Death gardening, the rich and promise of designer Cornish hedges

The previous blog highlighted old people as proponents of death gardening. Another form of death gardening is practised by the rich.

I know of several examples in this part of the 12th district of Budapest where wealthy people have purchased a house with a lovely garden. The garden would typically have old trees faithfully yielding a bounty, year on year, of apricots, apples, cherries, sour cherries, plums, damsons, pears, quinces and peaches. There might be walnuts and hazelnuts, figs, and just possibly almonds if there is a nice south-facing plot with enough shelter from the wind. There will be sprays of elderberry, rambling bushes of blackberries, unkempt raspberry canes; on the ground sprinklings of tiny szamoca strawberries. For decades – perhaps for centuries – the ladies of the house will have picked these and made pies, strudels and cakes, jams, compotes and jellies; dried them or frozen them for the winter; squeezed juices and distilled pálinka.

Then along come the new owners flush with cash recently earnt. The first thing they do it clear the garden of everything, to create a uniform muddy surface. Half a day with a bulldozer obliterates centuries. Then they build their BigMac concrete and glass slab to live in. Then they turn back to the garden: they lay emerald grass, glistening with piped dew drops. They prop up a line of dutiful (but not beautiful), evergreen thujas, and apart from a few annuals in primary colours, that is as far as it goes. Oh yes – the bark mulch. Everywhere, decorative mulch.

The frequency of this scenario justifies considering it as a social phenomenon.

I try to understand the preference of the rich for death gardening.

The first cathartic act of clearing the gardening is a statement of power, control and a rejection of the past. A denial of the past. The rich of Central Europe are often from poor stock, perhaps the first generation not bound to the land. The first thing they must do, once they have broken those shackles of bondage, is to expunge any memory of it. Thus they must destroy anything which connects them to working on the land.

(This act is a rejection of Conservatism which shepherds the past on to next generations. The rich who consider themselves as on the political right are in conflict with their own stated values when it comes to gardening.)

They will try and justify the wanton destruction of a beautiful garden by saying things like: “It’s a jungle; it is disorderly; I will make something far more beautiful when I have finished.” They believe that beauty is completely subjective and it is up to them what is beautiful.

The appeal to subjectivity and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is, I think, a way to mask a more sinister truth: the need they have to make a statement of power: that act of destruction is a marking of territory, like a beech marten shitting on a stone, an affirmation of their strength and control over the environment. It is the ego screaming that this is their patch, they can do what they want, whoever came before can go figure, this is mine now, and I will show you.

This case shows that beauty is not subjective, despite the saying: someone creates a sterile plot of land barely deserving the name “garden”, by destroying a thriving, living, burgeoning, fruitful, thronging semi-wild place, full of blackbirds and woodpeckers and warblers, hedgehogs and stag beetles … and they claim the result is something of beauty? I don’t think it can be beautiful when it is polluted by the act of vanity and vandalism that preceded it.

They appeal to cleanliness and simplicity as if contemporary aesthetics had some moral authority. Aesthetic simplicity might have evolutionary, neurological benefits in that it takes less energy for the brain to process and perhaps more accessible for the simple minded, but it has no place in a garden. In a world where every living thing is under threat from man, imposing arbitrary aesthetic standards on the habitat of birds and beetles is like Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji burning down the Library of Nalanda in 1200 AD on the grounds that he prefers watching Neighbours to reading books and shite.

Then comes: “It is easy to maintain, I am a busy professional.” Again, rubbish. The easiest form of maintenance is to do nothing: just what nature wants the owner to do.

It might be in some cases that there is no reason for death gardening, there is no particular decision. It is just what they have seen elsewhere, on telly, in magazines and they assume that this is all there is. This is how the world is. They don’t know about wildlife gardening and the myriad of other ways of gardening with life.

But what can be done about this?

Some urgent and far from ideal measures might be needed in the short-term to save what can still be saved: councils need to place preservation orders on traditional gardens in the district and regulate the chopping of trees and cutting of bushes. It sounds interventionist, an undue intrusion into people’s freedoms. However, it is quite regular to constrain people’s freedom to commit acts of vandalism and destruction. If the rich may only enter a garden in manacles, so be it.

Then, as with any other movement for making the world a better place, change has a thousand facets which all have to align.

Luckily the recently rich are particularly impressed by what is considered to be to in fashion, and so it would be a great help to see some celebrity individuals creating disorderly wildlife gardens and then broadcasting this on social media. Ecological features could be turned into a fashion item. A friend pointed out to me Cornish hedges: these are living walls built – centuries ago (they need maintenance work every 150 or so years) – comprising layers of stone with earth in the middle, and often decorative arrangements of stone at the top.

Cornish hedge









Cornish hedge 2








More fancy cornish hedge






Cornish hedge 4


Wild flowers will be planted in the soil between the stones, and birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates will make use of a labyrinth of hollow areas inside.

An enterprising gardener and stone mason could create design Cornish hedges as fashionable garden features, affording at least some habitat in the otherwise barren, minimalist space. True, Cornwall is a long way from Central Europe, but adaptations can be developed.

To some extent the damage can be undone quickly because nature’s capacity for recovery is outstanding (it will come back when we are long gone, anyway). Plant some new fruit trees, dig up the thujas and sow the lawn with wildflower mix. Put holes in the concrete border wall to allow hedgehogs through. Bury the death-gardener under the compost heap. No-one will think to look there and he, too, will compost well. Meanwhile, the spread of wildlife gardening in the richer world does give some hope –

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Death gardening and its colourful alternative

Here are some pictures of a roadside in the 11th District of Budapest.


Here I have highlighted the bit which was done by nature, at no cost to landowner or local council.








Here I have highlighted the bit which was done by a man with a strimmer, costing probably a thousand forints (something over €3) an hour plus fuel and equipment rental.







The natural bit is utterly wonderful, but the mown bit (death gardening) is very dismal.

I try to understand what is happening in the mind of people who prefer dry grass to burgeoning wild flowers. What is the system which results in this horticultural interpretation of Stalinism?

There are several, divers starting points:

  1. A manufacturer or trader of strimmers sends out his salesmen to pressurise people to buy strimmers. Nature has no salesmen putting pressure on gardening contractors.
  2. Old people in particular have a concept of “order” in their minds – it is something they cling to in order to handle or make sense, to themselves, of a complex, unjust and disorderly world. They seek to impose this concept of order on the physical environment around them.
  3. Again, old people, but also some young, see nature as something to be defeated and conquered. Rather than the source of life, it is, to them, a threat. Once, decades or centuries ago, nature was a threat en bloc: people could do nothing about the storms, floods, drought, monsters, pests and disease that it hurled at them. Now, even though, for most practical purposes nature has been tamed, nature as a threat lives on in their minds.
  4. As described earlier ( many people have an infantile aesthetic in respect of gardens.
  5. Municipal officials, seeking to avoid losing power, assume that their voters want “order” (perhaps having observed the proportion of old votes in their district) and so allocate budget to hiring death-gardeners to create that order. They recognise that the majority of their voters have the infantile aesthetic mentioned above. It may be that they are, out of habit, repeating processes which were followed the previous year.

As a result you get municipalities with ugly, skinhead-mown, patches of dry grass where there could be swathes of wildflowers in a myriad of colours and home to butterflies, bees and millions of unknown, wonderful (and harmless) insects.

Some municipalities are getting smarter. The tract of wildflowers along the embankment of the 59 tram in the 12th District has only been mown a couple of times this year. At least flowers have been allowed to develop.















It could be lusher and wilder and more colourful, and could have piles of logs and stone as habitat for wintering. Nonetheless it is a great start. May the practice of leaving good alone spread. In the context of municipal gardening, less is generally more.

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Nature Notes from Budapest: colonisation, silent gardening etc.

Colonisation and the discomfort of playing God

Refurbishing a house in Budapest – gutting it and rebuilding it to be low energy but with traditional aesthetics – I have learnt about nature’s extraordinary capacity for colonisation. Modest changes to the garden meant lifting many stones: under each was a wealth of life – earwigs, beetles, wireworms, woodlice, lizards. A pile of stones, saved from a wall which had to be demolished, and put onto the lawn in September last year, was, by spring, packed with lizards. I had to move these stones with great care, and slowly, to be sure that the lizard population was not traumatised.

The speed at which creatures colonise the ground underneath stones is extraordinary. I had not realised how important stone piles are. Needless to say, the garden will have lots of them.

Now, since the stones have been moved, the lizards have taken up residence behind the band of external xps insulation at the foot of the house. Sometimes they even go inside the bricks, having discovered a small hole in the wall. This gives me another concern: when the chaps come to fit the main wall insulation and render the whole thing, will the lizards run away or will they just get buried inside the wall? I will have to make them an escape tunnel under the xps. But then when the chap comes to lay the garden path, that really will be their last chance.

Some were not so lucky. Gutting of the house was – gutting. Thousands of bees and wasps and flies were living in holes in the rendering on the old walls. Their homes were destroyed as the plaster was hammered off. I can only hope they also found somewhere to winter.

When digging the pond, I realised many worms and other species had to be displaced: loss of one habitat for the creation of a new, aquatic one, designed for the benefit of frogs and perhaps even newts. It was with discomfort that I realised I was making decisions like a God, deciding which species should have a new home, and which should be moved. Creating a wildlife pond has its downsides if you happen to be a worm.

Silent gardening

It is difficult to complain about neighbours’ noisy gardening when you, yourself, are responsible for the noise of construction works. Nonetheless, I did. We have neighbours who garden noisily. Their contractors come once or twice a month and are armed with trimmers, strimmers, sprayers, mowers and leaf blowers. All powered and raucous. The noise is unholy and disturbs the birds, lizards, and some of the humans.

In researching about silent gardening, which turns out to be quite a movement, I came across actor Tom Conti’s struggles with his noisy, leaf-blowing neighbours.

This quotation of his sums the issue up: “If these people can’t stand the sight of a leaf then it’s not a leaf blower they need, it’s a psychiatrist.”

Wasp hysteria and evolution

At lunch today on the terrace at Park Vendeglo I observed three people at a table struggling with a wasp. The wasp wanted its share of the people’s lunch, and the three people were unhappy about this. The woman screeched, flapping her hands around; the two men with her tried to swat the wasp away. In all, a great deal of fuss and panic.

In contrast, this evening our cat was having supper outside and three or four wasps circled her plate and kept jumping into the food to carve off a little piece and fly away with it. The cat was not bothered. She just carried on eating – minding her own business while the wasps minded theirs.

Given that humans are much more intelligent and self-aware than cats, I assume that there must be an evolutionary benefit to hysterics and panicky swatting of wasps. I have not figured this one out.

Coaching for humans

In looking for a new home for mother-in-law’s dog, we came across a dog pensione in Southern Hungary which not only gives a temporary home for dogs, but it offers all sorts of training. This training includes making dogs more sociable, teaching them to be less aggressive, less dominant and more disciplined, tolerant and better behaved.

This raises an important question. We are prepared to teach dogs to be better members of the community. I think it would make sense to send people for similar training. It seems strange that we are happy to pay for dogs to be retrained but don’t consider retraining of anti-social humans – the payback would be much higher. We would start, for example, with owners of factory farms, the manufacturers of leaf-blowers and other enemies of nature. A few months intensive retraining at a dog pensione would revitalise them, making them kinder people. Their families and friends, wildlife, farm animals and those seeking peace and quiet, would all rejoice.

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End of. Or why loving nature has never been more important.

A friend was concerned about the convergence of augmented reality, self-drive vehicles and 3D printing, not to mention free energy. Another wondered what everyone will do when machines do everything…

Energy is free, goods are free, food is free, transport is free. Nothing requires skills, just the pressing of buttons or not that, just the emergence of desires which are immediately satisfied. Food printers print from chemical cartridges the daily menu, or our taste buds are tickled with virtual foi gras while nourishment is injected by the Great Interconnector. No interaction is required between people. There is no economy. There is scarcely a concept of physical space. A small elite keeps The System going, for some old-fashioned reason – no economic interest, just habit or a relic of morality – checking that the Great Interconnector is ticking along. Mankind is in beauty sleep, a coma where all experience is in the mind. There might be still ageing and death so DNA is harvested from our blood by the Interconnector. There is no need for the messy jerking of semen into eggs, yet we sleep in a constant state of benign and gentle, sexual arousal. There is no human society. No civilisation. There are only ten billion people in paradise.[1]

Today commerce and economic acts are part of the social fabric and contribute to building it. Local shops still exist. But shops are on their way out because of online purchasing, because we will make it at home from glob pumped in and because we won’t actually want the stuff. Why buy jeans if you can sit at home in a tracksuit and have all your needs fulfilled? The less you need to buy the less your personal social skills develop. Farmers and the self-sufficient are not known for gregariousness.

When we are all just plugged into a stream of synthetic experiences, when all the experiences our brain urges for will be provided automatically through digital-hormonal drips, we will no longer have social skills because we won’t need them.

There is no economy. Economy needs a balance of supply and demand. For an economy to exist it needs to be easier to get someone else to do something than to do it yourself. Now that everything is free, there is nothing that someone else can do better than you, so there is no economy. There are ten billion poor and a handful of rich. But as all experience is costless, being poor or rich has no meaning in terms of material things. There is only poverty and wealth in imagination and ideas. The poor are plugged in, the rich are unplugged. Since the poor have nothing to offer the rich, there is no meeting point of supply and demand curves. Thus the poor are kept alive by an old-fashioned sense of duty of the rich – all the poor can supply is genetic accident which might, one day, have some benefit. It would be easy for the few rich to switch off the Great Interconnector and let the poor die. But as it costs virtually nothing to maintain, there is no reason to lose the optionality that the poor provide. Some day they might be needed and it would be difficult to recreate them.

If technology just meant we don’t need to work, you might think that people will have more time for association and socialising. Social skills will thrive. We can join clubs and societies and feel a strong sense of belonging and purpose. Or we will do our own thing and so revel in autonomy.

With no need to work we can embark on amazing projects to restore nature, bring wilderness into cities. We can learn to garden and cook. We can learn musical instruments and play sports. Mastery will give us deep and real satisfaction.

But we don’t bother. Technology plugs right into our brains, shortcuts and obviates traditional, offline routes to pleasure, fulfilment and wellbeing. We opt for the virtual world with its convenience, immediate gratification, an unadulterated drip of concentrate.

Having a cerebral world distinct from the physical world is nothing new. To be a human animal on this planet is to suffer boredom, fear, pain and drudgery and therefore to seek escape in virtual worlds of fantasy, song, stories, paintings and spirituality. What is new is the threat that the virtual world will dominate to the point that society is impossibly degraded or stops existing. Hiding in the virtual world means we lose the ability to love, to negotiate, to make peace, to tolerate and threatens a more fractious, argumentative and violent world. Without peace-making at all levels, society falls apart. But if society is just a construct to enable individuals to prosper, and technology means that society is no longer needed for some form of prospering, then does it matter. Or do we want society for its own sake?

We have an idea of what it is to be a fulfilled human being. We value the idea of people being fulfilled, whole and balanced. This includes being a social person and nurturing social relationships and having social skills. For some reason we loathe the idea of people being reduced to cerebral attachments to the Matrix, even though putting the human race into that coma might be the only way to preserve life on a planet: the fulfilment of our desires and aspirations in the real world is killing the real world. Perhaps the problem of “how do 10 billion people live fulfilled real lives in harmony with the rest of the natural world” is a problem without a solution. Perhaps the solution is to synthesize everything in a virtual world. We would no longer trample down other species; the only movement of our legs would be occasional involuntary twitches as hormone levels are adjusted during the daily maintenance cycle (24MC). It will not be a sadder world: we can synthesize every form of emotion we experience in the real world, so there need be no shortage of perceived contentment, wellbeing, happiness, joy – there might even be controlled experiences of grief, forgetfulness or grumpiness. Yes, human wellbeing needs mastery, purpose, belonging and autonomy. It needs love and relationships and care and hope and trust and many other ingredients. All that can be faked in the virtual world.

This is ok until something goes wrong. The machine breaks and people tumble back into the real world and find themselves in a strange place. We are struck by a smell of rust and rotting, until now blocked by the odour-firewall implant (OFI). Somewhere dust prevails – everything has dried out – water is synthesised from hydrogen and oxygen by the Great Interconnector. Other places dank and mouldy: we never knew.  As we feel our way through those wet corridors and emerge into the air, there is a roughness to experience, an unfamiliar sharpness: like something freshly squeezed and raw. Outside: Eden. What we recognise as gardens are delightfully overgrown, thickets, an impenetrable raucous of birds and insects now inheritors of the real world which we abandoned. Perhaps we don’t know fear and let a spider run across our hands. Others crunch barefoot into snow, trip, cold sears their bare skin: cold, icy cold, for the first time ever. She gasps with exhilaration, her entire body in almost orgasmic thrill – and there is a primal urge to express something, to share, to shout it out, to utter something – and a synaptic signal tries to activate the tongue – but she can make only a pained, spastic grunt: language is dead.

One view: it is a desirable outcome, and the only way to save life on the planet: put man into that coma. If you take that view, then do nothing. It is happening, and hopefully it will happen quickly enough.

Another view: it must be avoided at all costs because it means the end of humanity. It means the end of homo sapiens (good news for elephants!). To save homo sapiens we have to fight the system as we do in the case of all other problems. The system is moving where we don’t want it to. We have learnt from other social battles what to do: resistance, campaigning, counter-cultural enterprise, lobbying and so forth. It is a well-known list.

Interestingly, what we need to do to avoid that Orwellian-Matrixian world is the same as what we need to do to tackle climate change: raise our children to love nature. Get them outside, splatter them in mud, drop them into puddles, throw them into streams, heave them up into boughs, let them graze their knees on the bark, hide behind bushes to watch badgers, smell cow shit, eat blackberries, stalk pigeons, roll down hills, wonder about the moon, shake them out of their sleep to watch the sunrise, sit still while a blackbird sings, hurl pebbles at old people, scare sheep, clamber over walls, replace the stones they knocked off, snap sticks, feed ants, see the sun through crimson eyelids, catch shrimps, boil them, understand their pain, hug puppies, walk in long, wet grass in the morning.



[1] Note that free energy is no boon, despite the rejoicings of techno-optimists. It just means that, freed from one constraint, our species will continue its rampage until it hurtles into another constraint.

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Go Pluto!

How many times do we criticise politicians as egoistical clowns, gallivanting on the international stage, inept, inefficient, conflicted, corrupt and so forth? Whether or not those characterisations are fair or true (it is probably much harder when you are in the seat of power than anyone who is not in that seat imagines), the great news is that politicians and politics don’t matter anymore!

Within a few days of Donald Trump pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement, a group of US states, cities, counties, academic establishments, businesses and investors – over 1,200 organisations in total – launched “We Are Still In” a movement which will pursue ambitious climate goals independently of the US government’s decision not to. Check out:

Their goal is for the US to comply with its commitments under Paris without the government – through the efforts of individual members of the society – institutional, corporate and private.

For Libertarians and those that believe in small government, this is a very exciting development – it shows how you can get big stuff done without government. Smart, energetic, influential, visionary and rich organisations get together and simply side-step clumsy bureaucracy.

For true democrats, however, the initiative might be scary, or at least a chewy compromise. The group includes 900 businesses with sales of over 1.4 trillion dollars. The initiative is led by a billionaire, Mr Bloomberg. Yes, plutocracy in action: a kind of benevolent plutocracy. Big business getting what it wants, something that a majority of Americans voting for Trump perhaps didn’t really want. Which takes you awkwardly close to the dilemma-strewn position of “Us lot are highly educated and you lot aren’t, so we are doing what we think is best for you”.

But should we object to the rich getting their way if they are doing good, and insist on democracy even when it takes us into the dark ages? Good is so rare a commodity that we should not be too precious about how it comes about.

There is great potential here. When the approach is well understood as a system, there is a tremendous opportunity to roll out the “ignoring government” model across the world and just get things done despite government. It can be adopted in other fields such as education, healthcare and other areas of environmental protection – such as the restoration of insects, the elimination of factory farming, rebuilding soil and so forth.

Then we will have a world of two forms of government: Benevolent plutocracies where government is a superfluous circus; and dark authoritarian kleptocracies where it is all government and clientelism and the people scurry in the shadows, afraid, hungry and illiterate yet full of national pride. Go Pluto!

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