Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights

As I was walking my dog today, I admired the state of gardens in my neighborhood. I had just come back from the Linder’s Garden Center, which has everything a Minnesotan gardener might need: Zone 4 hardy perennials, bright annuals, evergreen trees, even Koi fish for ponds. In my walk, I saw combinations of the these same elements: blooming petunias, fading tulips, lush hostas and ornamental grasses. All beautiful, but somewhat repetitive. Living in Minnesota, I sometimes forget that a garden can mean so much more than a fragrant interlude between house and garage.

The English word ‘paradise’ comes from the Old Persian pairidaeza, which means ‘walled garden.’ Of course, one of the primary creation stories of humankind takes place in the earthly paradise known as the Garden of Eden. This garden was a place of safety and innocence and order; when Adam and Eve were expelled they were confronted with danger and chaos and longed to return to the garden.

Gardens attained the highest of statuses in ancient civilizations, such as Nebuchadnezzar II’s Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, labelled one of the seven wonders of the world. Islamic culture gave rise to fabulous gardens that provided a metaphorical and literal escape from the wildness of nature. These gardens were walled off and cultivated as verdant spaces with shade and water elements to contrast the surrounding arid environment. Their geometrical design harkened back to the Garden of Eden’s location at the intersection of four rivers.

In fact, I should not use the past tense when describing these gardens. I visited many such gardens in southern Spain, which was in the hands of Islamic rulers longer than it has since been under Catholic control. The most extraordinary gardens I visited were the Alcázar in Sevilla and the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra at twilight

I visited the Alhambra for the second time this past July. A friend of mine and I chose an evening entrance time when the Spanish summer heat was at a low. We walked through the Palacio de Nazaries in twilight with bats swinging over our heads and water trickling through grooves in the stone steps. After the palace we strolled to the Generalife gardens (from the Arabic Jennat al Arif, or Garden of the Architect). It was dark by this time, and thus we could not see the vast Moorish garden, but the warm, damp air was full of the scent of jasmine and lavender. This truly was paradise.