The Memory Garden

The season of Easter is also Spring, up here in the Northern Hemisphere. In Canada, from where I write, we are well up in that. There is exhilaration in the melting of the snows, the budding of the trees, the return of the sun from its southern holiday; even in the rain, and the sonorities of approaching thunder.

We, or rather those who do not live the abstract, urban, high-rise life (where every kind of weather is reduced to “a problem”), turn to gardens and a soil unlocked from winter freezing.

Cicero, in his instructions how to live, suggested it should be done in a library, within a garden. Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil, I believe he said, in a letter to his friend Varro. This in turn yields food, shelter, inner peace, and mental stimulation. What else could one need?

God comes to mind. For Him, a prison cell will do, and many lashes, and a Cross to hang upon. And ditto for our Martyrs.

But observe, in this case, there are others to do all the work. Our job is only to “enjoy” it, though I use the word with irony.

And old age, too, can be something of a shipwreck, as I have now observed in my parents’ generation; but even some of those took it well.

We are placed on this earth only for a season, shorter perhaps for some than for others, yet even in that barbed statement we secretly confess that life is good.

In the best tradition of the ancients, our monks and nuns have lived through centuries in libraries, in gardens – with the super-addition of regulated prayer. In their generosity, they pray for us, so many of whom have almost consciously chosen the path of ignorance through thorns. Childless themselves, they pray for our children, made orphans all around us.

Evicted as we were, from Paradise, from the Garden, in a scene repeated within each human life; and endowed, from birth, with a kind of holy nostalgia, or the Babylon weeping to be let back in – I am still coming to terms with the mystery of evil.

As a wee lad, in Lahore of all places, ancient green dot on brown Punjab plain, I was enchanted by gardens. Lahore, now another urban torture chamber, was once a city of gardens; and even to the time of my childhood, the clop of tongas was to be heard in the cool of dawn, competing with the wheeze of diesel buses.

The heat that came with spring was relieved under high ceilings, and canopies of trees; or in the lanes of the Old City by geometric shadows, like a garden in stone brick and wood. Water glinted everywhere in wells tanks and rivulets, proceeding from one job to another. In the compound where I lived, I came to know all the gardeners.

The Water Garden by Childe Hassam, 1909 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]
The Water Garden by Childe Hassam, 1909 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]

My memory may fail, my mind may romanticize, for I’m told at least one of my memories is impossible. It is of entering the Shalimar Gardens on a day when all the fountains were working – which is to say, about four hundred fountains, no two authorities agreeing on the exact count.

It is a vast, walled yard, descending through three levels in marbled fountains and cascades, into shallow pools and through pavilions by walks – past fruit-bearing trees in every conceivable variety; and beds of richly colored flowers, filling the moist air with their perfume. It was an extraordinary hydraulic feat by Mughal engineers, working only with gravity, on the command of the great Shah Jahan, who left it in the care of the Awain family of noble Punjabi farmers and zamindars (landlords).

My memory may be correct: for the year I recall was about 1960, and the monument was only taken from that family and nationalized in 1962, the Gardens becoming only thereafter “another Paki dump” (in the words of a prominent Pakistani). This paradise had suffered plunder in previous centuries (as tower gates and buildings were stripped of their marble); now the final disintegration had begun.

Yet I vividly recall the cool once stepped inside. For as at Rome, the fountains provide extraordinary air conditioning, against the wilting sun. And the waters, be it known, are not wasted, but cleansed in their transit through the sanctuary.

The idea of a chahar bagh (“four-garden”) – the Persian idea of a rectilinear garden, divided in four quarters by waterways that cross – was a profound anticipation. The Persian history is long pre-Islamic, long pre-Christian, but was assimilated into Muslim traditions, and adapted to their symbolism, by the genius of men who, in God’s grace, had come to appreciate the preciousness of water.

For God’s grace is often in the withholding, and there is a shortage of water through much of the Islamic realm. Human ingenuity is provoked the more by deprivation than by surplus.

As a doodler, and frustrated garden designer, I have before me a plan for a Christian garden, lifted from the pattern of a Persian carpet, elongated to make the Crucifix stand out.

In the patches of my “converted” version, the Christian teachings are enumerated – the four evangelists, among twelve apostles; eight beatitudes; ten commandments; the three theological and four cardinal virtues; the four archangels at the outer corners over helical stairs to the parapet walks (Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel); and too, the four horsemen; the fourteen stations, and so forth, all woven into the vegetative fabric with the twenty-nine pilgrims to Canterbury. Cascades at the tower head, and at a tilt, descending from the base of the square within the rectangle (a kind of buckling at the knee). And at the water crossing, the central rose fountain of the Sacred Heart.

Well, it pleases me; for even though it does not exist, it affords a classical mnemonic: an elaborate Catechism through which in imagination one might walk, gathering, as it were, both library and garden in an emblematic vision of Our Lord.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: