I have had the pleasure of working with this thought-provoking book, both as a proof-reader and reviewer, and I recommend that readers read it slowly and savour it. Gardens is a poetic and far-ranging study. We move between earthly gardens (including 6000 years of history), ”textual gardens” in the Bible and literature which take us inside ourselves, and also the heavenly gardens Swedenborg visited. We glimpse the interconnectedness of heaven and earth, a central theme in Swedenborg’s works. Symbolic and poetic language opens our minds to heaven, but we feel the limitations of language too. The book is written by a thinking ‘Swedenborgian’ who is also professor in literature and has an infectious interest in the subject of gardens. The tone is refreshingly undogmatic, encouraging the reader’s own reflection. Her purpose, in her own words, is ”to stir appreciation, from a Swedenborgian perspective, for the ways gardens can engage and inspire us to root ourselves in a natural world in order to grow simultaneously in a spiritual one.” (introduction xvii)
The essay is divided into three parts, with an introduction and afterword. In the introduction Dr. King introduces Swedenborg for those unfamiliar with his Writings, and mentions some central themes.
The first part, ”Garden Correspondence”, deals with the symbolic meanings of gardens in the natural world and in the Bible. There are three main themes in the 1200 references to gardens in Swedenborg’s published theological Writings. First, the Garden of Eden, a celestial, unfallen state. Gardens are also used to picture the intelligence and rational thought necessary for rebirth or regeneration, the only means to regaining this celestial state. Finally, Swedenborg uses a garden as an image of the Word, the ”medium of conjunction between heaven and earth”, and the Word itself is also full of garden imagery. The link between symbol and meaning is ”correspondence”, like a metaphor linking earth and heaven; but it is more than a metaphor, it is a living connection between the two realities. It is also more than the language that describes it, and we are challenged to try to grasp it. ”These moments of glimpsing divinity in the smallest detail of the physical world, or in the patterns behind the strands of language in revelation, is communion with heaven.” (page 12)
The second part, ”Gardens in heaven”, recounts Swedenborg’s experiences heaven. Here too language is found wanting. The gardens Swedenborg sees are ”indescribably” beautiful. They are fruitful and well-ordered, but fluctuate more than our gardens. Dr. King considers why Swedenborg does not give more detailed descriptions of what he sees, which can puzzle and even frustrate us as sensuous human beings . ”Some other imperative shaped his account”. (introduction xxiii) He probably knew that we cannot experience heaven vicariously. Gardens in heaven are a place of introduction for newcomers, a place of instruction, and a reflection of those who live there. Much of this chapter is a longer description of specific gardens Swedenborg visits, giving us a taste of the wonders there.
Part three, ”Gardens in history” tells of a ”6000-year effort to find an aesthetic relationship with the natural world” (introduction xvii). It is hard to research gardens, as they are ”ephemeral, fragile things” (page 92). We cannot experience a garden from ancient civilisations except through art and literature. Our view is further distorted by the fact that the only surviving records describe gardens of the rich and powerful. But it is fascinating to read of gardens in the Near East, Egypt, Greece and Rome, Islam, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Swedenborg’s own time. Dr. King has drawn from Penelope Hobhouse’s The Story of Gardening but intersperses the history with her own thoughts and reflections. ”Learning about the gardens of other people and other civilizations can inform our own efforts to create both physical and symbolic beauty and order. The gardens we envision and build embody and promote the values we cherish, whether it be beauty, ingenuity, community, reflection, worship, wonder, humility, meditation or simple appreciation for the cycles of life and our own place in them. ” (page 62) In reflecting on the ideals in different ages we face the question on the back cover: ”Do gardens illustrate our efforts to impose order on the natural world? Or are they an attempt to transcend its natural order, and reach for something beyond?” In some cultures there seems to be a conscious striving towards ”paradise” or Eden. She also reflects on whether heavenly gardens inspire natural gardens or the other way around. The section ends with a description of Swedenborg’s own garden which he created at the same time as he wrote his theological works. A list of the plants in his gardens was found in the margin of a manuscript. (The inventory of Swedenborg’s garden is reproduced in an appendix on page 113.) We know that he found great pleasure working there. However, his garden was nothing unique. ”As far as we know, Swedenborg did not edit his garden to mirror the things he saw in heaven. He did not need to. All Swedenborg had to do was to engage with the physical world from spiritual intent, and the locks sprung open on the treasure chests of meaning.” (page 87)
This inspiring study ends with a few reflections. First-hand experience of gardens can increase our appreciation for the gardens we read about in poetry or history. Gardening for Kristin is ”to commune with nature, … to identify with nature but also to transcend it. What truly blossoms in gardens…is human consciousness.” But what can we do with all our reflections? How can we use them? We can experiment as we like, so long as we keep our minds open to heaven and remember that it is God’s artistry and life that flows through our gardens. So whether gardeners or those who appreciate gardens, we can learn ”to care for and value this natural world as the footstool of heaven, thus preparing for a homecoming beautiful beyond words”. (page 95)
Dr King’s essay has been published by the Swedenborg Society in a handsome volume designed by Stephen McNeilly, and edited by James Wilson. There are end-notes and a bibliography for those who would like to research the subject further.
Josephine Appelgren is a long standing member of the Swedenborg Society’s Advisory and Revisions Board.