Better homes & gardens

While I risk agreeing with Voltaire (“we must cultivate our garden”) I should wish to do so in the cause of the organized religion that he was satirizing. The man had so many opinions, he could not help getting some right, and in Candide’s foolish and persistent optimism there is that seed of quixotic Hope which his author was determined to extinguish. Both views are correct. One should be eternally hopeful, and one’s hopes should be repeatedly crushed. This is how wine is made from grapes, if we add a certain ageing process.

Moreover, we should cultivate our homes and gardens. The shelter we seek from an unpleasant human world — growing worse in its unbelief and faithlessness — is a human shelter. That is to say, something better than the nest Bodo and Katrina (a pigeon couple of my over-acquaintance) have tried to build on my balconata, while I have tried to disrupt them. All is lost, all nests are lost in the end, and a time will come when no trace remains of pigeons or persons alike — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The wine, too, will be spilt forever. That is how things are. Those without a view of Perfection, have, like the height-impaired in the old song, “no reason to live.” They only seek wretched transient pleasures, from which they will guiltily “move on.”

Last week I sat in a small and delightful fern garden; a little patch of paradise set apart yet within the crashing vulgarity of contemporary London, Ontario. I was house guest to my friends Herman Goodden and Kirtley Jarvis, both artists of some kind. Herman I first met thirty years ago: a talented essayist and playwright, stuck in the toilet of modern journalism. Kirtley is an inspired graphic artist, with an eagle eye for detail and chance.

You have a bowl of glass and porcelain marbles that no one plays with any more; and a gravel path through the ferns and flowers. What is more sensible than to scatter the marbles along the path? The effect was beautiful, and within the security of garden walls, it will remain for a generation. (Civilization starts with walls.)

The whole tiny yard is like that, made a vast space from found objects concealed and revealed: a garden of inscriptions. Kirtley’s tiny studio presides from the rear; a bicycle shed has been subtly accommodated. The bicycle that comes out is a dark red one-speed antique, that puts all high-tech bicycles to shame. For the slower one rides, the larger and more interesting the world becomes.

My friends are poor, by the minimum-wage standard. They have always been so — God meant artists to struggle — yet raised a flock of children with one closet-sized bathroom. They have never moved, and will never, voluntarily. Within, the bungalow is a mansion, every corner an exhilarating feast for the eyes. An art gallery, a big library, and multiple workplaces have been somehow fitted in. With the simplest market ingredients, banquets emerge from the kitchenette. For of course the place also serves as a guest house, and a modest community meeting hall.

Disaster will strike, and we must be ready. But meanwhile there is time for us to cultivate our garden. My friends are internal exiles from that old Puritan Ontario, who turned back into mediaeval Catholics; for also they rebelled against the deadly grim consumerist machine to which America’s dourness descended. With time and love it can be overthrown. For in time, ancient traditions are rekindled, and the mystical life is patiently restored. “Be still and know.”

I have known several such homes and gardens, and some like this still exist. They are the small centres of our renewal, walled in from the barbarity outside. But this has always been so, and as Mr Goodden says, he need not buy any spanking new “Benedict Option,” for he owned one already. The words, “Bless this house,” announced it from the start.