Featured article: Vera Keller on “The Philosophical Gardener”

Vera Keller is an associate professor of history at the University of Oregon. She writes histories of science, knowledge, and ignorance in Europe and the Atlantic World in the long seventeenth century. Her most recent article is titled “A ‘Wild Swing to Phantsy’: The Philosophical Gardener and Emergent Experimental Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World.” It appears in the September 2021 issue of Isis, where it is free to read for a short time.

Samuel Green, the HSS Editorial Office Manuscript Assistant, spoke with Dr. Keller about her research on the connection between “whimsical” pleasure gardens in 17th-century and the practical considerations of large-scale agriculture.

GREEN: What first drew you to the topic of seventeenth century pleasure gardens?

KELLER: This interest started a long time ago with my dissertation (Princeton, 2008) on the philosopher Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633). His reputation in current historiography was as a mechanical inventor whose career supported narratives concerning the mechanization of the world view. What I found was that he called his devices “living instruments”  “grafted,” as he put it, onto vital, natural forces. His pneumatic automata and grottos were installed in gardens which appeared to be his main space of experimentation. There are many extant sources and images that describe and depict his philosophical researches en plein air. So I got interested then in thinking about the garden as a space of philosophical investigation and experimentation. Garden philosophy, it seemed to me, might complicate narratives of the rise of the mechanical philosophy by drawing attention to the centrality of vitalist investigations as part of what became known as the experimental philosophy.

More recently, as my work took on global perspectives in a current book project related to this article, Interlopers, the garden seemed an obvious key site situating experimental philosophy in relationship to colonial geographies. There of course has been a lot written about gardens, science and colonialism in the past.

Were there any interesting finds that turned up in your research? What were they, and how did they impact the final article?

In a lot of my scholarship, I am responding to more or less positivist notions of the Baconian program as a fairly commonsensical, easy to follow, collaborative pathway to certain knowledge and social benefit. This is a  current view of Baconianism with roots in the work of early twentieth-century Marxist historians who valorized programs of scientific research leading to widespread social benefit. Agricultural research would be one of their key examples. By contrast, I emphasize much riskier endeavors in Bacon’s chase after presumed impossibilities and the epistemic agency he and his contemporaries accorded to varying degrees of uncertain and fanciful knowledge, from whimsy to wish lists. The pleasure garden thus serves as a useful way to clarify this view of epistemic risk-taking, as opposed to the utilitarian farm or kitchen garden.

I investigated many gardeners and gardens of the era, a lot of whom were utterly fascinating but didn’t make it into the article. The Danvers garden and its associated family of gardeners, the Gilbanks, was my big find. There were so many sources about it as a gathering site, in terms of its gardening practices, and in explicit textual relations drawn between abstruse philosophical investigations in the garden and colonial risk-taking projects. It also was a favorite garden of Bacon’s and had a material link to the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Restoration Royal Society.

It is often extremely difficult to find sources for centuries-old material practices, but not in this case, as contemporaries wrote so much about gardening and even about particular plants. For example, in order to illustrate the intense attention accorded to expensive, useless plants in sophisticated, contrived settings, I could draw on abundant sources written about one pot of a sensitive plant in the Danvers garden. I would have really liked to reproduce Marshal’s image of the pot, but it was very difficult to get permission from the Royal Collection Trust. Danvers himself kept popping up everywhere, and the more I read by Danvers’ associate John Ferrar, a prolific colonial propagandist, the more sources I found relating pleasure gardening to colonialism, culminating in Ferrar’s explicit discussion of “Garden Philosophy” in a tract on Virginia. There was so much material that the article for Isis got extremely long. I shaved off half of it and published it in History and Theory in an article, “Into the Unknown: Clues, Hints and Projects in the History of Knowledge”. For those of you wondering, that is indeed a Frozen II reference. I am planning a follow-up, “Lost in the Woods,” on errors and labyrinths.

Do you enjoy gardening?

I have always been a gardener, but my gardening kicked into high gear during the pandemic. My pandemic garden related intimately to the writing of this article, and in particular to my thinking about resource recycling and extraction. In the past, I focused mostly on food production and native plants, both for reasons of sustainability, and I didn’t cultivate too many ornamentals. Before the pandemic, I had also already begun integrating gardening with my academic research and pedagogy by growing dye and pigment plants and experimenting upon them using seventeenth-century processes, in collaboration with several artists in the area like Ashlee Weitlauf and Tilke Elkins.

Then, in Oregon, our schools and daycares were shut down quite early in March 2020, even the playgrounds were roped off, and we were told not to leave the house. Suddenly I had no childcare and a rather upset and bored five-year-old at home. So, I worked on transforming the garden into a magical wonderland for my daughter by growing from seed (in a greenhouse) many of the exotic curiosities I was researching, like the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), the four o’clock flower (Mirabilis jalapa), selenotropes, heliotropes, and various other plants that did interesting things. I also did more garden experiments as a way to entertain my daughter.

Dr. Keller and her ducks

At the same time, I was also improving my compost and upping food production, especially since I didn’t want to go to the grocery store and there were concerns about food supply chain failures. In the first week of the shutdown, I got Muscovy ducklings and an Angora rabbit, both of whom create several neat loops of sustainability in our garden. The garden is fertilized by all that manure, the ducks eat slugs and give us eggs, and the rabbit gives us wool (which we spun and dyed with our home-grown indigo).  As I was digging my compost, I was thinking about the contrast between my efforts to create sustainable loops through composting and waste recycling on the one hand in my kitchen garden, and on the other, my investment of resources in inedible, tender garden curiosities in my pleasure garden. The supply chain concerns during the pandemic, and my efforts to escape from them through  composting and waste recycling really brought home Ayesha Mukherjee’s arguments about dearth science and cyclical patterns of knowledge and resources and its contrast with linear models of resource extraction. Due to the pandemic, it was in the garden rather than in a seminar or conference meeting that I really thought through my arguments. I never presented this work at a conference; it was just me, my compost, and my thoughts—and occasionally the ducks had opinions to voice. Along with a current bountiful veggie harvest, this article is definitely a pandemic product.