June 25, 2024

The Garden Against Time

By Olivia Laing
In the inspirational The Garden Against Time, Olivia Laing restores a long-neglected garden, and makes a case for sharing our outdoor spaces.
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The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise demands to be read outside: in a garden, if you have one, or a public park, if you don’t. Author Olivia Laing is keenly aware of the differences between these settings. Gardens, she contends, should be a common right for everyone, but are all too often places of exclusion and privilege, a paradise for the few. 

“Paradise,” we learn, is a word derived from Persian for a “walled garden,” and Laing makes a compelling case for gardens as both utopian and earthly settings. She foregrounds The Garden Against Time in her work of restoring a historic garden in Suffolk, England, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and reaches back to the larger history of English gardens and gardening. With wit and generosity, Laing details how the work of weeding and clearing, and the thrill of discovering a half-buried iris bulb emerging from leaf cover, offers solace for heartache. 

Some earthly paradises, such as many of the 18th-century English estates designed by Capability Brown, were built with power and exclusion in mind, creating private Edens for aristocrats. Some were funded by the exploitation and brutality of slavery. Researching the history of Shrubland Hall in Suffolk, for example, Laing unearths a history of the Middleton family, whose fortune derived from the plantation economy in South Carolina. 

Other English gardens celebrate the idea that vegetal beauty is a human right. Laing’s focus on William Morris’ socialist gardens and Derek Jarman’s queer utopian garden, created while the filmmaker was dying of AIDS, movingly document the restorative function of gardening in hard times. In her own work repairing a long-neglected garden, Laing finds solace for the anxieties of the pandemic and family trauma. The Garden Against Time wears its erudition lightly, interweaving garden history with the cyclical work of planning and planting, decay and rebirth. It will inspire readers to get outside, shears in hand, to tend their own gardens, and invite others in. 

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