As far as the meaning we give to elements is concerned, ecumenism is the rule. For one person, a simple symbol will be a gateway to a wider emotional or intellectual world, while the same symbol will mean nothing at all to others.
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Only certain archetypes, associated with dreamlike images, are able to reach the majority of people. But are dream images the same for all civilizations? If we attribute to the horse, for example, the very image of the life force, will this animal have the same meaning for others?
Unfortunately, many of the symbolic forms chosen for public gardens mean nothing at all to the great majority of people, with the result that the form's purpose is no more than decorative or insignificant.
Primary Functions at Work
There is a Jungian theory that, even according to Jung himself, is probably less than perfect, but that nevertheless has the merit of explaining some of our behavior. Our functions can be divided into intellectual functions (thought and sentiment) and sensory functions (feeling and intuition).
People who are dominated by the sensory function will focus on scents, tastes, textures, and colors in their gardens, while others who are intellectual rather than sensory will find meaning in sophisticated compositions and in developed and highly symbolic geometry.
Those driven mainly by sentiment will put into their gardens a thousand memories of loved ones and places visited in the past, conveying emotions they have experienced or moral sentiments they have felt. Finally, others with strong intuition will delight in music, poetry, and bright views and will reserve spaces for spiritual experiences in their gardens.
Gardens with Meaning
Gardens can take on all kinds of meanings: gardens of the five senses; collectors' gardens; theater gardens; water gardens; exotic gardens; botanical gardens; zoological gardens; floral parks; theme parks. The number of possibilities is infinite, and it is certainly not the purpose here to provide an exhaustive list. Therefore, we will content ourselves with addressing only what they sometimes have in common.
Sacred statues and other objects can only be sacred to the extent that they promote a sense of sacredness in us. This is where we find justification for these particular forms of art, which can be admired in many museums whether they represent Western or Eastern art. The destruction of such works of art is an insult to the whole of humanity.
Curiously, some statues are more impressive than others. Is it because they themselves are unique or because they have acquired a sacred patina, born from the reverence shown to them by generations over time?
The exact positioning of statues in the garden is of the utmost importance. At the intersections of visual lines (some would also say lines of force), there are sites of distinction: focal points that we should know how to identify and make use of, whether for statues or sacred objects such as lanterns, bird baths, ritual instruments, or symbolic stones.
The beauty or precious appearance of an object can cause us to feel respect born of wonder, respect that itself creates a sense of distance.
Good for the Eyes, Good for the Heart
Some gardens are good for our minds; others are extremely moving.
What touches the heart, by its nature, does so immediately and is part of a world that the intellect will try in vain to explain.
The dimension that gives particular meaning to a garden is that of the affection that its creator devotes to every detail and nuance. Visitors immediately notice the attention to the smallest signs, the general harmony offended by no incongruities or eyesores, the beauty of the ideas, the loving way that trees and shrubs have been pruned to respect the elegance of line, the careful raking of paths, the softness of turf.
It is therefore not surprising that the absence of the "eye" of the mistress or master of the garden, even for a few days, is immediately noticeable. How much more so, then, when this eye disappears forever.
A Personal Relationship with Nature
The wonder that comes from contemplating natural beauty can give rise to a taste for horticulture and, through it, the desire to better know the secrets of nature. Learning about gardening teaches us to be humble but also to be curious about what is unknown.
Successes, sometimes unexpected, bring forth a cry of recognition in the heart; a privileged path, perhaps, toward the author of all things, the master of harmony.
If nature, revealed to us in this way, made available in its richness and diversity, keeps us from boredom and seems purposely created to solicit our senses and our skills, it is because we cannot live without it.
Any disruption of this nature affects us directly: droughts, floods, excessive temperatures, pollution of all kinds — all are linked to our well-being.
Thus gardens, in addition to being a suitable means of softening manners, are also a school of respect for nature, which is the subject of so many concerns nowadays.
Mankind, trying to describe the sky, is often obliged to speak in terms of "heavenly" music, "divine" singing, or "paradise" gardens. This is just an attempt to express something of the joy felt when approaching communion with what can only be defined as the spiritual realm — a foretaste of much vaster, mysterious joys.
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For more than 20 years, Robert Mallet was in charge of the Bois des Moutiers, a park created by his grandfather in Varengeville-sur-mer, Normandy, France, and the subject of Mallet's book Rebirth of a Park.
This article is excerpted from Envisioning the Garden by Robert Mallet, translated from the French by Bryan Woy, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.