The Forest in the Garden

Literature often gives us pairs of similar images with sharply contrasting implications or referents. In the symbolic vocabulary of an earlier age, the garden, with all its Edenic connotations, was a symbol of safety, confinement, order, and harmony. The language of medieval love poetry is filled with gardens representing the beloved. The very term “paradise” is ultimately a reference to a garden: the Greek παράδεισος is itself a borrowing from a Persian term that referred to the enclosed royal parks and gardens of the Great King. Latin lyric and elegiac poetry abounds with references to the locus amoenus — literally, “a pleasant place”, but virtually always represented as a garden. It is a commonplace that gardens symbolize repose and cultivated order. A garden is a place of nurture, where reason and intelligence are imposed upon nature. The cloisters of the mediaeval monastery were the dominant foci of intellectual life for a thousand years. So it is perhaps not too surprising that gardens often also symbolize education and nurture at every level, from Stevenson’s rather precious A Child’s Garden of Verses to the lapidary prose of John Donne, who in one of his sermons (XIV, preached at Whitehall, March 4, 1624), writes:

The university is a paradise, rivers of knowledge are there, arts and sciences flow from thence. Council tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are fontes signati, wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable councils there.

Many may recall that quotation from the beginning of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

The garden metaphor is often expressed in the physical surroundings of an educational institution. One thing people look for in a college is an attractive campus. Even people who seem to like chrome and steel everywhere else seem to agree that the most beautiful colleges resemble gardens, or series of gardens, into which are set appealingly weathered buildings overgrown with carefully maintained and trimmed ivy. It is generally thought (and not without reason) that an attractive and restful environment is especially conducive to deep and serious study. But even without physical reinforcement — where there are no cultivated plots of green, aimless walks, or manicured parterres, the metaphor has a certain strength. It speaks to us of the quiet from which we go forth. There is something womblike about it; it is associated with childhood, the preparation before the conflict.

Forests are not so. Though they share certain obvious similarities as places of growth and fertility, they have been seen, especially before we came (arrogantly) to presume that we had tamed nature, as places of peril. They were dark, trackless, and filled with dangerous beasts. In the romance narratives of the Middle Ages, going into the forest betokened confrontation with God and with one’s innermost self. In Sondheim’s 1986 musical “Into the Woods”, the forest is a place where one must go perforce — and from which one also must return. Forests are uncultivated, unpredictable, and chaotic. The 13th century romance that now goes by the name of The Quest of the Holy Grail describes how the quest begins:

The next morning at daybreak the companions rose, and taking their arms, went off to hear mass in a chapel within the walls. This done, they mounted their horses and commended the lord of the place to God’s keeping, thanking him earnestly for the great honour he had shown them. Then they rode out from the castle and separated as they had decided amongst themselves, striking out into the forest one here, one there, wherever they saw it thickest and wherever path or track was absent. And even those men who fancied themselves hard and proud shed tears at this leave-taking. (Tr. P. M. Matarasso)

Nathaniel Hawthorne depicted forests as places of spiritual peril: it is in the woods outside of town that Young Goodman Brown sees what he sees (or was it a dream?) In the woods, too, Hester Prynne commits the sin for which she is compelled to wear the scarlet letter; and part of her punishment is living in a house at the fringe of the town, always at the margin of the woods. Tolkien’s Mirkwood is a place of festering overgrowth and danger; his Lothlórien is all the more dangerous for the ancient power that lives there. The forest is not a safe place — not in reality, and not in imagery.

Most parents — and many homeschooling parents in particular — express a lot of anxiety that our schools are not safe. And of course I concur that we don’t want schools infested with gangs and drugs and gun-toting psychopaths. But the notion that school is a safe place or a safe undertaking, for that matter, is at some level necessarily false.

The garden and the forest are inextricably entwined. This is not just because there is a lurking snake in the grass at every turn, or because academic institutions have a dark underside. One could talk about that, of course — and many have. Those are (if common) at least accidental. But in every garden there lurks an essential wildness, and in any academic undertaking there is an irreducible kernel of high peril.

This is not just abstract talk. There is nothing more dangerous you can do with your children than educating them. Education produces ideas; ideas have results. Not all of those ideas are good, and the results can range into territory that at least a believing Christian would believe are of infinitely greater moment and gravity even than physical peril. In teaching our children we are forming their souls — shaping them, as C. S. Lewis argues in “The Weight of Glory”.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

If this is true of our neighbor (and I firmly believe that it is), how much more so of the children we have engaged to teach, on whom our influence is much greater than on any of our other fellow creatures? We are forming minds; we are also forming souls. The stakes are as high as any we normally encounter, and yet the results are not completely in our hands, and even those parts that are under our control are largely over uncharted terrain. We will occasionally botch the job. There will be consequences: there always are. We will hurt our children. (They will hurt us too, but what of that?)

True education is a real encounter. It cannot be faked or falsified; it cannot be prepared or anticipated. The moments when the real education happens may — and sooner or later will — rattle one’s secure vision of oneself down to the ground.

There is a lot of specious education going on in the world today. There always has been. There have always been facile ways of simulating the fruits of the genuine process. They seldom hold up under intense scrutiny, but they often satisfy those who want an easy route: a guaranteed pattern of success. But God does not promise us a safe passage, or even to safeguard us from doing harm ourselves, with the best of intentions. But He is with us there at the heart of the enterprise, and has shown us in the improbable economy of grace that even our most horrendously botched jobs can be redeemed. Therein lies our hope.

— Bruce McMenomy


  1. The harmony of a garden is both its initial attraction and final inadequacy. The womb-like safety of an institution, whether it be academic like a school, or a bond like a family, protects you. The walls surrounding the son or student protect him, but also inhibit the organic primal influence of life. Call it the forest if you like…perhaps a jungle would be a better symbol (a la Conrad). There will come a point when preparation is put to the test, when the garden walls are torn apart by the strong roots of the forest. A parent’s job is not to protect a child from harm (a rather naive undertaking) but to form a child that has a strength and sensitivity of character. While you train in the garden, you must prepare for the forest.

  2. I don’t know if you (or anyone) checks these old blogs now; but just in case you do I’ll copy here a beautiful poem by Auden about the difference between garden and forest, and how one should behave in each. (It’s the 2nd sestina in Kairos and Logos. How masterful, how transparent Auden’s sestinas are!)

    Quite suddenly her dream became a word:
    There stood the unicorn, declaring “Child”;
    She kissed her dolls good-bye and one by one
    Embraced the faithful roses in the garden,
    Waved for the last time to her mother’s home,
    And tiptoed out into the silent forest.

    And seemed the lucky, the predestined one
    For whom the stones made way without a word;
    And sparrows fought to make her feel at home,
    And winds restrained their storms before the child;
    And all the children of that mother-forest
    Were told to let her treat it as her garden.

    Till she forgot that she was not at home
    Where she was loved, of course, by everyone,
    Could always tell the rose-bush “Be a forest.”
    Or make dolls guess when she had thought a word,
    Or play at being Mother in the garden
    And have importance as her only child.

    So, scampering like a sparrow through the forest,
    She piled up stones, pretending they were Home,
    Called the wild roses that she picked “My Garden,”
    Made any wind she chose the Naughty One,
    Talked to herself as to a doll, a child
    Whose mother-magic knew the Magic Word.

    And took the earth for granted as her garden:
    Till the day came the children of the forest
    Ceased to regard or treat her as a child;
    The roses frowned at her untidy home,
    The sparrows laughed when she misspelt a word,
    Winds cried: “A mother should behave like one.”

    Frightened and cruel like a guilty child,
    She shouted all the roses from her garden,
    And threw stones at the winds: without a word
    The unicorn slipped off into the forest
    Like an offended doll, and one by one
    The sparrows flew back to her mother’s home.

    Of course the forest overran her garden,
    Yet, though, like everyone, she lost her home,
    The Word still nursed Its motherhood, Its child.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.