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Wisdom's garden: lessons for Northern Ireland.

'THE act of composing a garden', says Russell Page, who has composed many, 'is a question first of selection and then of emphasis'. These were certainly the two key operations that underlay my mother's efforts to cultivate the quarter-acre site around the house she and my father built in Lisburn, County Antrim, half a century ago. A mark of the concentration she brought to Page's two inter-related principles of composition lay in what I came to think of as the garden's temporary superimposition on her mind. Years later, when failing strength and ill health made gardening of any sort beyond recollection impossible, she described what happened when, after an afternoon's weeding or planting, she lay down to rest and closed her eyes. A picture of the ground she'd been working on appeared, so exact in every detail that, had she continued her labours imaginatively in this inner spectral garden, her selection and emphasis could have precisely mirrored the pattern she'd been working to outside. It was as if the eyes, in secret collusion with memory, wrought some perceptual alchemy such that seeing became momentarily independent of having things visibly present in front of her. The account she gave suggested a kind of visual echo that traced with the delicacy of perfect similitude the contours of every plant, each patch of soil, leaving a clear reverberation of the real shimmering like a mirage in the secret garden of her mind. This haunting aftertaste would keep its flavour for maybe ten or twenty minutes before it dissolved, fading back to the blankness that customarily governs the screen behind our resting eyes.

I've never experienced such a superimposition myself. Whether this is due to different wiring in the brain, or to my less rigorous approach to gardening, I'm not sure. Perhaps my lack of first-hand familiarity in part explains why I'm so intrigued by this phenomenon. Or maybe it's because a superimposition of this nature seems to betoken such intensity of focus as to be arresting. Mainly, though, the fascination it exerts comes from the way in which it represents a common mental operation, thus acting as a ready-made metaphor, a found model happened on by chance, for the way in which we all select and emphasise from inner blueprints in the process of cultivating our pictures of the world.

One of the things that bemused my wife-to-be on her early visits to Northern Ireland--as it must have bemused thousands of outsiders--was the way in which so many of the acts of social composition she witnessed selected and emphasised aspects of the world that were, to her, irrelevant. She found curious, but not endearing, the way in which Ulster ears are so finely attuned to markers of tribal allegiance. Name, address, football team supported, school attended, mode of pronunciation ('aitch' or 'haich' for 'h'), whether you say 'Derry' or 'Londonderry', the 'North' or 'Northern Ireland'--our diction is littered with seemingly innocent features that announce whether someone is a Catholic or Protestant, whether their allegiance is more likely to be nationalist or loyalist.

For me, the divisiveness of Ulster society has come to resemble something akin to the garden's superimposition on my mother's mind, only it is a far more permanent and injurious imprinting than the temporary occupancy laid so gently and delicately on the fabric of her consciousness. It's as if the two communities have laboured for so long in their respective plots--selecting their favoured myths, emphasising triumphs and injustices--that a self-sustaining picture of Ireland has been branded on each tribal psyche. These superimpositions are, of course, adversarial, opposed, conflicting--and they're burnt so deeply into commonplace perception that their rules of composition are hard to shake off, even when conditions on the ground have changed.

Sectarian composition uses a blueprint of selection and emphasis that, unless you're brought up with its patterns glazing the wall of the inner ear, can be as difficult to hear as a bat's squeaking. And since the unhelpful crudities drawn by its rough dialect of interpretation are unlikely to recommend themselves to outsiders as a way of ordering the world, strangers will not strain to catch the ugly argot of its accent. If it's something that's been impressed on you for years, but that in later life you wish to shy away from, it's pretty much impossible to stop hearing the notes such superimposition has attuned the ear to. What we can change, thankfully, is how we react to its particular patterns of selection and emphasis.

Though their operation has been tragically obvious in an Ulster context, partisan superimpositions are a universal characteristic of Homo sapiens, rather than being a purely Irish failing. The precise categories of division--Catholic/Protestant, nationalist/loyalist--may be unique to Northern Ireland, but invisible blueprints of various design are incised on everyone's mind, demanding that they select and emphasise according to the patterns such blueprints dictate. Becoming aware of the existence and power of such super-impositions is, I would argue, an important advancement in learning.

Thinking of the harmless horticultural superimposition that her meticulous gardening traced out on my mother's mind, of the much less benign sectarian patterns that can imprint themselves on the tribal psyche and direct its consciousness, and of the way in which we all select and emphasise according to the rule of unseen blueprints that impose their readings of the world upon us, I'm reminded of a story first told to a meeting of the Aristotelian Society in 1945 by the philosopher John Wisdom:
 Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the
 weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the
 other, 'It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something
 about these plants'. Upon inquiry they find that no neighbour has ever
 seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other,
 'He must have worked while people slept'. The other says, 'No, someone
 would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants
 would have kept down these weeds'. The first man says, 'Look at the
 way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty
 here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes.
 I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find
 confirmation of this'. They examine the garden ever so carefully and
 sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and
 sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even
 that a malicious person has been at work.


Wisdom's garden is not just some whimsical invention staked out in the abstract reaches of a philosophical consciousness. We walk through it here and now. It poses urgent questions. We struggle to understand it better. It is the arena that cradles us and within which history happens. John Wisdom's two observers, with their very different hypotheses, represent an attempt to picture the nature of the dispute between religious and non-religious outlooks. Each observer reads existence via a blueprint of selection and emphasis that is so firmly superimposed upon their mind that it becomes impossible to separate reality and interpretation.

Wisdom's garden is intended to provide a picture of the nature of the dispute between theistic and atheistic outlooks. The garden represents the world, the gardener represents God, and the two people represent believer and non-believer. As they walk through the garden together they select and emphasise evidence according to their very different blueprints of belief. As we follow their progress it becomes clear how difficult it is to establish the nature of what is really there. They both walk through the same garden, but their understandings of it, one based on a creator, the other not, can make it seem as if they occupy two very different worlds. The superimpositions laid on their minds result in radically different interpretations.

Wisdom's parable neatly frames one of the classic questions of philosophy: Is there any evidence of God's existence in the world around us? We can worry at this in various ways--the six classical proofs are like bones of different shapes thrown to the warring dogs of theism and atheism. It's abundantly clear from history and psychology that individual patterns of selection and emphasis are sufficiently varied to guarantee an ongoing tussle. It seems that faith and scepticism are equally plausible readings of the human experience. But Wisdom's philosophical cartoon poses another question, which is perhaps more interesting--and certainly more urgent--than the unanswerable conundrum of whether God exists. Namely, how are these two individuals going to live together in the garden that they understand so very differently? It is certainly this practical question of coexistence that has most relevance in an Ulster context, where it is not a matter of two people walking through their garden and having a philosophical discussion, but of two warring tribes, some of whose members are ready to kill and be killed in defence of their particular outlook on the territory that both inhabit.

Wisdom's garden is an excellent means of stressing the persistent ambiguity of evidence that faces us when we try to read the world around us. It admits of parsing into vastly different meanings. In siting the debate in a garden it usefully reintroduces nature into an area sometimes looked at in so cerebral a manner that the natural world seems almost irrelevant to it. Wisdom's garden also illustrates an important general point about hypothetical thinking that was well summed up two and half centuries ago by Laurence Sterne in The Adventures of Tristram Shandy. 'It is a hypothesis', Sterne says, as soon as someone conceives it, 'that it assimilates everything to itself as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read or understand'.

Wisdom's garden pictures the struggle between two omnivorous hypotheses. Looking at their encounter raises interesting questions about how a hypothesis is first arrived at, where its roots lie, about conditions under which verification or abandonment might happen, what counts as proof, why people come to have such different hypotheses in the first place. Yet, for all its charm, Wisdom's story presents a situation where there are only two interpretative streams of selection and emphasis. Their currents act to draw everything met with in the garden into their flow. Neighbours are shadowy characters who scarcely impinge on the debate between these two clearly opposed positions, dialogue with them is only alluded to briefly and consists of a uniform denial of their having seen anything of interest. Instead of showing a continuum of varying outlooks, the parable only deals with polar opposites and suggests that we must choose between them.

Perhaps Wisdom belonged to a simpler time, where such dualism really did represent the situation. But things have changed. Today, even in so insular a society as Northern Ireland, instead of there being only two clear-cut streams of selection and emphasis, it's more as if we encounter a whole series of overlapping interpretative whirlpools, with pressures and influences coming from a whole spectrum of opinions. In the increasingly globalized culture that encompasses us, our neighbours' voices are numerous, varied and insistent. As a philosophical device Wisdom's garden is pared down, the undergrowth cut away so that we can see the bare bones of an argument. But we should not let such simplification obscure the fact that we are no longer faced merely with a dispute between believer and non-believer, or between Catholic and Protestant, or between loyalist and nationalist or any of the other clear-cut oppositions that perhaps used to characterise our disagreements. The emergent zeitgeist has moved inexorably away from such simplistic dualisms and towards a much more complicated pluralism.

In our pluralistic contemporary world, we need to move beyond the either/or that's sewn into the very fabric of Wisdom's engaging philosophical fable. It feeds the illusion that there are just two possibilities and that only one of them can be right. The story of the garden suggests that allegiance must be given to one or the other. Ulster echoes with such divisive dualism. Its history has been contorted by violent attempts by each side to champion the supremacy of their vision, to superimpose--by terror if necessary--their particular reading of Ireland's garden. But even here, amidst the traditional division into two tribes, the situation is changing and we need to compose new mental blueprints if we are to deal with it.

My mother and her two sisters each made gardens in the lush Irish earth. The design, the choice of flowers, shrubs, trees, what they rooted up and what they planted, how they balanced decoration and utility, resulted in three very different compositions. Their patterns of selection and emphasis were not the same. Why, in a religious or political context, are we so concerned with the triumphalism of allowing only a single mode of approach, whereas in gardening we can recognise the value of diversity and rejoice in the fact that not all gardens are the same? Just as in gardening we might allow some basic principles universal application: don't deprive plants of water, allow sufficient light, nurture soil quality, so in our political or religious compositions we might let freedom of speech, or gender equality, or education for everyone, or respect for all life stand as fundamental principles. But beyond such basics might we not, in these early years of the twenty-first century, gradually edge towards a valuation that allows and celebrates difference? Rather than opting for any of the divisive mono-cultures of dualism's serried ranks of poisonous twins, is it not time to give our allegiance to the kind of creative diversity that gardening suggests, honouring the rich variety that stems from individual difference instead of trying to impose the uniformity of some aggressively singular ideology?

According to Russell Page (to quote again from his wonderful book The Education of a Gardener): 'A good garden cannot be made by somebody who has not developed the capacity to know and to love growing things.' Such a compassionate and practical prerequisite was certainly in place in my mother's County Antrim garden. It's time that we allowed it to superimpose its wisdom on our mind, such that its presence there might start to make a real difference to all those acts by which we create the world we live in.

Dr Chris Arthur is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies in the University of Wales, Lampeter.
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Author:Arthur, Chris
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUN
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Words:2411
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