RSE is pleased to revisit an article first published here on 7 June 2019.
“There is always Music amongst the trees in the garden. But our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.” Minnie Aumônier
“There is always Music amongst the trees in the garden. But our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.” These are the words of Minnie Aumônier whose own heart must have been a very quiet one. It is not always easy, however, to have a heart quiet enough to hear the music of the garden.
To help us, we often find in the garden a small little man who resides there, patiently reminding us of Ms. Aumônier’s words. The decorative Garden Gnome, often dressed in a red hat and usually porting a long white beard is, at least in part, a representation of these ideas of garden music, listening and meditation.
Perhaps the easiest “music” to hear in the garden is the sound of poplar trees, although this is, to be sure, not what Ms. Aumônier must have had in mind. The leaves of the poplars rustling in a gentle breeze tend to calm the heart and relax the mind. Theirs is a music full of wonder, if we but give them a chance to speak to us. The music of poplars calms us. It resets us. We begin anew.
When you hear their rustling, you almost instinctually pause and look up to find the source of such a wondrous sound. And then when you do look up, you realize that it is only those old annoying poplars, which have such a mind of their own, always trying to extend their presence beyond the limits that have been granted them. The poplars are beautiful to watch, nonetheless, as they make their music, their leaves reflecting sunlight as they are turned side to side by the breeze.
We do struggle, at times, to appreciate what we have been given, don’t we? We do want the poplars on the edges of our gardens, of course, or even, if we are fortunate enough to have it, in the Wilderness part of the garden. Indeed, it has been suggested that any plant or tree could belong in a garden, even commonplace indigenous plants or trees such as the poplar, if only you care to include them. It is our setting of them inside the borders of our garden that makes them special. The poplars do have a place, to be sure, a very special place in the garden, and in our hearts. They offer us music quite unlike that of any other tree. But there must be room for their neighbours in the garden too!
You might hear the music of the garden while tending it, or perhaps while sitting quietly in a seat with a view, while you allow the cares of the day to slip into the soil at your feet. As you bend down to pull out your favourite weed, for example, you can almost feel the concerns of the day run out through your fingers into the ground. It feels therapeutic to have one’s hands in the ground, doesn’t it? It gives us a solid connection with the earth, however fleeting it must be.
In the garden, the cares of the day can also leave on the soft evening breeze, as the sunlight makes long shadows that allow you to see your garden with different eyes. You take a moment to turn your face to the descending sun and feel its warmth and the spring breeze on your face. It is in a sense a coming home to the garden after a winter absence.
The Garden Gnome, as symbol of a meditative presence in the garden, has his own place and function as a reminder of the importance of listening to the music of the garden.
The Garden Gnome, as symbol of a meditative presence in the garden, has his own place and function as a reminder of the importance of listening to the music of the garden. He has an interesting history, that can, in part, be found in places like the Painshill garden in Cobham, Surrey, U.K., about three-quarters of an hour’s journey by car, south-west of London. Obtained by the Honourable Charles Hamilton in 1738, the garden was transformed over the next approximately 35 years into one which reflected the movement of the time towards the more natural, less formal gardens. One striking accomplishment here is his creation of scenes which correspond to artistic works, painted by the likes of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. Reality mimics art here. (https://www.painshill.co.uk/about-us/our-story/influence-on-painshill/) We hope to visit Painshill more fully in the future.
What is important to realize presently is that Hamilton, like a number of his contemporaries with large gardens, desired to place a live hermit into a hermitage within his magnificent garden. He had a hermitage constructed on a steep sloped hill, and for a time succeeded in having a hermit dwell there. The Garden Gnome then later came to be a symbol of this intense interest in meditation and withdrawal into a garden, after the idea of a real live hermit dwelling there eventually fell out of fashion. The live hermit, the stone Gnome, both served to remind visitors to the garden of the importance of pausing, of being present to the garden, and ultimately of hearing its music.
The entire notion of garden hermits was in part a response to a cultural turn at the time towards embracing the natural world. But it was also in part an adoption of ideas of mediation and Melancholy. John Milton suggested, for example, in the seventeenth-century, the idea of meditation and Melancholy as important objectives in his Il Penseroso:
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell [think]
Of every star that Heaven doth show,
And every herb that sips the dew
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.
The modern Garden Gnome, then, has his origins, at least in part, in Milton’s thought and the hermits that inhabited hermitages in gardens such as that of Painshill. He remains to this day the symbol of ideas of meditation and listening, important ideas which continue to secure for him his own place in the garden.
There are days, no doubt, when our interior noise makes us wrongly conclude that the garden is silent. Still, even on those days, as Ms. Aumônier suggests, it is within us to teach our hearts to listen.
Campbell, Gordon. The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Abrams, M. Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1 (New York: Norton, c 1979).