Machine in the

Celestial Garden

The idea that humankind might alter existing celestial bodies to suit our own purposes, turning their dead, toxic, and otherwise useless expanses into habitable biospheres, is a possibility acknowledged by fiction writers and NASA engineers alike. The process, known as terraforming, is a seemingly radical prospect that tests our understanding (and acceptance) of the control man may wield over his environment. But curating ecosystems for maximum habitability and beauty is hardly a radical concept---in fact, it is the human way. In past times, we've simply called it gardening.


As in any garden, we would not waste resources in sculpting precise replicas of earth's ecologies upon the moon. Rather, we would trim and edit the terrestrial model, eliminating where possible that which we find inefficient, or undesirable. And surely, somewhere in the stark contrast between the rational geometry of our machines and the marvelous organic forms they cultivate, we would find tremendous beauty.


Beauty is a crucial factor in the manufacture of landscape. The ideal human ecosystem must be not only useful, but also beautiful -- and we must spare no expense, for a life without beauty is one devoid of humanity, a soulless existence.


Even in the early stages of space exploration, we've been reminded that plants fulfill more than our need for food and oxygen: astronauts who have participated in NASA cultivation experiments over long mission periods in space have reported a deep sense of fulfillment from the ability to interact with "something green."


Humankind has always been most at home in the garden. The manicured landscape, engineered for both comfort and art, is the ideal habitat of a species that has neither the time nor instincts to grapple with the demands of the wild. What it does have, however, is an exacting eye for the beautiful, a poetic vision easily seduced and compelled to metaphor. Historically, we prefer nature to be loveable -- that is, neutered and groomed.



The manicured landscape affords us a sense of security, a sense of harmony with the non-human. Our sense of beauty is derived from rationality, or from the contrast between rational and irrational. The labor of the farmer and the gardener brings order to the disorder of green nature, creating landscapes to which we may be enlightened and delighted observers to nature while remaining once removed, sheltered by the man-made envelope of rationalism.


From the hope for this idealized version of nature, from the desire to be in love with nature rather than to fight it, arises an entire historical ethos: "the pastoral." It was an artistic, literary, even political mode that arose from ancient western history and dominated the American psychology toward landscape from Thomas Jefferson's time through the late 19th century. Long afterward, in 1964, Leo Marx's deeply insightful book the Machine in the Garden characterized the pastoral as America's most persistent sentimental indulgence, and its most revealing artistic device.


The idea of the pastoral as a cultural mode, significant enough to be employed as a vehicle of historical inquiry, was explored again by Paul Shepard in his eco-political history of mankind, published only a few years after Marx's work. Shepard characterized the garden as a consistency among all cultures, one that "measures the unique experience of each society as it confronts nature." By abstracting nature, he argued, the garden has often "revealed less about the natural world than about man's psychology toward his environment, and his understanding of space as a sculptural form."


If the garden of the coming era is that of the terraformed moon -- or in less dramatic terms, micro-environments such as Biomass Production Chambers, what to they reveal of our junction with the non-human?


In present times, the 'pastoral ethos' is understood largely as Leo Marx portrayed it in caricature -- as a "nostalgic primitivism," a shallow and idealistic conception of nature. But that may be because we believe we've left the garden far behind. In a world where Romanticism often precludes meaning, and where there is no more 'wilderness' by which to compare it, the concept of the garden -- that fantasy landscape in-between -- is of little critical interest. But what new meaning does the image take on when we presume that "the garden" has not disappeared, but instead been clinically re-christened the man-altered landscape?


The persistence of the garden fantasy is easily studied today in the vibrant evolution of the urban park; from Frederick Law Olmstead's Central Park to the High Line, the revered green spaces of our cities are an attempt to reconcile green nature with the industrial and the urban.


Across the United States, the renovation of 19th century railroad lines into bike trails and park land is a growing trend, and a fascinating inversion of a pastoral motif -- that of the steam locomotive disrupting the calm of the rural landscape. Leo Marx survays the appearance of the train throughout American literature as an encapsulating symbol of the pastoral, a harbinger of the city and its transgressions. Now, the cities are built, the railroad itself outmoded, and in its place are serene ribbons of nature through our urban centers. We delight in the rejuvinating qualities of these "green spaces." Urban park design is a quest for paradise in the garden that began in Babylon.


More abstractly, perhaps, are certain interstate medians which may be recognized as unintentional acts of gardening. There, between northbound and southbound, the shady grove and speckled meadow remain picturesque, deliniating in crisp slices. They are living, breathing ecosystems, pressed into geometric molds and appreciated (if at all) as fleeting scenery. Many American states have enacted highway wildflower programs to further decorate these in-between spaces. However, it's significant to note that flowers are planted not just for aesthetic delight, but also because they're much easier to maintain than endless streaks of lawn. Here the rationality of mankind and the disorder of the meadow intersect cunningly: flowered medians look wild, but have been made in the image of wilderness to suit economics. On the other hand, there is nothing counterfeit about them; that they are man-made does not make them less real, or less beautiful.


It is possible for the garden to be more than passing-lane scenery. Though Leo Marx characterized the pastoral as a wish-image of idealists throughout western history, an "inchoate longing," he also identified it as a rich repository of meaning and value. And its symbolism is still familiar to all of us. Long before the serpentine train hissed through Emerson's forest, bringing with it the evils of the industrial world, there was another garden narrative. Eden is, by Christian account, the first of all stories, and the first of many gardens.

























To posit that humanity was born in the garden was to name its utmost significance, and in this way the long-hackneyed story of Adam and Eve remains a rich symbolic compass.


Today, however, we might identify the pastoral most closely not with Emerson or even Eden, but with its most infamous caricature: the Rococo. In 18th century France, Antione Watteau, Jean-Honore Fragonard, and Francois Boucher painted images that have become synonymous with the doomed aristocracy, depicting its delicious excess in sensual paintings where leaves are seldom distinguishable from lace. Recalling Botticelli, Rococo painting relied on the perfection of its minute details; one can count the lap dogs' whiskers, peep at dozens of layers of chiffon, and admire the fall of light upon each perfect flower. It was a means to an end: the more convincingly succulent the images, the more complete their fantasy.


Art of the Rococo was soaked in the French aristocracy's complacency, and their sense of entitlement to an idealistically beautiful nature. The result was the depiction of landscape reduced to decor -- seductive images permeated with sexual innuendo, and little else. For this conceit, the Rococo is perhaps the most despised movement in western art history. But could it not be argued that the latency of landscape in art of the 20th century stemmed from a similar lack of concern for the natural world? The modern age was a time in which land was ripe for harvest, and resources seemed perfectly limitless. Art therefore championed more pressing subjects -- those of technology, social progress, and abstraction -- and (with notable exceptions) landscape fell from prominence as a meaningful artistic subject.


In the past several decades however, the growing awareness of climate change and a sense of ecological crisis has quickened a new vanguard of land-based art. So what meaning might earlier vocabularies of landscape theory offer us now? If today -- as it was in the Rococo, the garden is not a critically meaningful motif, how might it become so? While issues of land use and ecology are of burgeoning importance, we don't yet know how to depict them in our art and literature. How can the image of the garden be more than old-fashioned idealism, but rather a useful metaphor for describing the man-altered landscapes of present and future?


Art has always been the way to grapple with such metaphors, and art of all times has shown us that beauty and meaning are best illuminated in contrasts; the grace of countless unexpected forms has been revealed to us by the play of light and shadow in works of art. Contrast is also an essential principle of good gardening; the beauty of the garden lies in the proximity of the geometric, trimmed, and man-made with the unkempt, fecund, and wild. And a straight path through cumulus herb and vine is not unlike the rush of the loud interstate through a rural landscape . . .There's a reason the pastoral ideal found it's climax at the dawn of the industrial age; the serenity of the forest was only appreciated when pierced by the scream of the train whistle.


What will the dawn of the space age bring? What is the screaming machine in the celestial garden?


The cultivation of the moon would bring unprecedented aesthetic juxtapositions of the technological and the natural. Already, NASA's vegetable growth experiments have given us surreal images of candy-colored plant matter that are both scientifically thrilling and seductively beautiful. Science fiction and the pastoral, it seems, are not such disparate modes. Science fiction relies on our anxious romance with technology, while the pastoral relies on our anxious romance with the natural, rural, and agrarian. Both are based within the wish-image of a certain landscape: one is staged in outer space, and the other in the garden. In the image of the cultivated moon, these environments are synthesized.


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