collection of Mrs. Geri and Dr. Bruce Schirmer.


For many years, Christopher Shipley was Chair of the Department of Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the director of MICA’s Rivals of the West theatre company. His short stories have been published in Forays and Fourteen by Four, and his academic articles have appeared in such journals as Art and Academia and Modern Philology. He is currently the Director of the Alfred and Trafford Klots International Program for Artists in Léhon, France.