Undercurrents: Echoes of Eden at The Chelsea Flower Show

Two years ago, I moved house and for the first time in my life, had a garden of my own to enjoy. Suddenly a previously unexplored world of horticulture opened to me and I was eager to learn everything I could. I read every gardening magazine and book I could get my hands on and quickly learnt to tell my pelargoniums from my penstemons. I got excited about the benefits of well rotten farmyard manure and even spent a happy day shovelling a tonne of it onto my flower beds from a nearby farm (a less happy day for our neighbours admittedly!). Finally (with a little embarrassment for fear that it was indicative of my approaching middle age), I joined the RHS and went, for the first time, to the Chelsea Flower Show.

It turns out that far from being alone, or pursuing a minority interest activity – I was amongst the 168,000 people who attended Chelsea in person, and the 3.14million who watched the coverage on the TV. Gardening is in fact something of a national sport in the UK today, a £3.1bn industry, that involves 27million people![1]

So, despite the heaving crowds and overpriced Pimm’s, I loved the Chelsea Flower Show. Some of the show gardens were simply spectacular and inspired me to get home and working on my own with a long list of new plants that I wanted to try to grow. There was however, one garden that stood out – mostly because, in my opinion, it wasn’t even a garden at all! ‘A rewilding Britain landscape’ seemed little more than a dilapidated shed surrounded by a weed infested stream! I was therefore rather surprised when I heard later that it had been awarded ‘Best Show Garden’ by the judges! Interestingly the general public didn’t appear to agree as the garden that won the ‘People’s Choice’ award was much more of… well… a garden!

This year we went back to Chelsea, and to my dismay, discovered that nearly every show ‘garden’ seemed to have been designed with an attempt to impress last year’s judges rather than the public – with dandelions and nettles and a host of other weeds littered throughout the show! One garden alone seemed to buck this trend by actually trying to be a nice garden with attractive and luscious planting. I was obviously not alone in this thought and I was not at all surprised when I heard it had won the ‘People’s Choice’ award.

All of this got me thinking. Despite the fact that we are regularly exhorted by gardening experts as to the benefits and virtues of ‘rewilding’, are we actually convinced that this is the best way to go? And if not, why not?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the wild and need little encouragement to enjoy the benefits of it. I’ll find any excuse I can to hike up a mountain, camp by the beach, wander through a forest or paddle board down a river. I love going out into the wild. But that doesn’t mean that I want my garden to be wild – for by definition as garden is surely something that isn’t wild? Plus, I could spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to recreate a small corner of the Scottish Highlands in our garden but it will never be as good as the real thing!

Where has all this come from? Perhaps it stems from an unspoken belief that nature would be better off without us. It’s easy to see why people might think this. Just look around the world and you can see the many ways that humans have polluted, exploited and scarred our beautiful world. We have done so much damage you might be forgiven for thinking that our influence only ever makes things worse. But is this true?

We are blessed to live in a beautiful area of the Leicestershire countryside. When people who live in the city come to visit, they sometimes comment about how nice it is to be out in ‘nature’. The impression can be that cities are what people create – the countryside is what nature creates. What they can easily forget is that the countryside itself is the product of human influence. Those beautiful hedge rows, so attractive both to us and to wildlife, don’t just come about by accident – they take a great deal of time and skill to produce.

Sure, humans can make the world worse. But they can also make it better. It seems that we, out of all of natural world, have a unique ability to both destroy and beautify our world. Why is this?

If, as humans, we are no different to the rest of nature (except that we are more evolved) it would seem strange to impose such moral expectations on ourselves. We don’t hold a lion accountable for eating its prey nor a beaver for damning a river nor an eagle for eating its own young, nor even a black widow spider for its weird practise of sexual cannibalism! So why get upset at the actions of some humans or expect us to do better?

Perhaps we would do well to look again at the Biblical story of creation if we wanted to better understand our relationship to nature. It is easy to dismiss the Bible’s creation story for being unscientific despite the fact that it’s primary aim is not to teach us about the scientific mechanism of creation. Its primary aim is to help us understand why we are here, not just how we got here.

According to the Bible, humans are differentiated from the rest of nature by virtue of the fact that we are created in God’s image. This doesn’t just give us unique value (it’s actually the basis behind the whole idea of human rights but that’s another story) it also gives us unique responsibility – especially in terms of how are to care for and steward the rest of creation.

Interestingly the Bible story also differentiates between a garden and the wild. God places the first humans in a garden for which they are to tend and care. While all of creation is originally deemed as good, there is something different to the garden than the wild outside. Interestingly it is also a place of both aesthetic and culinary delights – the trees are noted as being both pleasing to the eye and good for food.

Sadly, this ideal picture of creation doesn’t last long. Just three chapters into the Bible’s grand narrative things go pear shaped (or maybe we should say apple shaped?!). Significantly, the world goes wrong precisely because we as humans have gone wrong. Instead of caring for creation we have often selfishly exploited it for our own benefit.

Thankfully though this is not the end of the story. The Bible speaks of God who became part of this world himself to put things right. He would take upon himself the responsibility for and the consequences of the mess we have made making it possible for us to be forgiven and made new.

If the brokenness of humanity led to the brokenness of our world, so the restoration of humanity also breathes hope for our world. The Bible story not only begins but also ends with a garden. Perhaps our love for gardening not only stems from the fact that it is a part of what we were created for, but also because it gives us a sense of what we might also be longing for.

[1] https://www.gardenpatch.co.uk/gardening-statistics/, https://www.housebeautiful.com/uk/garden/plants/g47/chelsea-flower-show-facts/, https://www.hortweek.com/rhs-chelsea-flower-show-bbc-tv-viewing-figures-peak-314m/retail/article/1435709