Saturday, September 22, 2012

Iconoclasm: the urge to purge (in gardens too)

What does a sixth century mosaic have to do with present day gardening in America? The connection at first blush is tenuous--but first let me say that this impeccable mosaic, nearly 1600 years old, is as fresh and perfect and precisely the way it has looked from the day it was finished. I hope one day I might have a chance to visit the Monastery of St. Catherine's and gaze up (as Crusaders did six hundred years ago, as monks have continuously for nearly two millenia) at this startling depiction of Christ's transiguration.

What haunts me about this mosaic is that it is only one of what must have been thousands of similar mosaics that would have decorated churches and cathedrals at the time across the empire of Justinian...the so-called Byzantine empire ("byzantine" is a word invented by a Frenchman a few centuries ago to characterize the latter Roman empire based in "Byzance"--i.e. Byzantium--and old name for Rum (the proper name for Constantinople, the Polis ("στην πόλη"), hence Istanbul). Justinian built vast numbers of such monuments in his reign, I suspect most were as stunningly adorned....not to mention those of his predecessors and immediate successors.

What happened to all of them? Two periods of violent "Εἰκονομαχία"--Iconoclasm in English, centered in Rum from 730-787 and then again from 814 and 842 led to vast numbers of icons of all sorts, frescoes and mosaics being demolished across the Empire. I cannot begin to imagine the effort that went into scraping the walls of the myriad churches at the time--across all of Anatolia, North Africa, all of Greece, and the Near East--wherever obedient, Iconoclastic Orthodox dwelt. High on Mt. Sinai, a mosaic was overlooked. And in Ravenna (beyond the reach of iconoclasts), a very hint of what must have existed everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean has persisted in unbelievable glory in the swampland of northern Italy. There are numerous extraordinary churches and monuments in Ravenna filled with early Byzantine mosaics--the sort that were demolished across the Empire itself.

Here is one of the Ravenna gems: the image of Theodora, Justinian's wife. She was an adherent to Monophystism, which was subsequently declared a heresy after both she and Justinian were dead. In a nutshell: the Monophysites were primarily Near Eastern and African Christians who succumbed (rather willingly, perhaps) to the rapid conquest of Islam--likely because of their rejection from Orthodoxy in the 7th Century. Islam eschewed icons--which most scholars attribute the Orthodox responding by mimicking their hate of images, hence: iconoclasm.

I believe the urge to purge--whether art or people, be it be Jews in Germany in the 30's, the Stalinist imperative to eliminate kulaks, trotskyists, bourgeois elements, you name it in the same decade, the Tea Party hate for immigrants nowadays in America, or pogroms and witch hunts at any time and place--these are all brutal manifestations of the same sort of zeal for purity: iconoclasm.

I believe that the "native only" movement in horticulture shares the same sort of misguided energy: banish the iconic foreign plants from our gardens (rhododendrons in Seattle, say, or most everything we grow in Denver gardens) for the sake of the pristine, untrammeled beauty of nature.  This sort of misty eyed idealism inspires ordinances such as that proposed recently in Seattle. (I have hyperlinked the very ordinance in .pdf form for you to peruse in the last sentence, in case you missed that.) I am quoting the salient paragraphs below:

"Invasive plant species shall be prohibited from a building site.

"A plan shall be submitted to show that existing invasive species will be removed, and that 75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington. Said plan shall be prepared by a qualified professional or generated based upon published recommendations.

Existing native plant life shall be protected whenever possible."

I love the 75%: why not 85%? Or let's be cautious and put 50%...numbers pulled from the air (or perhaps other unmentionable places).

By "native" do we mean only plants that would have grown in the spot before "besmirching"? How do we determine just what they were? Does each home owner hire a botanist to generate a species list? Or do we simply use a Flora of the county? The state? So then one can revegetate a garden plot in Seattle with desert species from eastern Washington State because these are "native"?

Of course, the nativists have ready answers to all these questions--answers that are easy to poke holes in if you are a seasoned horticulturist like me, by the way! "Native" is of course a very relative and political term. Perhaps what they are alluding to is the primordial, "original" landscape--before it was mucked up by Europeans.

Of course, when certain tribes of East Asians wandered over the Bering Straits and proceeded to eliminate many dozens of species of megafauna over the next few millenia in North and South America--having who knows what consequences on the native flora--how does that factor in? Since we don't have a clue what the pre-human landscape really looked like.

In order to have truly "native" flora, shouldn't we factor in a few ground sloths, mammoths and mastodons--and perhaps a glyptodon for good measure? There is a potential we can reconstitute these from DNA splicing soon...

Ideally, perhaps, we should go back further, and reconstitute Quaternery landscapes: In Colorado's case we would suddenly find that almost all our present day street trees (elms, maples, walnuts, sycamores--even Ailanthus!) which are viewed as exotics now were once native! What to make of that?

Let us banish the art of gardening altogether! Who cares about a thousand years of breeding roses, irises, fruit trees and berries? Who cares about the passion so many have for exotic flowers...they should visit all of those where they are "native" too--perhaps. Let us scrape these off our gardens as efficiently as the iconoclasts destroyed a half century of Christian art.

Plants, alas, are not as durable as mosaic tesserae: I doubt that a Ravenna or St. Catherine's would persist in the realm of gardening if the native iconoclasts had their way with our garden spaces.

As much as I love and admire "nature" (as slippery a notion as art, poetry, love or God), I believe that urban and suburban landscapes (buildings, roads, traffic) so alter the landscape that there is no reasonable way to truly reconstitute exactly what came before (even if you knew--which frankly we really don't). I think nativists would be better employed to try preserving the tatters of "nature" left in ex-urban landscapes where cities, lumbering, farms and overgrazing have still left a few islands. Or perhaps try restoring degraded wild landscapes instead.

And what of gardens and the art of combining, breeding, selecting and treasuring the vast trove of plants humans have gathered and cherished over the millenia in gardens? Shall we simply trash these because you naturist Malvolios are so very virtuous? To trash gardens for "nature" is in my view as tragic as scraping the tesserae off the naves, apses and domes of countless churches (a grueling, violent and tragic act).

Keep your mitts and noses out of our private garden beds, please, you nasty iconoclasts!


  1. Hi Panayoti,

    Are you still writing posts for my benefit? LOL I have someone you should meet. His name is Stephen Packard. This fellow has employed more people to pull more 'malignant species' than anyone I know. He is also one of the most knowledgeable naturalists in the Midwest. You should read the post titled, "Weed? Alien? Invasive? Malignant?" on his blog. The link is below.

    I cannot really comment on the specifics of the Seattle ordinance since I do not live there. However, I do not find the passage of this ordinance surprising considering the politics of the area. I think it is well intentioned, but censusing every plant on every property will be impossible. I have always believed laws should only be passed if the responsible government entity can make at least a good faith effort to uphold it. This being said, I do encourage gardeners to use native species whenever possible.

    The fact is ... native species almost always grow better in a given area than species from a distant location. A plant that grows better looks better. I remember reading about a prominent figure in the Prairie School of Landscaping who said his biggest mistake was not using native plants right from the beginning. This being said, I do have many non-native (but non-invasive, non-malignant, or whatever) plants in my garden. I fuss over them and eventually kill many of them trying to keep them alive in an inhospitable foreign environment. I look at my garden and know that the plants there that will likely out live my caretaking are the hardy native species. When the areas I landscape are taken over by someone who does not have as much time for maintenance, I want the gardens to continue to thrive. Planning this aspect into my gardens turns them from a hobby into a legacy.



  2. I think you missed the subtext of my blog, James: I was comparing the desire for "nativists" to eliminate gardening as an art (as opposed to revegetation) to the Iconoclasts who destroyed thousands of beautiful mosaics because they were politically incorrect in their opinion. I believe the parallel is airtight: of course, if you hate images, scraping off a century old mosaic is the right thing to do (Just as the Taliban who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan thought they were right and righteous. I think it was a barbarous at (and I think the Seattle Ordinance is worthy of the Bamiyan barbarians). Would you defend the Taliban? Then you should condemn the nativist iconoclasts.

  3. Panayoti,

    I do not think the ordinance is really aimed at eliminating gardening as an art. I think the goal is to prevent individuals from harming the community as a whole. Private landowners through simple neglect, or in rare cases intentional malice, have been known to create safe havens from which invasive species repeatedly spread to neighboring properties. The economic damage from these invasions and the cost of control efforts are a great expense to both governments and private individuals. I do not think comparing people who advocate for the control of economically damaging weeds to Iconoclasts, Taliban, Stalinists, or Nazis sways public support toward your argument.

    I think including native plantings in new construction is a good idea. It costs less to maintain than lawn and creates habitat for wildlife. The Sears Headquarters in Hoffman Estates, IL has been landscaped with native plants. This landscape not only provides multi-season interest and is sustainable, it also helps make a corridor between two otherwise separated preserves for rare wildlife species. I do not think this ordinance will result in less garden space. I think it will result in less high cost lawn which usually never even gets used on corporate campuses.

    I am including a link to an EPA site that gives information about the Sears Headquarters and other native landscaping projects.



  4. Tea Party members are not against immigration, but they are against illegal immigration. President Obama's diatribe on immigration some while back was as straw horse. He either missed the boat all together or was trying to garner support among legal immigrants.

  5. The Tea Party is an ideological movement rather than a precise set doctrine let alone principles: those within ideological movements perceive themselves as reasonable. So do all those I decry in my diatribe: the iconoclasts thought they were the very soul of good sense and decency: and they did imeasurable damage nonetheless (at least in my book). Mr. Anonymous--you missed the point! But if you are a Tea Partier, you would.

    Νίψον ἀνομήματα μὴ μόναν ὄψιν

    You should be aware that one denotation of anonymous is "sinner".


Featured Post

A garden near lake Tekapo

The crevice garden of Michael Midgley Just a few years old, this crevice garden was designed and built by Michael Midgley, a delightful ...

Blog Archive