Feathered Hope

Unknown-3I’m off to France where I’m attending a conference in Perpignan on ecopoetics with themes of hope and enchantment. So thoughts on enchantment were in my mind this morning as I had a last wander round the garden before heading for the train. The birds were clearly delighted the rain was passed and were in full voice. How could I not be enchanted by these birds that insist on a world that sings, that insist on being heard? Their song lifts my spirits, giving me a sense of a world in which human and more-than-human species might flourish together. They offer an escape from all that seems impossible by allowing me to imagine possibilities that are not escapist. Jane Bennett writes that it is these enchanting possibilities that, “augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of ethical behaviors.”[1]

However, I also recognize that enchantment is not necessarily a single, unadulterated sensation but as Michael Taussig has argued also exists “in its negative form as desecration.”[2]

So with the conference in mind I want to explore how literary birds have been used to represent our human emotional range from enchantment to disenchantment or desecration; how their different stories function in the space between hope and action; how those that enchant us might act as a catalyst to augment our ethical behavior and how negative representations might alert us to unethical behaviour. And most importantly, how these birds might represent an emotional position beyond the dualism of enchantment and desecration.

From earliest times birds have captivated us. We have looked to them as oracles. We have been inspired by their flight that promised us freedom and escape from our human condition. But the recognition that we cannot fly unaided also reveals our limitations. Our aspiration to defy gravity, to escape our human condition is brought down to earth by the reality of our wingless state.

Hope, as the thing with feathers, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, cannot then be anything but a complex emotion, one that is not necessarily wholly positive. We dream of flying while also having to confront the limitations of our agency. There is an element of uncertainty, even frustration within hope both about a positive outcome and about our efficacy in bringing it about. In other words there is within hope a wish and a goal, as well as fear.

Historically feathered hopefulness in western literature has tended to divide this desire and fear into expressions of flight and fall and was first portrayed as resulting in unethical conduct in the myth of Icarus. I’ll go back to this later because I believe that it is in moving away from this dualism and folding flight and fall together as well as considering low-flying or flightless birds that we can find representations of hope and ethical action.


But first, because the myth of Icarus is an important precursor to grasping how feathered hope might either inspire ethical environmental action or deny it I want to look at it in some detail before moving on to consider Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, poems by Dickinson and the seventh century poet Alcman. Finally I want to mention Ovid’s story of Alcyone and Ceyx to explore ways in which the emotionally fraught scenario of flight and fall as a metaphor for hope and despair, enchantment and disenchantment may be reconfigured as an ecopoetic of feathered hope, one that transforms rather than deforms.

Ovid’s rendering of the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus in his Metamorphoses represents Daedalus as an artist-scientist whose disregard for the morals of his time, leave him open to the dangers of overreaching. Ovid places Icarus’s death within a much larger narrative of family relations and interactions with the more-than-human. This larger narrative is relevant to understanding the link between hope and its subsequent positive or negative action.

Ovid presents Daedalus as a renowned inventor who is unable to tolerate challenges to his ability. When his nephew and apprentice Perdix proves to be equally talented Daedalus attempts to murder him by throwing him down the steps of Minerva’s temple.[3] Minerva, however, rescues Perdix by transforming him into a partridge. Daedalus flees to Crete with Icarus, where he works for King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. There he builds a wooden cow for the queen to hide in so she can consummate her passion for a white bull. When the queen becomes pregnant and gives birth to the minotaur, half-man and half-bull, Daedalus builds a labyrinth in which the minotaur is imprisoned. Later, after further betrayals by Daedalus King Minos imprisons Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth.


What is significant is that each episode in this story is triggered by an interaction with the more-than-human. Where the action is performed by a god or goddess the outcome is positive, a transformation into a different life-form – Perdix survives as a partridge. Where the action is inspired by ‘unnatural’ human passions, such as Pasiphae’s mating with a bull, the result is monstrous. The first ‘unnatural’ event is Daedalus’s murder of his nephew and the end result is the imprisonment of both Daedalus and Icarus. The myth presents us with the idea of a world that contains deities or natural, more-than-human forces whose actions are transformative while the human actions result in deformation.


Daedalus realises that escaping from the labyrinth by air is the only possibility. By lining up and tying together the feathers of birds of prey ranging in size from the smallest to the largest, binding them with wax and curving them into a replica of a bird’s wing he performs an extraordinary act of creative mimesis. When he attaches the wings to himself and his son Ovid comments that Daedalus has committed himself to unknown arts, thereby changing the laws of nature.

Daedalus, however, is not transformed into a bird; he and Icarus merely simulate birds in flight. When these wings are attached, father and son fly off over the sea, apparently free at last. Icarus flies ever upward in his desire for the immensity and freedom of the sky. Inevitably the sun melts the wax holding the feathers together and Icarus, suspended briefly between life and death, between dream and delusion, plunges downward to his death.

Ovid’s account of the myth focuses on what occurs when humans attempt to appropriate the space and skills of the gods. Rearranging the natural order is a ‘fatal art’ that ends in despair. To Ovid, Daedalus’s crime is clear: he transgresses the limits of human agency and ability and pays an exceptional price in the death of his son.

And that other more-than-human group in this myth, the actual birds are silent actors. They neither sing nor, having been deprived of their feathers, can they fly. Daedalus’ crime has stripped them of their ability to enchant. The myth does not recount the suffering inflicted on the countless birds whose feathers are needed to create wings for the father and son. Daedalus, in fact, preys upon the more-than-human to achieve his own ends.

Falling, in Ovid’s telling of this story results from hoping for transformation without considering the possibility of reciprocity and co-operation with the more-than-human. It is the result of an inability to be enchanted by otherness. It is a form of disenchantment or desecration that results in deformation.

Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus comments on the myth by departing as Perez Zagorin writes, ‘in significant ways from the established sixteenth century attitude that man occupied the central position in a clearly defined and well-ordered natural world, and hence in the universe.’[4]


In his painting, Bruegel juxtaposes Icarus’s useless feathers floating on the sea with the efficient wind-filled sails of the ships that pass safely by, their sailors engrossed in their world of busy commerce. He asks us to contemplate what it means to be human when faced with disaster. Should we keep our eyes on our own business as the sailors do? Carry on regardless as Bruegel’s ploughman does?

Despite the flailing legs, all appears to be in order. There is, as far as the other figures pictured in this scene are concerned, peace in the natural and human world. Yet Bruegel portrayed this apparently ordered and peaceful world presided over by a setting sun. Why I want to know is the sun setting when the wax holding Icarus’s wings together was presumably melted by the heat of the midday sun?

Bruegel’s sun setting on a world, an ordinary, everyday landscape where those who are apparently secure and unthreatened are indifferent to the small tragedies taking place holds out to us the need for stories that unite those who suffer and those who perpetuate suffering; those who fly and those who fall; the need to recognise the role of the everyday and the suffering that occurs – for human and more-than-human – unnoticed within it. These are the interactions that are crucial for life. Without them enchantment withers and hope can turn to despair.

Today the unusual heat of a setting sun speaks to us of a moment in time poised between our technological glories and the imminent extinction of many species, if not ourselves. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that topples us, like Icarus, into the realization that we are human, vulnerable, close to drowning, as when we ask ourselves, is it possible to imagine a world without birds, without their activities of seed dispersal, natural pollination and pest control? Without their songs?

A world without feathers, Emily Dickinson might say, is a world without hope, a world in which ‘the most insidious kind of extinction – the extinction of interactions’[5] has come to pass.

Jed Deppman argues that ‘many of Dickinson’s poems can be read as resourceful, even desperate attempts to supply imagery for the thoughts and experiences that most defy the imagination.’[6] He also questions whether these attempts are constructed through the opposition of hope and despair. Likewise, Richard Brantley, rather than interpreting Dickinson through contrary emotions, believes ‘her recurring pessimism contains a seed of her perennial resilience’ and that her ‘signature lyric of “sumptuous Destitution -” epitomizes her hope as well as her despair, and intimates the interpenetration, or coalescence, of these, and of such other paired stances as sorrow and joy.’[7] It is Dickinson’s bird poems that introduce us to representations of birds that constantly break down the dualisms of flight and fall, hope and despair. Rather than simplifying hope into a single emotional unit, they symbolize a folding together of aspiration and dejection thereby freeing up a space for hope in which enchantment can augment the power to act.

On a general level, Dickinson’s poetry moves through minor victories and defeats, moments of despair balanced by moments of inspiration, a lifetime of ascending and falling, setting out to fly again and again. Her writing offers more than mere consolation. While there can be no unbridled optimism for an ecologically enlightened future, her writing calls us to aspire to effect change, it holds out a promise, a tenuous hope balanced between earth and sky – a bird perched in the soul.

Here’s her poem Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feather

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson’s deceptively simple metaphor ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ captures the aspiration and fragility of realistic expectations, as well as dreams of wish-fulfilment and overreaching. Her hope as a soft songbird that ‘perches in the soul’ is a metaphor of the more-than-human inhabiting the human.[8] Although it is resilient ‘in the chillest land and ‘on the strangest sea’ this bird merely perches, being neither captive nor tame. The possibility remains, however, that if it does fly away, it may return. By having the hope-bird never ask for crumbs and implying that the speaker supplies them out of love, Dickinson demonstrates her belief that the tiniest amount freely given can keep hope alive. This exchange of loving generosity between the human and bird in Dickinson’s poem holds out the hope, no matter how insecure, that such an exchange between human and more-than-human may provide an antidote to the sense of hopelessness experienced by those ‘abashed’ in a world where the more-than-human are invariably deprived of ‘crumbs’.

The hope bird is not identified in the poem but Jane Donahue Eberwin states that one of Dickinson’s favourite birds was the wren. Eberwin remarks that ‘It seems to have been the tiny creature’s force and courage that delighted the poet, its capacity to challenge the heavens and its melodious song …’[9] In contrast, Dickinson describes the lark[10] as ignoring unattainable – or even challenging – alternatives in order to gain stability and comfort. By creating these two differing arenas of successful flight and repudiation of flight Dickinson avoids the fraught scenario of unsuccessful flight, or falling. Her lark’s apparent lack of desire to ‘challenge the heavens’ is not necessarily framed within a sense of loss. It is, simply, another option, neither superior nor inferior to flight. By these means Dickinson also establishes hope as a paradoxical combination of vulnerability and power perched precariously within the human. This crease or fold within the psyche negates any clear-cut opposition between flight and fall and its association with hubris and punishment.[11]

Hope she implies can also be found among the birds that hover, flutter, or skim the surface.

In his story of Icarus and Daedalus Ovid writes of Perdix who was transformed into a partridge. Although he fell, Perdix through divine wisdom became a bird and retained his human intelligence. He kept a low profile and did not fly too high. Ever mindful of the ‘middle way’ Perdix the partridge nestles in hedgerows, avoiding high places and lofty flights. Can low-flying birds also enchant us, tell us stories of hope; what poetry can be found in the swift and delicate, almost touching, dipping and lifting flight of fluttering birds?

Alcman, a poet of the late seventh century BC, claims to have created poetry by listening ‘to the cry of partridges, a cry literally endowed with a tongue … He learned to sing by attending to that tongued cry, which he then “arranged” into human rhythms.’[12]

In his “Halcyon Song”, Alcman creates a regular rhythm like the motion of waves and the winging of birds and in “Night Song”, he describes the peaceful sleep of long-winged birds. These rhythms are not those of the bird of prey, hovering and possessively scanning the earth below. Rather they resemble the poetry that Seamus Heaney speaks of as ‘emanating from the ground …[13] where ‘the physical terrain itself is the “nesting ground” of the imagination, which, like a womb, nurtures and gives birth to the artistic expression.’[14]


(In a similar fashion) in Book XI of his Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of the transformation of a human couple into kingfishers. A newly wed couple, Alcyone and Ceyx are separated by Ceyx’s decision to embark, against his wife’s wishes, on a sea journey to consult an oracle. When he drowns in a storm and Alcyone discovers his body on the shore, she leaps onto a nearby jetty intending to cast herself into the sea and drown. Instead she is transformed and, ‘with her new-grown wings did beat the air as tho; and on the waves, a wretched bird, she whisked to and fro.’[15] When she reaches her husband’s body she takes him in her wings and kisses him with her beak and through the pity of the gods he too is transformed into a kingfisher.

The flight of the individual, in this story arises from desperate grief rather than boundless desire, while the flight of the couple, or species, results from a love that lasts beyond death. In contrast to the flight of Daedalus, the father and inventor, Ovid offers the flight of a wife who through love nourishes and restores her husband to life. It is not lust for achievement but love that transfigures the couple into bird-humans rather than a human with artificially attached wings. As kingfishers they mate and build a nest that floats on the sea. Aeolus forbids the winds to blow during this time and the bird’s descendants are thereby provided with a tranquil sea during the nesting season. This is the intimate poetry of life, not death in a flurry of glory. The appearance of the kingfisher signals hope. Its flight leaves a trace between air and sea, a living creature and a poem.

Can we then hope that from the sea of Icarus’s shattered dreams, feather-light words may float on the page as ecopoetry, fragile yet buoyant with promise in our age of environmental hubris? Freud’s understanding of falling as both fear and wish includes the idea of falling as a wish for transformation.

Icarus’s fall as a wish for transformation or rebirth is suggested in Susan Steward’s poem ‘The Survival of Icarus’ which suggests the possibility that Icarus may have wished not only to fly but to discover through falling an identification with Dickinson’s powerful Nature that defies human mastery. It offers us the small but evocative and powerful hope of words that make a difference.

My father saw the feathers on the waves and grieved

And hadn’t heard the voice within the wind

That blew the wax back into form the way

The cold dawn shapes a candle’s foam.

I had heard that voice before

In some far time beyond this place

And I think of it now as a living net,

Though I do not know how it spans our world

Or if it sings from its strings or its spaces.[16]

All this may seem to have little to do with gardening but if we fail to love and care for birds in the garden we become like Daedalus – unable to feel for others, to be enchanted by others and our hopes for the future of gardens will be compromised.

[1] Jane Bennett, p.xi.

[2] Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labour of the Negative, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 13.

[3] The myth of Daedalus and Icarus is part of the Minoan cycles of myths in which the Roman goddess Minerva is known as Athena. Ovid, however, uses the name Minerva throughout his story of Daedalus and Icarus in book VIII of the Metamorphoses.

[4] Perez Zagorin, Looking for Pieter Bruegel, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 64, No. 1 January 2003, pp.73-96.

[5] Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture and Story, Washington DC., Counterpoint, 1997, p. 259.

[6] Jed Deppman, Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 2004, pp. 84-103.

[7] Richard E. Brantley, Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 2007, pp.27-52.

[8] I use the term ‘more-than-human’ in the sense employed by David Abram in his The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.

[9] Jane Donahue Eberwein, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitations, Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 11-12.

[10] Dickinson was referring to the American lark not the English skylark.

[11] See for example,

[12] Winged Words, p. 79.

[13] Seamus Heaney, Feeling into Words, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Faber, London, 1980, p. 45.

[14] Seamus Heaney, Mossbawn, Preoccupations, p. 19.

[15] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI, lines 845-846.

[16] Susan Steward, The Survival of Icarus, Columbarium, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2003.

The Epicurean Vegetable Garden

Growing vegetables is, for me, neither a hobby nor strictly speaking a necessity. Rather I see it as an aesthetic, political and philosophical statement which attempts to follow in the tradition of poet-gardeners of the eighteenth century whose practices were revived in the twentieth century by the poet-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay in his Scottish garden, Little Sparta. Placing suburban vegetable growing within this grand tradition may seem heresy but I believe to do so is to adopt the tactics of transgression that in Noel Carroll’s words indicate, “the artist’s conception of what must be done in order to rectify or reform … pre-existing practices.” It is an attempt to transfigure our commonplace existence in which ecological degradation and food security are becoming increasingly pressing issues.

In expensive cities such as Sydney real estate prices demand that houses are accompanied by slickly designed ‘rooms outside’ with expensive pavers and the odd specimen plant in a pot beside the pool.

Epicurean01Meanwhile the middle-class owners of these unsustainable paved yards pay high prices for organic vegetables in order to eat what was once more or less freely available to everyone. These newly created luxuries are simply commodified versions of what Ivan Illich referred to as the vernacular. Yet to bring about a return to the vernacular without being dismissed as unrealistically romantic, a luddite, or out of touch with the realities of the economy and the property market requires rethinking the vegetable garden as a creative, artistic space far removed from the stereotype of poverty and scraggly rows of cabbages that was a common sight in post WW II suburbia.

I’m not going to deal here with gardening practicalities – What I’m concerned are our social obligations to restore backyards to health and wholeness through artistic, political and philosophical creativity. I’ll start by taking a brief look at the eighteenth century landscape garden as background before examining Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta as a model for how a suburban vegetable garden might function in Susan Stewart’s words to “question historical knowledge as a model for virtuous action [even] as it asserts the necessity of historical knowledge as a model for virtuous action.”

Traditionally, poets, artists and scholars have created gardens. From the Renaissance on, in Britain and Europe poets often sought what Alexander Pope referred to as a ‘place to stand’ by creating a garden. Within this domain the poet-gardeners established a counter-order so that they came to be seen not as amateur horticulturalists but as social thinkers distilling ethical values through the transformation of landscape. The eighteenth century landscape gardens of poets such as Pope and Shenstone placed classical content within gardens that cultivated an untamed, natural appearance and it was this mix of the classical and the natural that haunted the English garden.


Gardens such as Cobham’s at Stowe did not simply express the idea of freedom by their less contrived scenery. They also included emblems of freedom, justice or goodness, which invoked classical prototypes. The Elysian Fields at Stowe, for example, represent an allegory of good and bad government. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis write of these gardens: “the assimilation of Classical ideas was not merely a matter of imitation … but of registering the difficulties as well as the opportunities of cultural obligations.”

Gardener-poets such as Pope understood that the two disparate forms of classicism and the natural in fact had much in common. Instead of defining nature as political territory dominated by man, the neoclassical and landscape garden aimed to give voice to natural order. Meanwhile the inscriptions and citations returned to a classical, mythological landscape that was rendered present without being real. It is this use of written words, of emblems and iconographical signposts that Finlay revised in his Little Sparta.


It is impossible to do justice to t he range and complexity of Finlay’s garden practices here but a starting point is that his decision to place poems and quotations in a natural environment resulted from his need to reflect on the conjunction between the aesthetics of power in the modern world and the power of aesthetics.

Finlay saw classical antiquity as a means whereby he could make a poetic statement not just on the decline and death of great civilisations but on human life itself. His garden, like those of the eighteenth century poet-gardeners functions as a garden of ideas. He revived essential concepts about the relationship of garden spaces to the outside world through emblems and quotations.

His fascination with inscriptions clearly emerges out of his earlier work in concrete poetry and he commented in the early 1960s that ‘concrete’ by its very limitations offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; … “It is a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt.

Finlay referred to his use of classical vocabulary as a ‘rearmament programme’ with which to analyse human conflict. “Certain gardens,” he commented, are described as retreats when really they are attacks.” This manifesto is represented in the inscription on his garden temple. It reads,

“To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.” Apollo patron of the muses is the archer who dispatches messages of death yet at the same time he is the lyre-player offering messages of music.


In a similar vein, he designed fountains and bird tables as aircraft carriers, carved stone hand grenades as finials and a statue of Apollo clutching a machine gun. Miles Orvell writes of Finlay’s use of militaristic themes such as warships: “On the one hand the domestication of armaments within an ordered space implicitly mocks their power over our lives. But the playful reduction does not remove the charge of violence from the objects. Rather, it is the special order imposed on instruments of violent disorder that creates the tensions and paradox in Finlay’s armament works.”

Radical suburban vegetable gardening provides a counterpoint to Finlay’s rearmament. It takes as its classical forebear not Apollo but Epicurus.


It replaces Apollo’s arrows and music with an Epicurean understanding of pleasure. By doing so it attempts to create a special order that also critiques the instruments of violent disorder in contemporary society and it comments not just on the decline of human life but all life on the planet. Today we not only have the warship as temple but the mining industry, coal fired power stations and giant corporations such as Monsanto dominating the market with pesticides and hybridised seeds. The Epicurean backyard provides a small space on which to stand, a space which enables us to both attempt to offset the forces that bring about death of non-human species and to ponder the forces of destruction such as global capitalism and the commodification of food.

The vegetable garden confronts us with necessary violence: that we must destroy in order to survive; that harvesting and eating what we have nurtured requires imposing a special order on our backyard microcosm that cannot but include the use of power. As the eighteenth century landscape garden sought to give voice to a natural order so the Epicurean backyard seeks to partake of an ecosystem while interrogating the misuse of power.

Finlay examined a somewhat different heritage and his garden is dominated by the notion of terror in Arcady, represented by a tank in an idyllic setting. In contrast the Epicurean backyard places less emphasis on terror as a useful strategy. Without disavowing the reality of terror, it instead regards the room outside as a sterile, dead arcadia that fails to offer a convivial space for plants, insects, birds and animals; that fails to provide nourishment for any of these species including the human.

The notion of garden attacks does, however, continue to have some purchase and has provided valuable twenty-first century precursors to the Epicurean backyard. One example is Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, or replacing front lawns with vegetable gardens. Described as an attack on lawns, Haeg states, “We used ecological values to challenge traditional aesthetic values, and [the lawn] a socially treasured object became suspect. … Ecological thinking has transformed how we see the lawn, and our concept of beauty has been transformed with it.”


The effectiveness of such attacks seems to fly in the face of Epicurean pronouncements about retreating into the backyard to grow vegetables. However, this is precisely what Epicurus did. He chose not to become a revolutionary and instead retreated from the political turmoil of his time into a garden that, through the communal participation of all involved, blossomed into one of the most vital and life-affirming schools of the ancient world. Although he sought refuge in his garden he never ceased to acknowledge the reality from which he was taking flight. To adopt Epicureanism as a gardening model is to return to a philosophy that was specifically developed in conjunction with a vegetable garden, a garden that was a place in which reality could be reconceived. It was an attack in the sense that it was a place where possibilities could be re-imagined. It was a place where social virtues could re-flourish under carefully husbanded circumstances.

Epicureanism provides an overarching outlook in which the human shares the fate of whatever grows and perishes on and in the earth. Epicurus’ fundamental belief was that there was a direct correspondence between human moral, spiritual and intellectual cultivation and organic cultivation of a garden.

As well as providing physical nourishment, Epicurus believed pleasure was the most precious fruit of the garden. However, his understanding of pleasure had nothing to do with the gratification of appetites. In fact, he repeatedly condemned excessive indulgence of any sort. Nothing could be more antithetical to Epicurus’ ethic of cultivation than today’s unbridled consumption. But to describe this garden as an attack is not wholly accurate. Although he would undoubtedly have denounced our so-called age of entitlement his garden school did not presume to come to the world’s rescue. And today, there is of course no guarantee that small steps will lead to large ones. The Epicurean backyard’s ambition is far more modest and hopefully, like Epicurus’ garden finally far more efficacious: to make room for all life to flourish in dark times by giving it soil in which to grow.

The solutions offered by the Epicurean backyard include that branch of philosophy that understands all animate life as founded in vegetal life. It offers the possibilities of plant-like subjectivities that broaden relational ways of being in the world. Politically it works to establish the suburban vegetable garden as a modern Arcadia that replaces the deathly room outside and for its aesthetic inspiration it looks to the classical past as well as to present-day eco-art.

Politically, the Epicurean backyard is an attempt to refuse to regulate the human relation to plants. From genetically modified seeds that do not yield renewable crops to artificially induced scarcity to maintain high market prices, the capitalist agro-scientific complex militates against vegetal life and ethics alike. The Epicurean backyard calls upon us to care, to nurture endangered ecosystems and to practice an ongoing co-creativity with plants, insects, animals, soil and weather. It seeks to transfigure our shared commonplace existence rather than dominate and commodify it. Its aim is to relinquish control in favour of consecration.

Aesthetically, by assimilating classical ideas the Epicurean backyard does not merely imitate but registers the difficulties inherent in transforming pre-existing practices. The aesthetics of power are clearly evident in the expectations of the real estate market which looks to the room outside to enhance market prices. Yet an Epicurean attack on this sterile environment is today a cultural obligation and the power of aesthetics is beginning to make itself felt in such ventures as the Edible estates and the prize winning garden Future Feast in the Garden of Flow/Accumulation designed by Suzanne Briggs and Patrick Picard. Briggs states: “My belief is that the root cause of global warming and unsustainable practices is accumulation.” She symbolises deforestation with charred wood rising from a lifeless under-story of slash; extinction with fossils in a sea of sterile dirt and stones. In contrast to channels of “accumulation” are channels of “flow” symbolized by oak seedlings—hope to restore the depleted forests; plants that attract insects, bees and butterflies—hope to guard against continued extinction.

In the centre of the garden is the symbol of hope – the Future Feast table resting on local reclaimed redwood legs and using the technology of green roofs for its living surface.

So what might the tentative beginnings of an Epicurean Backyard look like? Firstly, unlike the eighteenth century landscape garden, which was an exclusive Arcadia for the elite, the Epicurean backyard has a domestic scale – it provides a contemporary Arcadia for anyone and everyone. It would of course continue the tradition of the garden of ideas by producing not only physical food but food for the mind – poetic statements on the state of western culture in this age of the Anthropocene. It would see vegetable growing as inextricably linked to ideas of power and control, personal control over the basic requirements of life and power to attempt to transform the deathly forces of capital; power to relinquish ways of life that set the human outside ecosystems.


The Epicurean vegetable garden is a place to dwell creatively; it is both serious and playful, philosophical and aesthetic, productive and attractive. Drawing on Epicurus and extending through Goethe, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty it might use quotations such as Heidegger’s statements on dwelling poetically or Goethe’s understanding of plant metamorphosis in which the leaf is primary.

It might playfully find ways to grow vegetables in tiny spaces proving yet again that small is beautiful. Or it might draw on eco-artists who have created habitat sculptures or reclamation projects.

Epicurean08The ephemeral works of artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy bring attention to human responsibility for the environmental crisis, to what Agnes Denes describes as, “mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.” Lynne Hull writes of her habitat sculptures, “My sculpture and installations provide shelter, food, water or space for wildlife, as ecoatonement for their loss of habitat to human encroachment.”

In addition the Epicurean backyard might explore the origin of words such as the emblem, which was of Greek origin but in classical Latin was used to refer to mosaics. Emblem also had a figurative meaning: speech studded with citations used as rhetorical ornaments. Mosaics might then be studded with vegetable plants as rhetorical ornaments that provide ready-to-hand salads.


On a general level, a garden feeds us on many levels and the more disconnected we become from the garden, the more reckless we become with the way we occupy the planet. To create vegetable gardens as art is to return to the creative practices of the vernacular; it is to follow in the footsteps of the poet-gardeners who established a counter-order to transform the landscape; and it is to follow Epicurus’ example and recognise our obligation to make room for all life to flourish in dark times by giving it soil in which to grow.