Olivia Laing on the politics of gardens: ‘A garden is a rebel state’

Olivia Laing in their Suffolk garden (Sandra Mickiewicz)
Olivia Laing in their Suffolk garden (Sandra Mickiewicz)

Until I read Olivia Laing’s new book, my ideas about gardens were limited and somewhat basic. I am fortunate to have a garden and I’d rather be outside rootling about than doing almost anything else, but, as a subject, I associated gardens with notions of convention, conservatism, neatness. A little bit staid.

The Garden Against Time is Laing’s seventh book, following the novel Crudo, and five wide-ranging, critically acclaimed non-fiction books, exploring the power of art, loneliness, alcohol and writers, water and bodily freedoms. Their latest sees the writer restore a walled garden in Suffolk.  Alongside this journey, which is recounted in intoxicating sensory detail, they weave a flow of material which explores ideas of the garden in Western cultural history: as Edens of beauty, refuge and radical politics, but also sites that have been used to sugar-coat the seizure of common land and the horrors of British colonialism. Most powerfully, Laing presents a radical vision for the garden in today’s time of ecological crisis.

We speak on a sunny spring day, the morning of the launch of the book at The Garden Museum in London, and Laing is telling me about their language choices. The book is filled with beautiful looping sentences, resplendent descriptions and specific botanical language. Fastigiate. Stolon. Helical… The language is rich, just like the sensuous flowers and plants and ecosystems they depict.

“Even though I wanted to interrogate some of the less pleasant aspects of paradise, I wanted the book to feel, on a language level, like a beautiful respite, like a place that the reader was safe inside,” explains Laing, who now goes by they/them pronouns. “I wanted the garden to be a space of conversation. I have very strong political feelings. But I wanted it to be welcoming to people who have different ones. I wanted it to be a space of real safety because I think real thinking happens in those spaces.”

“Also it’s performing diversity in front of your eyes, you’re seeing what a diverse linguistic environment looks like, in the same way that the garden is showing you a biodiverse species-rich environment,” they add.

Laing presents gardens as places of social resistance, of radical friendship, care and shelter for the oppressed. To help, the lives of a number of characters are depicted. One, William Morris, may be known more for his wallpaper designs today, but his 19th-century message is deeply prescient.

“He’s writing about a utopian socialism, a new world that is absolutely in harmony with and devoted to nature, that’s about pleasure and joy, rather than just surviving,” Laing says.

Laing documents the restoration of their garden in new book ‘The Garden Against Time’ (Olivia Laing)
Laing documents the restoration of their garden in new book ‘The Garden Against Time’ (Olivia Laing)

We learn about Cedric Morris’s garden Benton End, which was a sanctuary for the queer community at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Men would go to the garden to recover from serving prison time for their sexuality. Another moving story is of La Foce in Italy, which became a shelter for refugees during the Second World War.

Here, gardens are places of dissidence and resistance, symbols of rebellion but also actual places where new ideas can grow. It is no surprise to hear that the book comes directly from Laing’s years of environmental activism, which included many years of protest, including living in a tree to protest against road-building and training and practising as a herbalist.

“A garden can be a rebel state,” says Laing. “And I think a lot of the gardens that I’m interested in are, for one reason or another, a rebellious state – they operate according to different principles.”

‘The garden is an invitation into a different way of participating with nature’ (Olivia Laing)
‘The garden is an invitation into a different way of participating with nature’ (Olivia Laing)

Through the book, there is a strong sense of the garden as remedial and as a corrective – both individually, and societally. Laing’s garden is an invitation to revolution, a refuge where new worlds and imaginings can grow.

“I think we’re in a moment that’s so obsessed with the relentless creation of dystopia, these warning systems for a future that’s already arisen,” they say. “We don’t need that, we need to spend our time thinking about what we want instead. And then we need to build it. We don’t have a lot of time. And I think that really was the underlying motive of this book ... I want us to do things differently. Right now: here are the ideas.”

The garden also offers a powerfully needed and refreshing sense of time, outside the capitalist logic of productivity.

“I think one of the biggest problems as a species is our obsession, our capitalist-based obsession, with growth at all costs,” they explain. “That’s what’s led us into the hell realm of climate change, the refusal to listen to what nature is actually doing all the time, which is moving in cycles, a time cycle of abundance and plenitude, followed by decay and death. And the garden is a constant daily lesson in that cycle.

“So I think the garden is an invitation into a different way of participating with nature, a different way of existing inside the network of life, rather than the master-servant model that we have become so addicted to and so obsessed with. We think it is just normality, but it isn’t, it’s a choice.”

I’ve always believed that the garden is the best of us as humans

One of the many enthralling aspects of this book is how, at a time when the impact of industrialised nations on the world’s habitats and populations can feel so hopeless and shameful, Laing conceives of humans as part of the natural world and its recovery.

“The most important thing for me that came out of this book was really thinking about the ways that we as humans might be able to participate with nature without being harmful,” they say.

In the final chapter, Laing tells us about the formal garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex. In a biodiversity audit, the richest site by far was the formal ornamental garden. This garden, which had been created with aesthetic pleasure as a first principle, was highly species-rich, with 40 per cent of the UK’s bee species, and rare spiders and invertebrates.

‘The Garden Against Time’ is Laing’s seventh book (Picador)
‘The Garden Against Time’ is Laing’s seventh book (Picador)

“It was a huge relief to me, to have this vision of us as something helpful,” said Laing. “I’ve always believed that the garden is the best of us as humans and to read these much darker and more sinister stories about gardens of dominance and power made me feel very depressed, but finding these counter-gardens that are about generosity and about relinquishing control in some areas, but also playing, creating and being a participant in the garden – that felt very exciting.”

Laing’s vision doesn’t remain in their Suffolk garden. They consider how the social power of gardens can work on a public level, and the role the garden could – and should – play at a time of global heating, when public botanical spaces are urgently needed to lower temperatures and offer shade and restoration. They mention a vision of investing in training young people as gardeners and the well-evidenced physical and mental health benefits of connecting with the rest of nature and the act of making gardens.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult century and I think we’re going to have to fight really hard. But I don’t think the possibility of a green future is foreclosed yet, I think that remains a possibility,” they say. “And I think knowing our history, understanding the ways in which power works, but also the ways in which resistance works, is absolutely vital.”

‘The Garden Against Time’ is out now, published by Picador. Olivia Laing appears at Hay Festival on 1 June for a live recording of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ at 11.30am, and Lucy Jones will be speaking on Hay’s ‘Metamorphosis in Motherhood’ panel on 1 June at 10am; hayfestival.com