“But let us cultivate our garden.” —Candide by Voltaire (1759), translated by Theo Cuffe (2009)
The first real garden I grew on my own was in 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. I had graduated as an engineer and started working at a pneumatics manufacturer in the British Midlands. My one-bedroom rental was in an old semi-detached two-story house where the local council authorities had converted each floor into a separate flat and sold off to private owners. Each flat had a small, equally sectioned area of the backyard. From my upstairs kitchen and bathroom windows, I could see the entire backyard with its two neatly fenced-off plots.
I would have probably left my patch of fenced-off grass alone, but the married couple I was renting from had made its maintenance one of the lease conditions. They also had family living down that same street to keep an eye on things.
On weekends and late summer evenings, I had noted neighbors up and down my street tending to their own gardens, both front and back, enjoying the brief nice weather as much as possible. Trying not to stare as I searched unsuccessfully for brown faces like mine, I would scurry past on red-gold evenings with my grocery-filled backpack. Often, they would be conversing across hedges and fences about plants or pests. A wisp of a breeze would tug slightly at their old gardening clothes and send snatches of their chatter—filled with exotic-sounding technical jargon—my way. On the odd occasion when one of them stopped to smile and wave, it felt as if I had interrupted something very private.
Gardening had never been of interest to a bookish, indoor sort like me. Growing up in Mumbai, there had never been anything to tend for besides the few potted plants on apartment balconies. But I was in a new part of England after several years of a mostly cloistered university life, so I knew nobody. My long workdays at the new job were difficult, and on weekends, I collapsed into comas of reading and television watching. This was the time before home computers or mobile phones were ubiquitous in all homes. And British Telecom reigned supreme with their absurd landline rates, both domestic and international, so that long chats with friends or family were out of the question. Still, it wasn’t so much a sense of loneliness as a sense of a growing desert inside. Much like the garden plot lying useless, I felt vast spaces within me going fallow too.
The “garden” is a recurring motif in Voltaire’s novella Candide. It shows up throughout the story in various settings and symbolic themes, which is why there are still several differing interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. The story is about a naive young man who travels the world, gets into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disemboweling), tries to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and finally concludes that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.”
The garden at the very end of the story, where this line also occurs, provides the most commonly accepted interpretation. Candide and all the main characters set to work together on a bit of land, each taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, whom they meet just before. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs. Their main objective, he says, is to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.
Scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was saying with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat and isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”?
When Voltaire completed and published Candide, he was living in exile on his estate in Ferney, a town on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Within this country retreat, he designed and cultivated an actual garden where he could, as he had written in another book, The Age of Louis XIV, enjoy “affable manners, simple living, and the culture of the mind.” Of course, this was also the time when he took on religious fanaticism and torture as his main causes, fighting for those who had been convicted—wrongly as he saw it—in the name of religion. In his brilliant 2005 essay on Voltaire’s garden, Adam Gopnik writes:
It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.
Gopnik goes on to confirm that, with Candide, Voltaire was really writing against optimal thinking of the kind that sees everything tending toward the best in the end. And, importantly, Voltaire was against the “flight from failed optimism into faith.” Gopnik also clarified the key phrase:
It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open,“simplicity” itself. … By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “we must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. … Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.
Gopnik gave his interpretation and analysis in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Trump era. Today, we have few, if any, physical or psychical gates or boundaries from the world at large. It comes at us from all sides like, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote once, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (possibly, had she been writing that today, she would have added strong qualifiers for the speed at which this happens). So the “windows wide and doors open” aspect of Voltaire’s garden is no longer a promise of that metaphorical domestic bliss because these windows and doors have been blown off entirely. The careful cultivation of this personal garden to allow a life of deep, emotionally rich meaning is a much harder prospect for any would-be, modern-day Voltaire.
And yet it was tempting for me to try just that sort of Voltairean endeavor with my little English garden back in 1996. I asked a couple of coworkers for advice on how to manage this 5-foot-by-3-foot bit of earth I was now responsible for. They made it sound simple enough: Buy seed packets at the local B&Q DIY store, aerate the soil (an elderly co-worker came by one evening to show me how to make both vertical and horizontal furrows and even loaned me his precious rake), place seeds in well-spaced rows at regular intervals and depths, cover up with fertilized topsoil, water as needed, and remove weeds when they appear.
In early spring, I planted vegetables—runner beans along a handmade wire trellis, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), cucumber, tomato, carrot, lettuce—and looked forward to sustaining myself on freshly tossed salads throughout the summer. Along one long fence edge, I scattered flower seeds three layers deep for irises, crocuses, lavender, chrysanthemums, sweet pea, daffodils, asters, zinnias, delphiniums, violets, dahlias, daisies, carnations, geraniums, nasturtiums, gladioli, larkspur, and more.
At first, I was too self-conscious, worried that everyone would see how I knew nothing. The tall widow in the flat below me would sit on her kitchen doorstep after supper, her short blue-rinsed hair in tight curlers. She would watch me planting, weeding, and watering through the smoke rings of her after-supper cigarette. We rarely spoke and, after that one cigarette, she would retreat indoors and lock her several door latches with loud, definitive clicks and clacks.
Eventually, I grew to love that solitude, silence, and space and even looked forward to it as my daily highlight. That I was taking care of things and making them grow felt more than productive—it felt both purposeful and grown up. And as my own gardening vocabulary grew from the books the local garden center had advised me to buy, I would whisper some of those new words while bending over the saplings—as if sprinkling them with sacred mantras to help them thrive.
Diane Ackerman wrote an entire book about her garden, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden. Taking us through how her upstate New York garden fares through the four seasons, Ackerman muses philosophically and lyrically on many aspects of life, growth, and death. Her opening is beautiful:
I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires. … By definition, the garden’s errands can never be finished and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. … Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame for their vision of life. … Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder, a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
In her journals, May Sarton praised the slowness and patience that gardening requires: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” She also wrote of how it is a metaphor for life: “The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” And the “good” kind of death: “In the garden the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.”
Virginia Woolf used gardens in fiction (the most well-known example: “Kew Gardens”) as metaphors for different aspects of life, relationships, and more. She even wrote in a little separate shed-like room in her garden at Monk’s House, her weekend home in Sussex. Though her husband, Leonard Woolf, did much of the cultivating and tending, there’s a lovely throwaway sentence in her diaries that summarizes the joys she got from gardens: “Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.”
Happiness also came through in my garden. By late spring and early summer, the weekend and late-evening hours spent taking care of all that life teeming its way through the rich loam paid off more than I had imagined. On the vegetable side, the dense, lush crop was too much for one person, and I gave most of it away to neighbors and coworkers to avoid spoilage. On the flower side, the countless upstanding blooms were all mixed into a riotously colored palette, wafting ripe and heady scents, and sheltering an entire ecosystem of small insects.
Yes, a lot of this had to do with that perfect confluence of natural elements—weather, water, soil, seed, ecology—and helpful and neighborly friends. But, as it had been for Ackerman and Sarton and Woolf, my garden had also been a way to make some order from chaos, find some grace through growth and change, and create an enthusiasm of my own.
In the next two decades, I went on to buy (and sell) homes of my own as I moved across several different states in the U.S. Each house had a decent-sized backyard where I hoped to replicate that first gardening success. But the careful, patient cultivation of those spaces had to be outsourced while I invested almost all my time and energy in the cultivation of my professional career. And while that career did bloom and grow, it never had quite the same effortless magic and satisfaction as that physical garden.
In my 40th year, I came across Andy Weir’s online-published novel, The Martian.
Mark Watney is a NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars and is presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself while waiting to make contact with NASA so they know he’s still alive and can rescue him. As a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. He goes to great lengths and works diligently, all the while knowing that it may never matter in the end if he can’t get back to earth. Still, at one point, he has 400 healthy potato plants that buy him a whole lot more waiting time.
Now, while Watney’s fictional solution to potato gardening on Mars is complex, it isn’t entirely technically sound—from the use of human feces (without composting for months) as fertilizer to turning the rocket’s hydrazine fuel into water to all the other unpredictable accidents along the way. Still, let’s move past all that to the key message his garden cultivation gives us—or what it gave me at a major turning point in my career and life.
I had finally gotten around to admitting to myself, after decades, that I had hit stony ground and needed to transplant myself into new soil. I knew what kind of garden, metaphorically speaking, I wanted to cultivate. I had, in fact, been attempting to work at it all my life with scraps of free time here and there and a bit of nourishment from a writing workshop now and then. But the writing work often ran to weed quickly and the long fallow periods in between each new sprouting certainly did not help.
Like Candide and his cohorts, I decided to focus my most essential occupation on the local/personal and immediate. I told myself that, even if it involved starting with something as boring as potatoes in a difficult Mars-like environment, as Watney had done, then I would do that.
I have been cultivating my “literary” garden for six years now. There have been seeds that did not germinate and crops both good and bad. The lessons of my first garden are with me always: tend constantly; accept that everything has its season; ensure good fences; leave no stones unturned; know that weeds can, sometimes, be wildflowers too; and appreciate that the occasional strong breezes create strong trees.
The last bit of conversation in Candide is between Candide and his mentor, Pangloss. Pangloss reminds his mentee that he would not be sitting in that garden and enjoying its fruits if he had not gone through his many troubles before. As much as Voltaire intended Pangloss to be a satirical, laughable caricature of old-fashioned optimism, this is ancient, true wisdom. All of us finally arrive at the gardens we are meant to cultivate after a “concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds.”
In literary works around the world, gardens have been portrayed as places of trysts, romance, sex, contemplation, escape, solace, possibilities, and more. They evoke a wide range of metaphoric images, represent our many connections with nature, and bring a richer language into play. Voltaire’s garden, I’ve always believed, is not the typical Edenic kind requiring expulsion at some stage. Instead, it wholeheartedly advocates a complete focus on its cultivation and a rightful enjoyment of its pleasures.