Landscape Maintenance and the Fear of Death

Words by
David Godshall
Images by
David Godshall
| April 18, 2017

Drive around a city or town in any developed or semi-developed nation and you will inevitably find people maintaining landscapes and gardens. Some of them may be doing it because they enjoy it as a hobby or pastime, others will be doing it because it’s what they do for a living. It’s happening constantly, everywhere. Leaves get raked or (less ideally) blown away, weeds get pulled and plants get trimmed – business as usual. This activity and the noises they generate are part of the hum of neighbourhoods worldwide, a purr that makes up life in the developed world. And we accept this outright. But why? A simple Q&A allows us to peel back the layers of behavioural psychology and evolution and get to the bottom of this. Tabula rasa.

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What is the purpose of garden maintenance?
People like it when things look nice and tidy. We find it lovely when the grass is cut, the hedges trimmed, and the driveway swept clean. It’s aesthetically and emotionally pleasing to a person when their home and garden appear tended to. A person’s dwelling is a blunt metaphor of who they are as a human being – their tastes and priorities laid bare – and thus the physical condition of the dwelling and garden is hugely important, and must be maintained.

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But why is it aesthetically and emotionally pleasing to see a garden maintained nicely?
Biologically speaking, that emotionally pleasing feeling is actually the result of neurons in our brain firing off. It is part of an elaborate and sophisticated feedback loop that Homo sapiens developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, as a way of staying alive.

When we do something or see something, which in the evolutionary or survival sense is good, our brain rewards our brain with a small stimulus of emotional pleasure, which makes us more likely to repeat this behaviour.

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But why, in the biological evolutionary sense, would our brain reward us for maintaining our garden?
Try this: stop maintaining your garden. No more watering, mowing, clipping, weeding, blowing. Quite quickly, the condition of your garden will radically change. First, many things will die. Then weeds will become rampant, volunteer plants will begin to pop up, trees and hedges, now left unkempt, will become wild and overgrown. Your garden, formerly controlled and organised, will quickly devolve into a small wilderness.

Wilderness is dangerous and chaotic. It has an order to it, but this order exerts itself through mechanisms of violence, disease, and biological competition; species are set against species, the strongest survive. The pain and suffering are feedback instruments we developed that ultimately took us away from the wild, and towards a place of order and control, where we could reproduce peacefully and survive.

Following this logic, our brains reward a kept garden because it staves off wilderness, because in the wilderness there is death, and thus by keeping nature controlled and orderly, we keep death away.

Landscape maintenance is, therefore, an exercise of fear.

We keep our gardens tidy because we fear death.

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