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Why we love our gardens by Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay, Helen Stevens and Carolyn Forster, 11 July 2012

[This is an edited transcript of the presentation]

CAROLYN FORSTER : Good evening everybody. Welcome this evening to the National Museum of Australia and to Visions Theatre. It’s lovely to see so many of you here that evening. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people whose land we are on today and pay my respect to their ancestors past and present. My name is Carolyn Forster and I am President of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia, and we are delighted to be doing a partnership once again with Open Gardens Australia this evening to share with our members and your supporters this wonderful lecture.

You will notice on your chair that you will have a member’s guest pass which we have given you. You don’t have to be a member to use that so we hope you might like to come to something at the Friends that is on our program. We have left some items on your seats to give you an idea of the range of programs that we have to offer. One of the programs is ‘Landmark women’, a program that has been running for quite a number of years which is a very popular well-attended program. I would like to draw that to your attention as well.

One other thing that is happening for the Friends is that we are going to have a new lounge, which we are hoping will be open very soon. We are hoping that it will be open for the public next week. We look forward to seeing you at our new lounge, which is on the ground floor and much more accessible to the galleries.

Tonight it is my pleasure to introduce Helen Stevens. Helen is a board member of Open Gardens Australia and chair of the ACT and country New South Wales Open Gardens Australia regional committee. She is going to introduce our guest speaker.

HELEN STEVENS: Thank you and good evening everybody. It is with great pleasure that Open Gardens has been able to partner with the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. We are very pleased to be able to bring our guest this evening to you all.

I too would like to let you know that we have an exciting year for Open Gardens. Our organisation is turning 25 this year, which is amazing. It has grown from a little thing that was the germ of an idea in Victoria to something that is Australia-wide, promoting the love and knowledge of gardens for all Australians hopefully to improve our lives and our living spaces. We are going to have a fabulous series of events to promote this particular year over and above our normal program. We are expecting that the guidebook for this coming year will be out at the end of August. Not everything that is happening will be in the guidebook because we have been able to negotiate things after the deadline for the guidebook. If you are interested in following our activities - I really hope you are - you can access up-to-date information on our website http://www.opengarden.org.au/ but you can google open garden and it will appear. We also have an iPhone app which, if you don’t want to buy a guide, you can access the iPhone app. That is fabulous too. We are very high-tech now. We tweet and we are looking at having Facebook. It should be a pretty amazing year.

We are very lucky that we are able to do all this basically with the help of marvellous volunteers who are a committee, selectors and garden owners. We would like to acknowledge those this year in particular because it wouldn’t exist without their very hard work behind the scenes, a tiny little bit of which you saw tonight.

It is my particular pleasure tonight to introduce our guest speaker. We are thrilled that we are able to have Hugh Mackay come and speak to us. He probably needs very little introduction to most of you. Certainly I have been listening to him on radio for many years and reading his frequent articles.

Hugh is a social researcher and writer. He is the author of 13 books, six of which are bestsellers. His latest book, What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us, came out in 2010 and you probably saw that it was available down in the bookshop and I am sure copies will be available during the week beyond this night.

In recognition of his pioneering work in social research, Hugh has been awarded honourary doctorates by Charles Sturt University, Macquarie University, New South Wales University and Western Sydney University - not inconsiderable achievements. He is a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, and in 2004 he received the University of Sydney’s alumni award for community service.

Hugh is an honorary professor of social science at the University of Wollongong, a former deputy chairman of the Australia Council, a former chairman of trustees of Sydney Grammar School, and was the inaugural chairman of the ACT government’s Community Inclusion Board. He has been a newspaper columnist for over 25 years, which I think is astounding and wonderful, and you would have known that he is a frequent guest on ABC radio. It is great pleasure that I ask Hugh Mackay to join us this evening. [applause]

HUGH MACKAY: Thank you very much, Helen, and good evening everybody. Before I talk specifically about gardens and why we love them, I want to step back to ask you a slightly more general question than just about why you love your garden or why you are mystified at the extent to which other people, perhaps members of your own family, love their gardens. The more general and fundamental question that I want to think about for a moment is a question which I think is the strangest question we humans ever ask ourselves. I want you to reflect for a moment on whether you have ever asked yourself this question. The question is: ‘Why did I do that?’ It’s a question we very sensibly ask other people all the time. Why did they do that? We know that spouses, kids, colleagues, neighbours are strange, so it’s not surprising that we are puzzled by their behaviour. ‘Why did you do that’ is a perfectly reasonable question. But isn’t it odd that most of us do things of our own volition and then look at what we have done and then say, ‘Why did I do that?’.

I want to approach the subject of why we love our gardens tonight bearing in mind that much human behaviour seems puzzling at first because it’s obviously irrational. The only reason that we are puzzled by irrational behaviour is that most of us, particularly if we have had a tertiary education, have been caught in the grip of this Western myth that humans are essentially rational creatures, so if we behave irrationally then that’s not how we are supposed to behave.

To approach this business of our passion for gardens, I want to suggest first of all that we need to abandon that myth. Just take a look at human behaviour: take a look at everything from falling in love to falling out of love; waging war; our propensity to violence; our superstitions, our phobias, our addictions - the belief, for example, that the Brumbies are a morally superior team to any other rugby team going around. It seems to me that the more you look at us, you more you would be driven to the conclusion that by nature we are irrational and that what’s remarkable about humans is that, if you start at an early age and educate us for 12 or more years and train us very carefully, we are capable of occasional and remarkable bursts of rational behaviour. But it takes all of that training and education and discipline in order to make us rational, because our default position is to be ruled more by the heart than the head. Our folklore has that right.

So if we were rational, we would all have weed gardens because they grow so profusely and you wouldn’t have to pay nearly as much attention to your garden if you just let the weeds run. And there are people who do have weed gardens, some intentional and some quite unintentional. If we were completely rational we would probably concrete over the whole thing and paint something tasteful on it. Inside we would have the house adorned with plastic flowers if we loved flowers, because you would only have to dust them occasionally and rearrange them from time to time. That would be perfectly rational, but to a roomful of people like you it sounds abhorrent because you know that we don’t do things in order to be rational because we are human. When someone says to you, ‘Why can’t you be more rational?’ - and we are capable of saying that to each other - the answer always should be, ‘Because I’m human, that’s why.’

The other reason we shouldn’t be surprised when our own behaviour surprises us is that our motives are always complicated: we never do anything just for one reason. There is never a single or simple explanation for any human behaviour. Everything we humans do is the outcome of a dynamic interplay between several different desires that are constantly driving us. In my latest book What makes us tick? I have identified ten ‘social’ desires that seem to be the fundamental desires driving our behaviour. So when you are trying to explain a particularly puzzling piece of behaviour, you need to look at the ten desires on the list and say, not ‘why did you or I do that?, but ‘how many desires were in play to produce this particular piece of behaviour?’. It is not that they contribute in some kind of orderly, rational, harmonious fashion; they are often competing with each other; they are often colliding, they are often contradicting each other; but somehow, moment-to-moment, we manage to hold them in tension; to synthesise them; to express them in a collective way.

If you are interested in how our desires interact and overlap, there is no better example than gardening. I did suggest in the subtitle of this lecture that I was going to explore three of those desires in particular. But the more I thought about all this, the more I realised there are many more than three. I am going to deal with the three that seem to me to be the primary desires that help to account for our love of gardens. But then I want to talk about another four, because I think at least seven out of the ten are contributing to the attitudes and behaviour of serious gardeners.

Let’s deal with the big three first. The first of those (and remember, I am identifying each of those as one of the ten basic desires that drive all kinds of human behaviour) is the desire for my place. In Australia and in fact in most societies that have Indigenous populations, we talk about the sense of place as though it’s somehow peculiar to Indigenous people; as though they have some kind of mystical connection with ‘place’ which other people, especially Europeans and their descendants, wouldn’t be able to understand. That is rubbish. It is humans, not just Indigenous people, who have this powerful, emotionally intense sense of connection to place. The reason we have it is that we need it. Part of what makes us sane, part of what gives us a sense of identity and emotional security is the knowledge there are actual places on the planet that are somehow ours. Even if you are not a religious believer, perhaps the term ‘sacred site’ fits this case.

These are places that symbolise us in some way, places that say things about us we are pleased to have said. Think about your own personal cultural history and think of the places that in some way stand for you or define you or perhaps deeply reassure you about who you are. For many people such a place is the family home, the place where you grew up if you happen to grow up in one particular place - many Australians don’t. It’s surprising how many people reach their middle years, their frail, elderly parents announce that they are finally going to sell the family home and their fully mature adult offspring are saying, ‘You can’t do that, that’s our home.’ They haven’t lived there perhaps for 30 years but that is our home. Of course they can sell it and they will sell it, and it may be demolished or renovated or replaced by a shopping mall – and we’ll be outraged, as we always are, when places precious to us are transformed in that way.

For some people it’s a den; for some, it’s a shed. Lots of blokes define themselves by their sheds. I remember doing some research on this a few years ago talking about people’s sense of place, and a man in one of my studies was talking about how he and his wife was going to move to the Central Coast. He was the advance scout exploring the real estate market on the Central Coast and he came home one weekend and said to his wife, ‘I have found just the place. It has this massive shed. There is room for three cars but lots of other stuff as well. I have got to have that shed.’ And his wife said, ‘But what about the house?’ He said, ‘Bugger the house, I want that shed.’ We all have this sense of needing somewhere that will be ours. Regular church goers always sit in the same pew; long distance commuters always sit in the same seat in the same carriage. We get attached to places. For some people it’s sporting arenas. For some contemporary people it’s actually a mobile place called the car, the only place where they really feel comfortable and in control.

Many migrants, particularly people who have migrated in their middle years, report the problem of ‘rootlessness’ arising from precisely this problem. People who have established a strong sense of place in their birth country and then have moved to a new country simply don’t have time to develop the same sense of powerful attachment to place. So they feel they have left those places behind, haven’t replaced them, and you often do hear migrants later on in their lives saying, ‘I don’t really feel as if I belong in either place.’

The sense of place is integral with who we are. I don’t know whether you are able to remember the person with whom you shared your first romantic kiss. (I will just pause for a moment while you reflect on that.) I hope you can remember the person but, even if you can’t, I would be prepared to bet you can remember where you were when it happened. It’s like ‘where were you when you heard the news that John F Kennedy was shot?’. Everyone knows where they were, because ‘the place’ is so integral with moments or phases of emotional intensity for us.

For those of you who are interested in team sports there is some interesting research on why teams tend to win more often when they are playing at home than when they are playing ‘away’ games. In sports like soccer and baseball, there is incontrovertible evidence of the home ground advantage, and endless speculation about why this should be. Well, of course, once we understand the significance of place in our sense of identity, there is no mystery about why a team might play a little more aggressively, a little more skilfully with a little more commitment when they are defending the sacred site that defines the team - that’s our place; our piece of ground. It turns out that the testosterone levels in soccer players is higher when they are playing on the home ground than when they are playing somewhere else, and the highest testosterone level is recorded for the goalie who is, of course, defending the ultimate bit of sacred turf.

Gardens are that special place for many people, perhaps for almost everybody in this auditorium. My garden says something eloquent about me, which perhaps no other place in my life says quite so eloquently. For many people, my favourite spot, the place where I feel most myself, most at home, most in control, is in my garden. In that same research project where I encountered the man and his shed, a woman said that her favourite place was a rock in a public garden near where she lived. She said no-one in her family, not even her husband, knows about this rock but this is where she goes - into this tranquil space - when she wants to be herself, when she needs to be alone with her thoughts, or to get frustrations out of her system. There is something about a garden which has that potent emotional power for many people.

The second of the big three that I want to touch on is the desire to connect. There are at least three dimensions to this desire to connect. We need to connect with ourselves; to have some degree of self-knowledge; some sense of who we are. We need to connect with others, because we are social creatures and communication is our lifeblood. But we also need to connect with the natural world. If people fall short in any one of those three dimensions of being connected, they are likely to experience a vague sense of uneasiness, restlessness or even some kind of neurosis. It seems to me when I reflect on this that all three of those dimensions can be satisfied in a garden or in the process of gardening.

The most obvious one is the connection with the natural world, and I want to say a bit more about that, but very briefly let me deal with the other two dimensions of this desire. The desire to connect with ourselves: the ancient Greeks recommended ‘know thyself’ as a central proposition for humans. My psychological hero is an American psychotherapist called Carl Rogers. Reflecting on 40 years work as a psychotherapist Rogers said, ‘There is only one problem.’ And by that he meant it doesn’t matter whether people are coming into the consulting room with relationship breakdowns, or addictions, or phobias or whatever other neurotic symptoms they might have, Rogers said it always in the end came down to the question: ‘Who am I? What kind of person am I to have got myself into this situation? If I could understand myself better, perhaps I wouldn’t be in the situation I am in.’

All of us are on this quest. For many of us, it’s a lifetime project, finding the answer to the question: ‘who am I?’. But we know there are some shortcuts. We know there are some magical pathways towards self-knowledge and one of them is creative self-expression. Artists, poets, sculptors, dancers - people who do creative things - seem to have very ready access to an understanding of who they are through the paradox of finding yourself by losing yourself. And isn’t that true of the garden? You lose yourself in the act of gardening and in that process something happens which leads to a greater understanding of the self. I don’t know how many gardeners I have heard say things like, ‘I would go mad if I didn’t have the garden. I would be visiting the psychotherapist if I wasn’t getting my hands in the soil.’ And there is a lot in that, because a solitary activity and a highly creative activity like gardening is one of the easiest ways to lose ourselves and therefore find ourselves.

Then of course there is the communication, the social aspect of being connected and the fellowship of gardeners. The gardening community is a very obvious and particular form of connection with other people, and I want to say a bit more about the sense of belonging later.

But the most obvious dimension of the desire to connect that is satisfied by gardening is this fundamental human desire to be connected with the natural world. A group of American psychologists have recently identified in children what they describe as ‘the nature deprivation syndrome’ – this is all about kids who don’t get out into the fresh air, don’t swim, don’t walk in the bush, don’t kick a ball around a park or help in the garden or do some other thing that connects them with Nature. (Watching nature documentaries on TV isn’t going quite far enough.) The sense of being disconnected from the natural world produces uneasiness, restlessness, shortens the attention span - all these are classic signs of the so-called nature deprivation syndrome – and of course it is to do with being indoors and in particular spending too much time in front of a screen.

We are all familiar with the nature deprivation syndrome in ourselves. We know that we go slightly crazy if we don’t get outside, if we don’t go walking and if we don’t get into the garden. People who live in high-rise apartment blocks that are highly urbanised and seriously removed from the natural world will, almost without exception, have a pathetic little pot plant on the balcony struggling for survival as if to say, ‘I know my life is not exactly in touch with the natural world but, see - this is my link.’

Some of you are old enough to remember the pet rock phenomenon of the 1980s, when a Californian marketing guru sold thousands and thousands of pet rocks to people complete with a handbook on how to care for your pet rock. Most people who purchased pet rocks, or just went out and got some of their own and put them on the mantelpiece, found them deeply unresponsive as pets … of course it was a joke but it was a highly symbolic joke: ‘Yes, we all live these fast-paced, urbanised lives. We’re out of touch with nature and we haven’t got time to care for a real pet. Put a rock on your mantelpiece and that will remind you that there is a natural world.’

Gardeners know about that - they do better than rocks and they do better than struggling pot plants. We know that being in gardens, not even necessarily getting your hands in the soil, but being in gardens is one of the easiest and most satisfying ways to feel as if we are part not just of this particular garden but, in a deeper sense, part of the cosmos, part of the ecosystem, united in some way with the natural world.

How crucial this is to our personal sanity! Why else do people things like pay money to swim with dolphins? Why do people buy tickets to sit in a grandstand and watch penguins swim ashore at dusk? This is irrational behaviour at one level, but of course it is all about wanting to be connected with the natural world. Rather ironically perhaps, one of the forms of television program that is guaranteed to get big ratings is nature documentaries. I like the irony that even sitting watching it on television gives people a sense of being connected with the natural world. Pet ownership and all of the things we do that take us into a sense of connection with the natural world are deeply therapeutic for us.

The third of the big three, and perhaps a slightly less obvious one (particularly if your winter garden feels somewhat out of control), is the desire for control – again, one of the most fundamental of human drivers and the one probably more than any other on my list of ten that gets us into trouble: in fact, it’s potentially the most frustrating of all the desires that drive us. Like all of these desires you can see where it came from: it has very primitive origins. The desire tor control for primitive humans was all about how to survive in what looked like a fairly hostile environment and we felt we had to get this hostile, unpredictable place under control. Today, most of the classic textbook phobias are about loss of control: fear of flying; fear of travelling in lifts; fear of sitting too far from an exit in an auditorium; fear of crowds; fear of open spaces - all these phobias are essentially the same phobia: fear of losing control.

The reason why this desire for control gets us into so much trouble so often is that most of us look in the wrong place - in fact, we look in a very dangerous place - for ways to satisfy the desire for control. The most dangerous place we can look is to other people. The idea that we could control other people is an idea that is doomed to failure and also doomed to frustrate us. It takes many of us a very long time to figure out that other people, like most of our circumstances, are beyond our control and that the only life you can actually control is your own. Yes, you can love, support, advise, guide, criticise and discipline other people - your kids, spouses, colleagues etc - but you can’t control anyone else.

So now we go into the garden, and here is the most harmless place on earth in which to satisfy the desire for control. You can’t tie your spouse to a stake but you can tie your roses to stakes: that’s about control, but no-one is going to be damaged or upset (in fact, the roses will thank you). Trimming, pruning, weeding, mowing, sweeping - this is all therapeutic stuff because, whether you realise it or not, every one of those activities is helping to satisfy your primitive desire for control.

So those are the three of what I would regard as the big desires that are satisfied by gardening. But that’s by no means the end of the story, because the more you think about a passion for gardening, the more he you realise there is a lot more to it even than the desire for control or the desire to connect or the desire for my place.

What about the desire to be useful, which is another one of the ten desires that drive us? Even though people are cynical about the idea that humans are capable of altruism – the desire to paly a useful part, to make the world a better place – the evidence is incontrovertible: that is the kind of people we are. We are driven by our desire to be useful, and nothing feels worse to us than the criticism that we are pretty useless. Imagine how you would feel if someone’s judgment on you was: ‘Well, he’s been a pretty useless father,’ or ‘She’s a pretty useless member of the committee.’ These are not things we like to hear about ourselves, because deep within us is this desire to be useful. (If you doubt it, look no further than what happened just over a year ago when Brisbane was hit by those appalling floods and thousands of people arrived by the bus load with their mops and buckets to be useful, to help total strangers clean up their flood-affected properties.)

Isn’t the garden a place where you can’t possibly feel useless? There is always something to be done; there is always something to be achieved in a garden. When you are gardening you are being useful; and when you are gardening to you are helping to make the world a better, more beautiful, more tranquil place.

When I was talking about the desire to connect, I mentioned the ‘fellowship of gardeners’ … and that relates to another one of the basic desires that drive us: the desire to belong. We are social creatures. Although there are hermits, there are isolates, they are very rare. Most of us thrive on human contact. Most of us need little herds to belong to. We are by nature herd animals. We used to live in domestic herds. In Australia 100 years ago the average Australian household was a herd, if you define a ‘herd’ as somewhere between five and eight people. In fact, 5-8 is a pretty typical human herd size: the perfect size for a diner party, for example. (Invite ten people and watch it subdivide into two herds.) It is a perfect size for a work group, for a committee or for a management span of control. Around five to eight is the classic human herd which is why we used to live in domestic herds.

Now, of course, we don’t. The average Australian household today contains 2.2 people. That is sub-herd size. In fact, the largest single household category in Australia is now the single-person household. That accounts for about 26 or 27 per cent of all Australian households. By the year 2026, the ABS is predicting about one-third of all Australian households will contain just one person. We are no longer, domestically speaking, a herd-based society, yet we still have this powerful herd instinct.

So what happens now? The answer is that we have to find other herds to connect with, which is why we have seen the book-club phenomenon explode, as it has, in the last 15 or 20 years - and why incidentally people who belong to book clubs will typically say at some point in the evening, ‘Don’t you think we should say something about the book?’ they’re herding, and the book is the excuse (which is not to deny they like reading and talking about books). The book is a wonderful excuse for getting together. If it wasn’t a book club, it might be a poetry class or a current affairs discussion group or a U3A group or something else. If you can’t think of any other way of connecting with the herd, you just go and graze with the herd. Even Canberra now has a ‘food court’ or two - that wonderful euphemism for the public trough, where we all line up with the other cattle – you don’t even have to moo if you don’t want to – but you can feel connected with the human herd.

Gardeners have ready-made herds to connect with. Garden clubs are proliferating, just as book clubs are. Community gardens are creating a fantastic opportunity not only for people to get all the therapeutic benefits from the business of gardening itself, and the creation and nurture of a garden, but also the benefits of belonging to a social group of people who are gardening together or who are part of some informal collection of gardeners who are constantly exchanging cuttings and so on. So even the desire to belong can be satisfied by gardening.

There are two others. One is the desire for something to happen. You may think this is a bit far removed from gardening, but I’m not sure - just wait until spring and see what a transformation is about to happen in your own garden and indeed in the gardens of Canberra. All of us need something to look forward to. It’s another one of the characteristics of human beings. We have this desire for something to happen; something to look forward to. Isn’t that a desire that’s at least partly satisfied in your garden? A person who is seriously attuned to the life of a garden is a person who is constantly looking forward - waiting for something to happen. If you are alert, if you are in touch with a garden, you are not just vaguely connected with nature, you are actually part of the adventure of nature. Gardeners tend not to seek their thrills in, for example, skydiving, heli-skiing or speed-boat racing. The gardener’s desire for something to happen is satisfied in a rather more modest, more subdued way, but there is no less sense of anticipation in the gardener who is tending and nurturing a garden than there is for people who seek these more extreme forms of excitement in their lives.

The last of the seven that I want to mention of these desires that drive us that can be satisfied by gardens is the one which you can never leave out of a list of the desires that drive almost any aspect of human behaviour - and that’s the desire to be taken seriously. Almost everything we do is to some extent an expression of our deep human need to be appreciated, to be noticed, to be acknowledged, to be valued. People who are serious about their gardens use the garden, again not necessarily consciously, in that way. I am proud of my garden because of what it says about me and what it is going to say to you about me. My garden is going to be one of the ways that you will take me seriously - take my garden seriously, take me seriously. That is seven out of my list of possible ten desires that drive us. I will leave you to discover what the other three are on the list.

When you look at all of those fundamental human desires being satisfied by gardening, is it any wonder that gardeners get such a kick out of gardening? Is it any wonder that gardeners talk about the thrill of gardening? Is it any wonder that gardeners become as passionate as they do about not just their own gardens but other people’s gardens and public gardens as well? Being in and around gardens for the person who has got it, for the person who has seen what a garden can do for us in therapeutic terms, is a wonderful and often, yes, even a thrilling experience. It is primitive; it’s stimulating; it’s relaxing; and it’s deeply rewarding.

To conclude, let me return to my opening point: it’s a very good example of the principle that we never do anything just for one reason. Why do we love our gardens? There couldn’t possibly be one answer, as there couldn’t possibly ever be one answer to a question like ‘why did you do that?’ It is always going to be the outcome of this dynamic interplay between the ten desires that are driving us - in the case of gardens I am suggesting seven. Whenever we are puzzled by other people’s behaviour in or out of a garden, including being puzzled by our own behaviour, simply look at the ten desires and say, ‘How many of them are in play here?’ and the mystery will be solved.

So now it’s your turn. We have plenty of time for discussion of any points that I have raised or argument or questions. There are a couple of roving microphones so if anyone would like to ask a question, just put your hand up. Do you have any questions?

QUESTION: Hugh, what about the desire to produce something tangible, something that we have created, knowing that we can produce it without pesticides, fungicides and that sort of thing?

HUGH MACKAY: That is a combination of the desire to be useful and the desire for something to happen. It’s very true. We do need tangible evidence of our usefulness. It’s one reason why people who work in administrative jobs or cerebral jobs often experience a lot of frustration because the output is not always so obvious. Such people often do have great passion for a garden or for carpentry or some other really tangible thing because we do have, as you are suggesting, this need for our usefulness to be demonstrated.

I remember reading a few years ago about the English playwright Alan Bennett, one of my favourite writers, who said that he had discovered - writers are famous for looking for things to distract them - a way of occupying a full ten minutes in productive work which involved cleaning the lint filter in his washing machine. He said, ‘If you do this carefully it can take ten minutes.’ That is just like students who decide to paint their room when an essay is due and who are always looking for distraction. But I think it is more than that. It is also that someone who is a writer and who can often spend a day only getting a sentence or two out needs more tangible evidence of usefulness. So even cleaning the lint filter might do it. The point you made is absolutely valid: the garden is production. The modern garden relates to our ancient agrarian origins as well. There is no doubt about that. Even pet ownership relates to our ancient animal husbandry practices in the past. All these things have very deep roots. If you live a life in your mind, there is nothing better than gardening to bring you back to earth literally.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could comment on the concept today where many people get someone to design their garden, to build their garden, to maintain their garden.

HUGH MACKAY: They are the people who I think should probably concrete it over and paint a nice mural on it. None of the therapeutic benefits I am referring to tonight are available to those people. It’s a bit like people who say, ‘I would love to have a dog,’ so they acquire a dog and then they pay someone to walk it, to wash it and look after it and say, ‘Isn’t it lovely to have a dog?’ It’s not that there is no desire being satisfied, but none of these desires are being satisfied. There are other categories of desire like the rather ethereal desires for beauty, justice or truth and so on – or even the desire to possess something, or to enhance our status.

I suppose you could say someone who has paid a landscape gardener to design it and plant it and someone else to maintain it is perhaps satisfying their desire for beauty in their life - and I don’t mean to mock that - but these hands in the soil therapeutic benefits that I am referring to are just not available. They don’t know what they are missing. The argument put forward by many people who don’t know what they are missing in relation to any activity like gardening, which is a slowdown activity. There is no instant garden. There is no quick way to get a climbing rose to climb. I have just discovered that. But these people say, ‘I am just too busy.’ They are consigning themselves to a life of stress, restlessness and uneasiness which may not be explicable to them. They may not know why they feel restless. If you could take them aside and say, ‘Look, if you would just prune your own garden and pull out your weeds, you would be amazed at how different you would feel.’ If there is no time for that, then everything is absolutely out of whack.

QUESTION: Steering away from the garden just for a moment and looking at your first point, my place: I read somewhere that during the bombing in the Second World War the removal or the destruction of a landmark in cities like London, for example, was more destructive to the feeling of the general populace than reading about the number of people being killed because it impacted on everyone. It was a symbol of my place, I guess.

HUGH MACKAY: Thank you for that. What you are saying is absolutely true. Research certainly confirms that, and of course not just in London but in many other cities and German cities as well. This sense of horror that a place that was not just familiar to us but intensely symbolic for us has gone is shocking in a way that almost inexpressible for people. At a less intense level it’s the problem of the family home that I mentioned before, the family home being abolished. What’s happened; you can’t do that; that is part of me. We do feel that about public buildings, public spaces and landmarks of various kinds.

QUESTION: Thank you for your address. The question of creativity - I have been a keen gardener now for more than 50 years but when you are actively involved in a garden you also have to face the reality of death and disease. Your impatiens are suddenly blooming and then a disease hits them and they die; similar with snap dragons with rust.

HUGH MACKAY: I can see these are harrowing events.

QUESTION: Yes, they are. We in Canberra until recently had the experience of a protracted drought and many of the beautiful trees died. Where do we find meaning in those events of demise and death that are part of gardening?

HUGH MACKAY: Thank you for that. It is a crucial point. In fact, I wish I had mentioned it, but it’s a good opportunity to raise it. You can’t enter into a sense of being at one with the natural world without confronting death. Life makes absolutely no sense unless we have acknowledged that death is integral and that is what will happen to all of us and to everyone we love and to our pets and our plants as well. For kids in particular, the garden is a wonderful early lesson about mortality, death, disease and disability, because all of those things are graphically there in everyone’s garden. It’s nonsense to say, ‘I am at one with the universe and isn’t everything wonderful?’ the truth is, I am at one with the universe and isn’t everything both wonderful or terrible all at once? It’s a lovely point to make. Sorry about your snap dragons.

QUESTION: Also relating to the drought, it came to my mind that I have a garden surrounded by green and my whole persona thrives in being in green. It was interesting in Canberra during this protracted drought that I think people suffered and got prickly, to be honest, and then when the drought broke and became green, people’s demeanours lifted. It was fascinating. I had a visit to the Middle East, and in some areas of the Middle East there is no green. Perhaps I will leave the rest of that unsaid.

HUGH MACKAY: Absolutely right - a clear example of the point. That is what this nature deprivation syndrome is all about. If because of circumstances of living in a highly urbanised situation or a wasteland after invasion and war and so on or a drought we have the sense of there being no natural element for us to relate to, it’s deeply disturbing for most of us. In Ballarat, Victoria, a town I visited a couple of months ago during the drought, Lake Wendouree dried up - it’s now full again; it is a shallow lake –people talking about the effect on the city of Ballarat of the lake having just become a dust bowl was an exact echo of what you are describing. The city was depressed by what had happened to the lake. They tried to make the most of it. They had foot races on the rowing course, bonfires and all sorts of things to try to make light of this, but of course they couldn’t because it was such an integral part of the natural environment for that city.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Hugh. I remember a wonderful cartoon in Punch of a society lady running a garden party where one of the guests point to a huddled figure in the corner shabbily dressed digging up weeds and said, ‘Is that your gardener?’ And she said, ‘No, that’s my husband. He hates parties.’ So he had his priorities in the right way.

I would like to ask a question about the fact that gardening can be a rational activity. During the war in Britain there was a dig for victory campaign in which a lot of lawns were dug up for the purpose of growing food, and that saved a lot of people from going hungry. I was bitten by the same bug because I swapped trying to score tries at rugby with the goal of growing potatoes and tomatoes.

A wonderful thing that is happening in Australia and many other countries now is primary school children growing their own vegetables. It’s a wonderful educational experience because not only can they bring home food that tastes so much better than they get in shops but also they have achieved a goal, they have learned about ecosystems and they start a long process of education that our habitat is this planet and is not a collection of buildings - it’s the planet. Let’s hope that that process extends.

HUGH MACKAY: I agree entirely. I didn’t mention vegetables at any stage but the vegetable question is an extension of that earlier point about gardening being productive - not just beautiful flowers and other plants but edible produce as well. I agree about the educational value for kids absolutely. I am still trying to convince my wife that we should start growing vegetables. Lots of people where I live in the Southern Highlands are growing vegetables. She says, ‘No, you know what happens, it all comes at once and then you are just having to give it away. You think you are going to live on this but it doesn’t work.’ And there is some evidence for that in our street.

QUESTION: Hugh, one comment on what an earlier person raised: as a garden designer I design the gardens, we get the maintenance done and they don’t have any part in the garden, but with those people I always try to insist that they do plant at least one tree. Then when they have their first barbecue to open their garden - not to the public but to their friends - they can say, ‘Yes, the effort we had in digging that one hole, Oh boy Oh boy.’ But there is also a disturbing trend - and certainly we see it in Canberra - of smaller and smaller blocks with the Mcmansion with four or five bedrooms and most of the area is concreted over so they can put their three or four four-wheel drives. In London they call it the Chelsea tractors. There is very little room for anything to do with gardening, and that is exactly what they want. We see this time and again in expanding suburbs in Canberra where the blocks are down to 400 or 450 square metres and no room for gardening. This is a disturbing trend that is happening all over.

HUGH MACKAY: You are absolutely right and of course Canberra doesn’t have it alone. Exactly the same thing is blighting Sydney, Melbourne and all the other capital cities. That is all about greed, of course – that is the developers’ greed - not the householders’ so much because they are getting what they can afford. There has been this huge change in the mentality of developers and of local government to say, ‘We will minimise the blocks and we will have no footpaths’ - all things which are antithetical to what we know to be some of the most therapeutic aspects of community living like having enough land for a garden and for kids to run around in the back yard and having a footpath where people may actually bump into each other and have a conversation in passing. But that relates to another one of the ten desires that drive us, one I didn’t mention in relation to gardening: the desire for more. We are just a very greedy insatiable species. It doesn’t matter what it is we want - whether it is money, sex, travel or fitness - whatever it is, if we love it we can’t get enough and we tend to go overboard. (Sometimes, even about our gardens.)

You would think that by now we would be really enlightened about this. We know about what makes communities work. I have done the research myself. We know that if you ask people who are moving into a new suburban development what are the things they really want, the things they will say they really want are: ‘We would love to have a little park in our street. If only the developer would set aside one of the blocks to be a public area, a community garden or a park or something. And we want some kind of identifiable town centre, some place where there is a square, a fountain and a clock or something. Some developers are extremely enlightened about this and do all of those things. But many are ignoring what their customers really want and just giving them stuff that they can afford but that will actually be the opposite of therapeutic and will be anti-communitarian in its effects. It’s an unfolding suburban tragedy around Australia – around the West, not just Australia.

QUESTION: I can’t substantiate this, Hugh, but I have heard that people with a tertiary education are more likely to have native gardens. Can you comment on that? Have you heard that?

HUGH MACKAY: I love that kind of correlation. I have absolutely no idea -

QUESTION: It was an ABC program.

HUGH MACKAY: Oh, well, it must be true. Because I am a social researcher when anyone ever says anything like that to me, I immediately start trying to develop the theory that would explain that - so far I am at a loss.

QUESTION: Hugh, I got into event management and learnt very quickly that the more of your senses that you appeal to in an event, the more successful it is likely to be. I am saying to you that I have discovered as a sculptor, this is the most powerful thing I have: the need to touch things. That is for me also in gardening. When we garden we smell, we see and we touch – and it’s the most powerful sense.

HUGH MACKAY: And we hear.

QUESTION: It’s the most powerful sense for gaining empathy. I think we don’t talk about that.

HUGH MACKAY: Thank you for adding that in. That’s a vital extra point to be made, I absolutely agree.

QUESTION: Hugh, something that has been swirling around the discussion - the issue of beauty. How does that fit into your construction of desires where for some of us that aesthetic is a hunger and a deep need? How does that fit for you?

HUGH MACKAY: I acknowledge that it’s not one of my ten. I should have said the ten that I have developed in this new book are what I described as social desires, so they are all about how we live in community, how we develop a sense of identity and make connections and so on, and I was fitting gardening into that. But I think I did say in response to an earlier question there is obviously another category of desires that gardening also satisfies, which is this more ethereal, aesthetic desire for beauty. It doesn’t drive everybody and it’s one of those things that is so hard to explain and generalise about, because your beauty is my ugliness - all that stuff. With the social desires you can say that these are virtually universal desires. We are all driven by the desire for my place; we are all driven by the desire to belong; the desire to connect etc.

I am not even sure you can say that humans as a species are universally driven by the desire for beauty. The evidence seems to contradict that. Some are. But you could say the same of justice. Some are driven by a passionate desire for justice; many are not. But for those who have it, it can be almost everything. If beauty is the one we are talking about, then the garden is high on the list. And for many gardeners who are driven by that aesthetic, the garden is perhaps the main way they satisfy it because it is all these other things as well. Going to a gallery is a lovely thing for admiring beauty, and landscapes and panoramas are lovely for admiring beauty, but you are not getting the same therapeutic benefit from any of those that you are getting from actually creating the beauty. Thank you. [applause]

CAROLYN FORSTER : I just wanted to present you with a small gift on behalf of the Friends. The Open Gardens Scheme are going to thank you properly, but this is just a wee gift, a membership to the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. Thank you. [applause].

HELEN STEVENS: Thank you, Hugh. I was speaking to someone earlier this evening who said that one of the things about Hugh Mackay when they hear him speak is that he seems to gather all those amorphous thoughts you have had floating around in your mind and somehow get them into order and articulate them beautifully. He certainly did that this evening. It was insightful and wonderful to hear what you had to say. I hope I can remember it all so I can talk about it later on.

We thank you very much for giving us your time tonight and for your insights and we wish you a safe journey home. Thank you. [applause]

Before we go, I would like to thank again the Friends of the National Museum of Australia and the National Museum of Australia itself for allowing us to conduct this wonderful evening here. Thank you very much. [Applause]

Date published: 27 August 2012