Text Messages | Nature and the psyche

Cicero’s words on the sanctity of gardens and libraries ring ever truer as the destruction of natural habitats continues unabated.

Gardens have a particular place in the human psyche. Given the biblical story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, it is impossible to underestimate the power that gardens hold both in the popular imagination and the conceptual imaginary.

Among the most famous musings on the garden is that of Cicero (106-43 BCE), the Roman orator, lawyer, statesman and prodigious writer of letters. In a letter to one of his most frequent correspondents, Marcus Terentius Varro, considered the most erudite and prolific author of the day, Cicero writes: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.” 

In translation, that has become one of the most contested lines in Latin letters. A literal reading yields: “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will fail.” 

Putting it more elegantly, in a version favoured by the New York Public Library, gives: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Food for mind and body

The great Cicero scholar DR Shackleton Bailey renders it as: “If you have a kitchen garden in your library, we shall lack for nothing.” He then notes, “Having food for both mind and body. Even so a rather obscure remark.”

There is, it’s true, a gulf between “a kitchen garden in your library” and “a garden and a library”, but the sentiment remains: a garden is a good thing to have, so good that with it and a library you will want for nothing.

A place of serenity and renewal, in which nature cultivated or wild flourishes, the garden is essentially always Edenic. That sense of it extends to vast swathes of nature that remain unspoilt or are preserved by being declared reserves. Both forms are increasingly rare.

But in a world driven by consumption, reserving nature does not preserve it. Take the horrific case of the Yanomami indigenous reserve in the north of the Brazilian Amazon. It is Brazil’s largest reserve, larger than Portugal, invaded in the 1980s by illegal miners and under the same threat once more.

Forests that fall

Whereas the army used to turf out the miners, in the age of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro they are letting them in. Bolsonaro has even promised to legalise mining activities by introducing a special bill in parliament.

In battling the destruction of forests, literature and the arts have in some senses been ahead of activists. To take only two recent examples, there are the animated films Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and Princess Mononoke (1997). In the first, logging and a malignant power named Hexxus (voiced by Tim Curry) are set to destroy the forest and its inhabitants. In the second, there is a disturbance of nature’s harmony and the compact between gods, humans, animals and spirits.

Princess Mononoke sees young hero Ashitaka trying to cure the wound he received from a feral beast. As he seeks Shishigami, the Deer God Forest Spirit who can help him, Ashitaka witnesses humans devastating nature, and the enraged Wolf God Moro and his human companion Princess Mononoke striking back.

The thousands of pictures from which these two remarkable and poignant films are made are worth watching or rewatching. Through the simplest and yet most profound of tales, they capture the essence of the climate armageddon that humankind has brought on itself. 

They also show the truth of the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words and in doing so form the most eloquent of text-like messages. As Cicero almost said: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

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