Friday, June 05, 2009

Third nature

In Garden Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory, John Dixon Hunt identifies the cultural landscape (agriculture, urban development, roads etc.) with Cicero's 'second nature.' In De natura deorum Cicero wrote "We sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilize the soil by irrigation, we dam the rivers and direct them where we want. In short, by means of our hands we try to create as it were a second nature within the natural world." 'First nature' - wilderness - is the realm of the gods, but it is also the raw material for second nature. John Dixon Hunt thinks that Cicero's formulation would have been in the mind of Jacopo Bonfadio when he wrote in 1541 to a fellow humanist that gardens make a 'third nature, which I would not know how to name.' Later in the century, another humanist Bartolomeo Taegio also used the term 'terza natura' in describing gardens.

Frontispiece to l'Abbé de Vallemont's Curiositez de la nature et de l'art (1705)

The illustration here shows a distant mountain (first nature) giving way to cultivated agricultural land (second nature) and then a formal garden (third nature). The transition is reversed in the foreground - garden, regularly planted trees, waste ground. Gardens have usually, as here, been contiguous with second nature, but sometimes they have been created directly from first nature - early American gardens carved out of the 'wilderness' for example, like Middleton Place in South Carolina. According to John Dixon Hunt, gardens have tended to represent within their own areas aspects of the three natures. In the garden above, for example, the fountain echoes the mountain spring and the cultivated garden beds can be related to the fields beyond the hedge.

Charles Jencks suggests that underneath these three natures there is 'what I have called 'zero nature', the planet, that level of nature that interests me particularly--the cosmos, its laws, the underlying physics.... The Nobel Laureate, the chemist Ilya Prigogine, often spoke about the new sciences of complexity as being 'in a dialogue with nature' because they revealed the dynamic processes of feedback and change over time. This transformation is the essence of a garden, and those I am constructing are chiefly engaged with presenting zero nature in conversation with the others. Often this discourse is carried out, literally, with letters, phrases, a rebus, and unfolding DNA codes in short, an iconography referring to zero nature built with non-living matter, or sculpture.'


Benjamin Vogt said...

I'm a fan of this conversation and garden theory, but this zero nature stuff seems a bit, oh, fluff. Someone too concerned with posturing and carving out a piece o the pi for themselves (I see this in language poetry in the ivory towers all the time). Zero nature, it seems to me by its very nature, is not zero at all, but a the dimension in flux and intertwining among all three natures. Look at that, I'm playing the fluff game.

Plinius said...

I know what you mean, although I think it's OK as a description of the particular garden motifs Jencks is creating. But it doesn't seem to have much wider applicability.

Mark said...

People ask me why I named my company what I did, which is nicely described by your post. The idea of a more holistic or maybe integrated third nature bringing in an aesthetic concept is appealing and works on many levels. Now I can just point people to your explanation of the background :-)