Entropy & Life, Yin & Yang and why we like a well mown lawn.

“Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.” – May Sarton

“Garden as though you will live for ever.” – William Kent

At a wedding last weekend I found myself with a glass of champagne in my hand, standing on a perfectly flat, freshly mown croquet lawn. The sunlight reflected off the grass at different angles to create that lovely chequered effect seen on test cricket grounds all over the land. All around us the flowerbeds were straight, the gravel smooth and the box hedges well clipped.

I turned back to the conversation and asked my companion a question that I have often thought about while standing in beautiful gardens. Why are our aesthetics so geared that we prefer order in our gardens rather than chaos? Why do we prefer straight lines and trimmed grass when we could just as well prefer tangled undergrowth and brambles?

He told me I was crazy. So I knew that the question was important.

Well kept gardens give me a feeling of deep satisfaction. Something like finishing all your admin for the day or tidying your room. Although most people might not describe it that way, most of us do seem to find something reassuring about order. It’s one of those may facets of human nature that are so pervasive that we don’t stop to question it. “Neat and tidy gardens just look nice,” you want to say, “of course they do.”

Contrariwise, disorder is inherently perturbing. A messy room causes us strife that goes well beyond the mere practicality of the matter. Advertising gurus, increasingly the discerning psychoanalysts of our time, were quick to take advantage of our deeply rooted aversion to disorder in a recent advertising campaign for payday loans.

Consider it for a moment and it becomes clear that we could just as easily prefer the sight of a messy room to a clean one and a straggly garden to a prim one. In any case, a person with a taste for the untouched would save alot of money on trowels and trouser presses.

Part of the reason may be just that – well ordered gardens take money and time and as such they are indicators of wealth. There’s an evolutionary case that indicators of wealth could shape our aesthetic preferences in certain instances – from high ceilings to the ample bosoms of well fed figures in renaissance paintings.

But I suspect there is something deeper at play.

There are few fundamental laws of the universe. In fact most of what we like to think of as universal laws are really more like habits.[1]

One pretty well agreed upon law is the second law of thermodynamics. This states that in any closed system randomness and disorder, known as entropy, always increases over time – eventually things die, decay, and, as Chinua Achebe famously pointed out, fall apart.

The universe itself is generally agreed to be a closed system, there being nothing ‘outside’ the universe from which energy can flow (bit controversial this one but stick with me). Within this closed system there can be any number of open systems – systems into and out of which energy and matter can flow. Your garden is an open system which imports energy in the form of petrol for the lawnmower and cups of tea for the gardener. This borrowed energy can be used to fight entropy and create the order and patterns I enjoyed at the wedding.

The earth is an example of an open system. It borrows energy from the sun which allows it to create order in the form of complex molecules and biological life. As ever this is a temporary achievement. Entropy is still lurking in the background – rocks are eroded, leaves shrivel and decay and granny won’t be around for ever. But whilst the sun still burns the flow of energy allows the constant renewal of order and life.

Thus we like order in our gardens because on a deep level it symbolises the fleeting triumph of life against the odds. No wonder horticulturalists have the highest levels of job satisfaction.[2]

Entropy and Life are therefore something like the Yin and Yang of Chinese philosophy – opposing forces that yet depend upon each other for existence. Indeed yang has etymological connections with the sun, the life affirming force of our planet which creates temporary order over and against entropy driven destruction.

So next time you compliment someone’s garden try something like, “Oh I just love your rhododendrons they’re so yang.” And then forward them this so they know you’re crazy and can stop worrying about it.

Yin 陰 or 阴 Noun ① [philosophy] negative/passive/female principle in nature ② Surname Bound morpheme ① the moon ② shaded orientation ③ covert; concealed; hidden ④ ⑦ negative ⑧ shady side of the mountain ⑨ south bank of a river ⑩ in intaglio Stative verb ① overcast ② sinister; treacherous

Yang 陽 or 阳 Bound morpheme ① [Chinese philosophy] positive/active/male principle in nature ②the sun ④ in relief ⑤ open; overt ⑥ belonging to this world ⑦ [linguistics] masculine ⑧ sunny side of the mountain ⑨ north bank of a river

[1] <http://www.sheldrake.org/files/pdfs/explore-Materialism.2013.pdf&gt;

[2] < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2232056/Gardeners-florists-named-UKs-happiest-workers-90-horticulturalists-enjoy-going-work.html&gt;

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