A major theme with standard English gardening, without most people realizing it, is the promotion and proliferation of ancient mysteries. I’m not talking about actual mysteries, but the simulation of them. Aged, moss-covered sculptures, partial walls, arranged boulders and standing stones…there’s something deep and very unsettling, yet fascinating, about giving the hint of a deep history to a large garden area. Oh, with traditional English gardening styles, it’s cleaned up and organized, but that’s no different from how Maya noblemen used Olmec jewelry components for their own use. The Maya knew almost nothing about the Olmec other than what they discovered throughout their territories, and we aren’t much different today: even the name “Olmec” is a convenient term used for a lack of their real name, and famed archaeologist Michael D. Coe argues that we may never know this people’s real name.
And so what does this have to do with gardening? That depends utterly upon whether one wants to try something new. Trying to copy ancient artifacts and structures is entertaining enough, especially if you have the time and resources to build your own henges and megaliths. But what about picturing artifacts and structures from the near future, and incorporating that into a garden environment that suggested that these items were already ancient?
This isn’t exactly new. This sort of monument has already been suggested as a sign of hope, as with the Georgia Guidestones. And then there’s the Lovecraftian horror of proposals by Sandia Laboratories to keep humans away from nuclear waste burial sites until the waste therein is relatively safe. And then there’s the point-blank delusional, as with all of the stories of ancient history behind “America’s Stonehenge”. All elicit that overwhelming mystery. Even with the Sandia Labs’ artists’ proposals, anybody with a modicum of imagination can look over the drawings and immediately start answering what-if stories in their heads. “What if this isn’t a burial site for plutonium-contaminated footwear? What if this was the gravesite of something so horrific, something caught in the distant past by powers unknown to us, that merely digging anywhere near it will release that thing? And what if we forget the message and the signs, and do it anyway?”
A lot of these thoughts coalesced when Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster posted a photo on Facebook that started a slow roiling boiling in my subconscious. For the Day Job, I already work in an area where my co-workers and I get into lively arguments about imagery and symbolism with non-literary messages and warnings. Talk to five usability experts, and you’ll get five different infodumps of feedback on symbol design. It’s hard even to keep consistency on what sort of symbols are used in which situation, and then there’s the issue with symbols that keep getting used even though the original meaning is obsolete. Look at any video or audio interface today and note how the “rewind” and “fast forward” symbols haven’t changed since the earliest days of wire and tape recorders. In another fifty years, we’ll probably still use them, even though the physical music and video storage technology that used it will be as quaint as black-and-white CRT televisions.
Likewise, look at this and try to figure out what it’s from. It’s remarkably easy to make jokes about the meaning, such as “Rocking reading and tunes are not edible” and “don’t shoot the midget”, but it takes a bit of effort to figure out what these pictograms mean. Then consider that these were ones chosen specifically to help people who couldn’t read, or couldn’t read the dominant language in the area. If this was dropped on you right now, would you be able to tell, without assistance, that this intended to say “Warning! Read the instruction manual. Use eye and ear protection. Do not aim toward face. Do not use close to people, especially children.”?
And here’s where the mystery comes in. Finding this on the side of a gas tank for a leaf blower or Weedeater is confusing enough. If you found this column carved in stone or concrete, weathered and moss-encrusted for decades or even centuries, would you get the same message? Why would you get that message, and what if carving it into rock gave a completely different symbolism than intended?
And that’s where the mystery comes in. Picture someone walking through your garden and coming across a cracked and lichen-encrusted slab of granite or concrete with this legend on the top. How badly would it mess with their heads, especially if your only answer to their questions was “What do you think it means? I don’t know about anybody else, but it means to me “It’s time to start practicing my concrete-carving skills, because I can only imagine what this would do to anybody living in this house after I’m gone.”
— The author wishes to thank Amanda Thomsen for sending me down a very dark and fascinating path with this photo, and for giving me permission to reuse it. One of these days, I’ll return the favor.