Two gardens and several soils: Jaan Kaplinski’s gardens and vegetable plots

The garden as a literary trope has a time-honoured tradition behind it. Its classic manifestations include locus amoenus, a pleasant and delightful space in perpetual bloom, as well as hortus conclusus,an enclosed leafy space bearing religious connotations. Gardening as an occupation has been compared to a continuation of God’s work of creation on earth. However, these traditional tropes need not pay much attention to soil that has a crucial role in the cycle of matter between the living and the nonliving parts of the environment and makes the cultivation of surface vegetation possible.

In the early poetry of the Estonian author Jaan Kaplinski (b. 1941) the traditional garden image, particularly a fruit garden in bloom, tends to appear as a place suggestive of a promise of eternal solace. Independent of these, there are also poems that demonstrate an awareness of the living soil, as well as the underlying bedrock, as important components in the environment. Occasionally these texts also acquire a (quasi)religious dimension of death and resurrection; the latter may occur in the guise of a plant.

The soil and the garden come together at a somewhat later stage of Kaplinski’s poetry, in particular the collection Evening Brings Everything Back (1985), which documents the passing of nearly a year in the life of the poet. The poems give evidence of the spread of kitchen gardening and preserve-making in Estonia during the Soviet years that helped to fulfil a gap left by the limited availability of food, and was thus also endorsed by the official Party line. The poems record the bodily engagement required by managing a vegetable garden, weeding and watering. In their treatment of the human mastery of the environment the texts stand out in the context of Kaplinski’s work that more usually has been linked to deep ecology. Still, his take-on of gardening does not fully amount to an anthropocentrism that would counter the principles of land ethic as suggested by Aldo Leopold.