Playing God in Small Spaces? the Ecology of the Suburban Garden in South Africa and the Poetry of Mariss Everitt

By Wylie, Dan | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Playing God in Small Spaces? the Ecology of the Suburban Garden in South Africa and the Poetry of Mariss Everitt


Wylie, Dan, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

This article seeks to address an apparent paucity of scholarly attention in two interrelated areas: a lack of detailed attention to the ecology of the suburban garden in South African urbanisation studies; and a dearth of attention to the suburban garden as locus and trope in South African literature. By briefly surveying urbanplanning and related studies, and then focusing on the experiential and phenomenological dimensions of the garden poems of Mariss Everitt, the article hopes to articulate a space within which urban ecocriticism can take firmer root in local literary scholarship, and in future branch out to interdisciplinary urbanisation studies.

Opsomming

Hierdie artikel wil 'n duidelike gebrek aan wetenskaplike aandag in twee verbandhoudende areas hanteer. Die areas is: 'n gebrek aan volledige aandag aan die ekologie van die voorstedelike tuin in Suid-Afrikaanse verstedelikingstudies; en 'n skaarste aan aandag aan die voorstedelike tuin as 'n Iokus en klimaat in Suid- Afrikaanse literatuur. Deur kortliks 'n opname van stadsbeplanning en verwante studies te maak, en dan op die ervarings- en fenomenologiese dimensies van Mariss Everitt se tuingedigte te fokus, hoop die artikel om 'n spasie waarin stedelike ekokritiek sterker in die plaaslike literate vakgeleerdheid kan standhou, uit te spreek, en in die toekoms na interdissiplinere verstedelikingstudies uit te brei.

We were mightily surprised to lind one of the loveliest and most curious Gardens that I ever saw in a Country that looks to be one of the most dismal and barren places in the world .... The Beauty of it consists not, as in France, in Compartments, in beds of Flowers, nor Waterworks .... By the disposition of the Walks this garden is divided into several indifferent big Squares, some of which are as full of Fruit-trees, and amongst them, besides Apple-Trees, Pear-Trees, Quince-Trees, Apricot-Trees and other excellent Fruits of Europe, you have also Ananas, Banana-Trees and several others that bear the rarest Fruits to be found in the several parts of the World .... The other Squares are sown with roots, Pulse and Herbs, and with some of the most esteemed Flowers of Europe, and others that we know not, which are of a singular good Smell and Beauty.

(Fairbridge 1924: 3)

Thus Pere Tachard, visiting Simon van der Stel's garden in the Cape of Good Hope in 1685. His description initiates and foreshadows some key tropes in treatments of the small garden in South Africa's future--especially the sense of carving out an order of cosmopolitan beauty and fruition from an essentially hostile environment, one both indebted to and distinctly different from the garden order of the metropoles. Dorothea Fairbridge, who quotes the passage in her 1924 book Gardens of South Africa, continues this colonial ambivalence in certain ways, only to loftily dismiss it:

[L]et us cut ourselves loose from the thought that we can achieve nothing better than an inadequate copy of the gardens of other countries. Let us take example by all that is best in those gardens, in so far as they are suitable to South African conditions, but let us free ourselves from the convention that insists upon gardening after stereotyped models, regardless of fitness or chance of success.... [l]n spite of conventional ideals and happy-go-lucky methods, kind Nature sees to it that many Cape gardens are very beautiful. Where lovely things grow riotously in a setting of blue sky and sea, at the foot of a grey and purple mountain deep in Silver-trees and the rich green of Pines, criticism fades into a passion of delight....

(Fairbridge 1924: 43-44)

For Fairbridge, as for most gardeners, no doubt, the "passion of delight" is central to the experience. What constitutes such delight is enmeshed in a matrix of imported imperial aesthetics wrestling with the impress of both non-European and indigenous species: an aesthetic, emotional and sensuous negotiation comes to constitute a peculiar sense of belonging in foreign territory.

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