CAMOUFLAGE a stenographic epic of our environment

notes at the end of this essay

Nature is somehow oppressing – even when she has become quite tame, as in the Bois, she is still inspiring the real city dweller with a certain fear.

Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit

Man’s nature is his culture. If man is also an animal, it is an animal ‘who’ can say to himself: ‘I am also an animal’; or simply and mistakenly: ‘I am an animal’; or even more complicated: ‘I am a Bororo, a parrot’.

Man is an offshoot of nature, yet to him nature will always appear different from what it actually is. Nature is what Kant called a Ding an sich, something unknown in itself, known to man only in the myriad of his projective images. Each of nature’s images is but ‘a tendentious fragment’. [1]

Only at the instant of death or on top of Machu Picchu, struck by Inca Atahualpa’s revenge, the instant of not being able to confine one’s nauseating impulses of diarrhoea within the boundaries of an insurgent body – only then may man feel reduced to his animal being. However, such an instant never exists for him. He either is such a moment or he contemplates it, that is after it’s passing, as a projective link in his particular chain of being. Even if it is that ghastly instant of diarrhoea.

The actual unity of a man’s natural body and surrounding nature is merely undergone, never conceived. Only at the moment when unconscious habit is blocked, man becomes irritated and thus forced to bring that irritating object to his attention, thus only after the fact conceiving of his lost unity – as an image of that experience, never as the real thing. [2]

The notion of ‘environment’ is such a projective image of nature, even though nowadays it is invoked to analyse whatever historical ‘situation’ is at stake. What is an ‘environment’? In this synopsis, which moves from the Far East to the Far West, I shall categorically register my hypothetical answer, camouflaged though as a thesis on historical gardens, all of them being so many practical images of nature. They in their turn function as camouflage of various cultural conditions. [3] In the end, all versions of naturalism or anti-naturalism have been but so many versions of culturalism.

Primitives do not fear wild animals, nor do they fear sudden droughts or falling rocks. For them these natural incidents are harmless as such. If someone does get hurt or even killed by for instance a crocodile, this can only be the effect of a magic spell or a witch’s curse – that is, of a fellow man’s acting through that crocodile. [4]

Primitive hunters did not have gardens, but there have been primitive gardeners. The Trobriand Islands were the exception, this in an area were most islands show an ‘overwhelming force of vegetable life and the apparent futility of man’s efforts to control it’. An ‘environmentalist’s prediction’ of most of the Trobrianders’ behaviour is possible. Their islands afford no hunting, some bird snaring and abundant fishing. However, the ‘environmentalist’ fails to predict that half of every Trobriander’s life is spent in their agricultural gardens. [5]

In Trobriand language various words refer to wild as well as cut ‘bush’ surrounding their garden under cultivation. The gardens are laid out and also fenced in, both effectively as well as magically and with the help of leftovers from this cut bush. This guards against pigs that would harm the crop, only of course if bewitched. Bush and gardens are part of one and the same order, which magically interconnects everything. [6] ‘Nature’ for the Trobriander did not yet exist, neither for that matter does ‘environment’.

We move Westward, towards the Middle East where a mythology of Paradise was invented, long before Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Paradise – that splendid though insolent fusion of the creation of both garden and mankind. Insolent, because it denies the status of mankind to those peoples who did not have gardens or who, like the Trobrianders, did have gardens, but not yet a concept of wicked ‘nature’. In Genesis the Old Testament lavishly borrows from this myth when, after the creation of heaven and earth and after the creation on earth of all flora and fauna, man and woman are created and then instructed to procreate and lord over the rest of creation.

Curiously enough – by way of an afterthought, that is after the story of the seven day creation plus God’s rest has been told – the myth maker who wrote Genesis added this fact: God ‘also planted a garden in Eden, towards the East’ in which he then ‘put man’. In this garden or court only wholesome and beautiful trees are to be found, alongside fresh rivers and in it ‘animals of the fields’ who are subsequently named by Adam. [7]

We know this, Adam and Eve not yet, but obviously, then, the world outside this garden was pretty awesome. God admitted only one poisonous fruit and one poisonous snake into his Paradise. Logic demands that Adam did not name this awesome outside rest of nature. This God left as a task for botanists, ornithologists and biologists of a later date. Thus, inside the garden almost all is good and safe, but woe to him who lapses and then is expelled!

The square garden or court of Paradise – which can still be admired in gorgeous Persian carpets – became in the monotheistic West the metaphor for man’s control over cultivated land, navigable waters and domesticated plants and animals. All this stands opposed to all that is not or rather not yet controlled, like open seas, wild beasts, deep forests, droughts, untamed rivers and heavy rains. In the West’s history this non-domesticated nature was to play the evil part of natura naturata, also the most practical index of the theodicy-problem which came about when man lost his pre-logical belief in the goodness of crocodiles and thunderstorms.

Greece does not seem to have had any special gardens. It was in sport parks and in theatres that the natural condition of the body and its relation to surrounding nature was lived. Of course, there must have been philosopher’s yards in which they thought. The amphitheatre was the court in which by way of Tragedy the socius separated itself symbolically from non-cultivated nature – the barbaric nature in which the Medea’s of this world were still embedded. [8]

The Greek city in its totality was as such the proud expression of culture versus uncivilised nature, not in need of any special symbolic expression in the form of gardens. Only with the growth of the Greek polis into the metropolis of Rome and with the transformation of a simple society into one with a more complicated class structure did the need to escape the city into the ‘country’ arise. First, this still took the form of a ‘gated security’ of agricultivation, shut off ‘against the rigors of the wolf run hills’. [9]

This pragmatic garden-metaphor of nature has been forged by European upper classes with a city-dweller’s background. Up till the revolution of the English Garden in the 18th century, a fence or wall was typical of the latter day Paradise. Nonetheless, as far as art is concerned, it must be pointed out that in contrast with geometric Byzantine and Muslim art that lacked delight in nature and lives from a feeling of separation from nature, Greek and Renaissance art were vital and naturalistic. After all God – natura naturans – did create all of nature and did so in order that man, from an innermost feeling of vitality, should in the end lord over all of it, dominating even its wildest manifestations and. [10]

In the 16th century Venetian Villa, owned by the first bourgeois who fled the city, the link between agricultural labour, for the first time turned into ‘capital’, and the Villa-owner was so direct that no actual gardens were laid out. The ‘fence’ coincided with the Villa’s walls, their inside being painted with idyllic, rustic scenes. [11] Then the French Court took up the early Renaissance tradition again, and fenced in its gardens which were integrated in a visual program of ‘unspoiled nature’ in the form of visible mountain ranges. [12]

With this difference: Court life now moved outside the range of the city. Instead of visually relating their gardens to the city, as was still the case of the Villa’s in the Arno valley in relation to Florence, Versailles was fenced in by way of an artificial bosco while having a visual perspective on an infinite horizon. King and courtesans, conscious of their dependence on the produce of agricultural labour, perhaps because of this knowledge, did not want to see labour actually performed, they retreated inside the garden-court, laid out geometrically like Eden’s Paradise, all of nature’s treats being domesticated and trimmed.



Although we are witnessing here man’s renewal of Rome’s attempts to discipline our internal, bodily nature – in the form of ballets and military drills – the royal gardens still integrated their formal ‘space’ with the voluptuous qualities of fusis, i.e. nature or life, using smell, light, colour, fireworks. The ‘time’ of the garden’s ‘cosmic’ order was punctuated with special feasts. [13] Ordered, domesticated as the gardens were, nature still was considered ‘natural’, albeit opposed to ‘wild’ nature. By that time in Europe, not all that much of real wild nature could still be encountered, it had to be imagined. Most of Europe was either man made or at least touched by his hand.

During the eighteenth century alchemistic ideas and traditional ways of cultivation slowly gave way to an actual mastery of nature by way of science-oriented technique. Though Galileo and even Newton were still incapable of accepting or recognizing the distance between geometrical theory and actual experience, now and then also giving in to alchemy, the idea of ‘nature’ became increasingly separated from the general notion of ‘life’. [14]

With Locke’s separation of the primary and secondary qualities of objects, life’s ‘properties’ were now considered to be projections of man’s mind on an otherwise soundless, odourless, colourless and ever speeding ‘matter’. [15] In the same period, first so in 18th-century England, the 17th-century intention of a completely disciplined body became more actual with the arrival of clock-regulated industry and a utilitarian oriented private life.

As a kind of reaction-formation ‘Kent leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden’ – to use Horace Walpole’s famous words. [16]

A Ha Ha

Using the invention of the Ha Ha – a word coined by Walpole for  a fence, sometimes a stone wall, lowered in a ditch below the surface of the actual park – from inside the park all of England seemed to be one, as well as the property of the park owner. Observe the attitude of Mr and Mrs Andrews in this painting by Gainsborough. As if no other Englishmen exist and England just exists for them!



And indeed, in such parks ‘nature’ had become a ‘garden’ – cultivated soil that is. Here, away from their useful business, the landed gentry would have frivolous comfort and idle amusement.

In between their fenceless gardened, yet Ha Ha protected bit of nature with its serpentine lanes, the actual life of business was mentally fenced off. The almost Romantic, surely an idyllic definition of all nature as a garden did the trick, however completely stuffed with statues, inscriptions and organised little perspectives to amuse the owners and their visitors, freeing them from the prison of a utilitarian imprisoned self.

Aiming his arrows at the English, Voltaire was only mirroring this position when his traveller in Micromégas tells his secretary that he does not want to be amused by a comparison of nature with flowers or pretty girls: ‘I merely want to be instructed’. [17] The English Garden represents nature as an absence of wild nature and, at least up till the impact of the garden designer Capability Brown, as the omnipresence of culture. It is nature camouflaged, or: the idea of nature realized.

At the same time ‘tourists’, among them Horace Walpole, visited what was left of wilder parts of nature – the ‘sublime’ Alps. They were pleasurably awed. For the first time in history untamed nature became an object of delight, this of course within the context of a well planned and safe return to good old comfortable England.

It was Hegel, who summarized capitalism’s integration of social relations, productive technique and consumption in the fine notion of ‘a system of needs’. [18] Subsequently, in 1867, Karl Marx summed up the same concept, now more specifically including nature. That system turns on ‘labour: a process between man and nature in which man ‘mediates his metabolism with nature through his own activity’. From the very moment that history began, nature has been part and parcel of it. ‘Non-historical ‘nature’ can only be found on coral islands, says Marx, to which Darwin added the virgin forests of the Amazon.

The notion of ‘a system of needs’ has been transplanted by ‘a system of machinery’ involving man’s growing superpower over nature. [19] Now, the question as to when precisely the notion of ‘environment’ came about has always been one I have been wanting to answer. Marx used the concept of ‘surrounding nature’ which sounds a bit like ‘environment’; it is also meant to sound like it, because he interpreted it in terms of general ‘outer’ conditions of production: natural riches and the riches of the means of labour. In the later phase of economic development the last aspect dominates. [20]

However, by chance I think I have found its real topos. Hegel seems to be the first to have coined a word that implies a neutral notion of environment. In his Aesthetics there is a short passage in praise of the French geometrical garden, at the same time being critical of the English version. The last type, in his view, is far too ‘picturesque’ and not ‘architectonic’ enough, such as a good garden should be.

The English Garden, according to Hegel, involves ‘the coercion of the non-coerced’; here the essential ‘gardensque’ gets lost. Against the background of his own historical philosophy and his notion of the human condition, Hegel then concludes that a garden must be ‘a happy environment and a pure environment‘. It should not impose itself on man’s mind like the English Garden with its frivolous follies and serpentine lanes does. It must leave him free to be inside himself and with himself. [21]

‘Pure environment’ – the notion takes away the secondary qualities from nature, as biological or medical science abstracts and isolates them. Here belongs the notion of ‘landscape’ becoming autonomous (‘urban landscape’, ‘industrial landscape’), or colours becoming more autonomous in 19th-century paintings of for instance Von Kobell and Delacroix. [22]

The practical development of gardens and thus of camouflaged nature did not follow a Romanticist path but pursued the road of Modernism, while at the same time well to do Romantic tourists of course kept touring the Alps or went hiking the by now well documented ‘Romantic trails’ in the forests of Fontainebleau, meditating on ‘Nature’.

From now on, however, the governing classes also prepared Nature for their working classes, who from 1800 on were confined to a clockwork city and a clocked labouring life. [23] When we move Westward, towards the United States, we find the notion of ‘natural environment’ in a purer form than any European country could show us. Here the shaping of a healthy environment for city dwellers took giant form in the making of Central Park, New York city.

Although aesthetic ideas played their role, Central Park would never have been there without this idea of a morally hygienic environment. [24] Whereas Kent’s Ha Ha was used to camouflage ownership as well as eliminate any obstruction of our view between the garden and its surrounding territory, Central Park was consciously planned as artificial nature, surrounded as it would be by the metropolis which however should not be seen from inside it.

Tree borders was one trick used, however a new type of Ha Ha provided the most important camouflage of New York city life: the traffic of vehicles, motorised or not. Because of the enormous size of the Park, this traffic had to go right through it. It was camouflaged, however, by roads that were actually cut into the granite surface of Manhattan, thus bringing traffic below the pedestrian’s level. [25]

The older Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up America’s dilemma regarding nature. Having been a mystic naturalist in the beginning of his career, like Thoreau underlining the need of everyman ‘being like a wild antelope, so much part and parcel of Nature’, he finally opted for the city being not so much ‘a deviation from natural life’, as an ‘artificial form of life which is also natural’. The ‘masters of the world’ did well ‘to call in nature to their aid’, for instance in the form of ‘hanging gardens, villas, garden houses, islands, parks and preserves’. [26]

Manhattan, and inside it Central Park, represent America’s new union of artificial nature and artificial life. Culture and Nature had become each other’s environment, or – as Pragmatism would have it – they had become ‘transactive’, a situation which – as Marx would have reminded us – involves exploitation of both man and nature. According to Olmsted, one of Central Park’s designers, ‘nature could only have this civilising effect if it were efficiently controlled as well as judiciously managed’. [27]

The primacy of such metropolis union of ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ lasted till the arrival of the car as the vehicle of mass transit. From then on Americans began to discover wild nature again, which up till then could only be seen by most in the form of second hand photographs.

Anselm Adams, Carmel, photo

All America went camping and hiking. By the fifties this had led to a new situation in which nature had to be protected from man. Not only were all National ‘Nature’ Parks, like Yosemite and Yellow Stone Park, now completely ‘routed’, when you left New York City to go out into ‘nature’ you would also find it impossible to park your car alongside the Parkways or even on smaller roads. Only when expressly indicated was it possible to get ‘of the road’ to find yourself ‘received’ in a ‘lodge’, this by professional ‘naturalists’ who were waiting for you with booklets and maps of trails. In fact, you never went ‘off the road’ and saw only whatever there was of wild or cultivated nature from a trail, reading or being talked to by naturalists who had organized it. [28]

It is obvious – or at least hypothetically obvious – that the future of nature is the Reserve. Not the nature parks, were man is admitted though routed, but an actual reservation in which ‘Nature’ is kept untouched, perhaps only to be seen by their guardians, the biologist-naturalists – perhaps not even by them.

So-called ‘land-artists’ rephrased the problem in terms of ‘the transformation of a site’ leaving only temporary man made traces to be effaced by Mother Nature herself – of course leaving a reminder in the form of photo’s and of traces of a ‘revelation force’, i.e. as ‘the realisation of an idea’. One thinks of Richard Long, who in 1967 produced his photographed ‘track in grass made by walking’. [29]


Richard Long, photograph ‘track in grass made by walking

Since then, the notion and practice of ‘environment’ and ‘gardening’ seem to have changed. Natura longa, vita brevis seems to have become the semi-religious motto of the latter day naturalists, who would like to keep mankind out of the remaining bits of wild nature. They mirror some ‘anti-ethnologists’, who would like to keep postmodern man away from the last surviving primitive ‘little peoples’, because observing and meeting them would mean touching and thus perverting them.

We would, in that case, have come full circle. Once Eden’s paradise was culture surrounded by wild nature, man and woman, of course till their lapsus, were ideally not touched by that nature, their pure environment. Now we approach the situation in which man reduces himself and his culture to the environment of the last bit of wild nature or wild mankind, situated somewhere in the Amazons or even farther westwards, in the Far East that is – never to be touched again.

Whereas Darwin and his contemporaries expected that finally ‘the map of this world ceases to be a blank’, the postmodern ‘environmentalist’ seems to be aiming at a willful terra incognita, blanks on that map. [30] Postmodern man is of course also awed by second hand, televised information on the eruptions of volcanoes that cannot be touched anyway.

Nature seems to have become latter day man’s ‘Garden of the Hesperides’, in which the golden apples once stolen by Heracles are returned by the wise goddess Athena, never to be stolen again by anybody, guarded as they now are by the Scientific Managers of Nature’s Reserve.

Sierksma Sept./Oct. ’96
From: The Architecture Annual, 1995-1996, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 1997

1. Gehlen, Urmensch und Spätkultur, 1964 2e imp., 212.
2. The reader may find this concept of human behaviour and subjective consciousness in Peirce, Philosophical writings of Peirce, Buchler editor, 1955 ed., 27, 229, 256ff. and in Dewey, Essays in experimental logic, 1916, 70.
3. ‘Camouflage’, from the French ‘camouflet’: smoke blown in the face of someone else, perhaps even in one’s own face. I ask forgiveness for the metaphor which is just too good a title to give it up.
4. Lévy-Brühl, Primitive mentality, Am. trsl. 1966, 51ff. Apart from this basic fact I do not follow Lévi-Brühl’s general theory on ‘pre-logical’ mentality which seems to be rightly criticised by Lévi-Strauss in The savage mind, Am. trsl. 1966, 251, 268
5. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and their Magic, two volumes, 1965 edition, Vol. I, 8f. The second volume analyses the arduous task of the anthropologist translating Trobriand language; in the end ‘garden’ in various shades of the meaning is chosen for a set of Trobriand words according to what is done there as over against what is done in the ‘bush’, Vol.II 17, 83 ff. e.p.
6. I share Lévi-Strauss’s criticism of Malinowski’s anachronistic separation of utilitarian, aesthetic and magic functions of gardener’s activities (o.c. Vol. I, 80), Primitive ‘science’ is scarcely of much practical effect – its main purpose according to The savage mind being the satisfaction of the intellectual need for order, magically postulating a complete and all embracing determinism, o.c. 9/11. Idem, Gehlen o.c. 62.
7. Genesis, Ch. I, esp. verse 28; Ch. 2 esp. verse 8, Ch. 3, esp. verse 1/7 and 23/4.
8. See Euripides, The Medea, in: Euripides I, Lattimore ed., Chicago 1955, verses 103/4, 285, 535/8, 1328/45. The fundamental implication of Medea is that no civilised Greek, but only a ‘barbarian wild woman’ could take revenge on her treacherous husband, by killing his and her own children. Also Benjamin, Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels, 1972 ed., 108/113.
9. See Schama, Landscape and memory, 1995, 530. As far as I know, Latin Venus is goddess of the gardens, which is not told of Greek Aphrodite.
10. Hulme, Speculations, quoted in Dewey, Art as Experience o.c., 330 ff.
11. See Bentmann and Müller, Die Villa als Herrschafts-architektur, 1971 ed., hst. 12, 13.
12. For a sketch of this early Renaissance Villa-program compare Van der Ree c.s., Italian Villas and Gardens, second ed. 1993.
13. Compare the splendid study by Zur Lippe, Naturbeherrschung am Menschen, volumes I and II, 1979 ed., esp. II, 422, 438 as well as the last chapter. In the 17th century the notion of perspective was still used to console subject and object, cf. Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the crisis of modern science, 1983, 174, 181/4 (on Mollett’s ‘cosmic’ gardening, 1652).
14. Pérez-Gómez, o.c., 166/7; also Dijksterhuis, De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld, 1975 ed.,527/39.
15. Whitehead, Wissenschaft und Moderne Welt, vert. 1949, 70, hst. 3.
16. Walpole, On modern gardening, 1785, in: Anecdotes, vol. III, ed. 1862, Wornum ed., 801.
17. Voltaire, Micromégas, 1739, 1752 in: Romans et Contes, 1972 ed. 104.
18. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts, 1821, Third part, par. II A.
19. Marx, Das Kapital, I MEW ed. 1971, 192, 652. Marx/Engels, Die Deutsche Ideologie, 1844ff., MEW ed. 1973, 44.
20. Marx, Das Kapital o.c., 535.
21. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik, III hst. 3, par 3.c, ed. Suhrkamp 1986, 348/50. His wording is ‘heitere Umgebung und blosse Umgebung’. One should not forget Constable’s criticism of a Capability Brown garden ‘which is not beauty, because it is not nature’. Perhaps he meant that in that case it should not be ‘natural’ at all – like Hegel
22. Hardtwig, Naturbeherrschung und Aesthetische Landschaft, par. 6 on Kobell. Delacroix, The Journal of Delacroix, trsl. third impr. 1995, on ‘objects presenting a colour mass’, 5 may 1852.
23. Compare on clockwork-work Thompson, Time, work, discipline and industrial capitalism, in: ‘Past and present’, 38 (1967).
24. The costs of such an enterprise were enormous; the fight over the funding immense; in the city land is precious and limited; so funding was dependent on whether enough groups in society could recognize their concerns in such a park. And the solution: to create the impression of a park larger than it actually is by a planted enclosure and an open centre. Curten the Elder in his Essai sur les Jardins, Lyons/Paris, 1807, quoted in The Architecture of Western Gardens, ed. Mosser/Teyssot, 1991, 368.
25. Compare Rosenzweig and Blackmar, The Park and the People, a history of Central Park, 1992.
26. See Thoreau, Walking, around 1845, par.40. Emerson’s first mystical version of Nature, edited by J. Pelikan, Boston 1985; the second more down to earth version: Nature, in: Essays, second series, 1844, Everyman’s Library ed. 1906, 302, 297.
27. Rosenzweig/Blackmar o.c., 140, and also: 240 ff, 258, 318 327.
28. Read Frisch masterpiece, the novel Stiller, 1954, Suhrkamp ed. 206 ff. I remember the same kind of perplexed anger when I lived close to New York in the early seventies.
29. Harrison ad Long in: Land Art, Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum, catalogue 2d edition 1970.
30. Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Everyman’s Library, 1959, 486. The environmentalist view implies commensurability of natural and artificial beauty on the grounds that a natural object, just like a cultural object is beautiful because it is ‘in context’. Cf. Crawford’s article in Kemal/Gaskell, Landscape, natural beauty and the arts, 1993, 190/1. The implication of this view would be that touching the ‘beauty’ of primitive nature implies changing the context and thus ruining it.


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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