The politics of bare soil

I am sure that this isn’t original or new, but I found myself mulling – at length – on the subject of bare soil, whilst weeding – at length – bare soil. What, I found myself asking, is the point? Not of the weeding, after all weeding is all about ‘vegetable hygiene’ and allowing the plants one wants to retain the upper hand over those which would otherwise run amok. No, what is the point of the bare soil?

And the bare soil I am thinking about here is not the earth awaiting plants, the dug-over plot, the seed bed anticipating the sower. I am thinking of the soil which is kept permanently devoid of growth, permanently bare (indeed, barren) for effect. This is not – at least not in mild, moist, lowland maritime western Europe – a natural state for the earth to possess. It exists only as the product of effort, of sustained physical labour.

Bare soil seems to say two things at least, and maybe more. One is that there is no need to cultivate it. The bare soil speaks (ironically) of abundance and surfeit, of having more land than one quite knows what to do with. It is ostentatious in its resistance to the green which would otherwise overtake it. ‘Look,’ it says, ‘I have land aplenty. I have no need to extract vegetable growth from every last corner.’ It is to this extent the antithesis of the cottage garden and the potager (and the majority of domestic gardens), which are crammed to the edges with plants – flowers, vegetables, salads and the rest.

The other thing it says is that the owner has the resources to expend on keeping it bare. Just as a manicured lawn is a sterile, labour-intensive enterprise, so too is the bare earth surrounding a specimen tree or shrub. It takes the business of gardening to an extreme whereby it replaces the efforts of growing things with the greater effort of stopping things from growing.

Of course, there is an aesthetic dimension too. The single tree or shrub surrounded by a blank bed of earth is allowed to stand for itself. To this extent the bare earth is a frame, a surround. It both contains and contrasts, focusing the gaze on the object we are meant to look at.

It is, therefore, no accident that this aesthetic belongs to the formal, aristocratic style of gardening. It rejoices in a kind of reverse excess, whereby land and labour are devoted to the cultivation of nothing.

In this context, perhaps, the weeds can be seen as the sans-culottes of the garden, struggling to possess the empty space, to occupy the void and make it their verdant own?

And the gardener, whose side am I on?

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