One of the difficult to comprehend landscape trends of an earlier era was the garden hermitage. Real hermits disappeared with the Reformation, but the idea of a fake, picturesque hermitage lived on in English style gardens. Some just had a hermitage structure with the suggestion that someone lived there: an open book sitting on a table or sometimes even a dummy dressed as a hermit. But more wealthy land owners took the idea a step further and went so far as to pay people to act as hermits. Gordon Campbell’s book The Hermit in the Garden From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome contains the following story,
At one great house in England the accounts disclose a half-yearly payment £300 to a hermit, who had, for this commensurate salary, to remain bearded and in a state of picturesque dirtiness for six months in the year in an artificial cave at a suitable distance from the house–just far enough (but not too far) for the fashionable house-party, with its court of subservient poets and painters, to visit, walking there in the afternoon, peering into the semi-darkness with a little thrill of wonder and excitement.
The Craigslists of an earlier era sometimes carried garden hermit help wanted ads,
Mr Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he had to continue the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor even to stay beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks’ trial cured him.
I was giggling my way through Cambell’s hermit book until I realized the idea is still, very much, alive. We don’t have hermits anymore. We have tiny house dwellers. Tell me how this reality show ad is any different than the garden hermit appeals of an earlier era:
I’ve long thought the tiny house movement to be less about practicalities than about about a reaction to the spiritual malaise caused by consumer culture. The greatest expense in building a house are the kitchen and bathroom. Walls are cheap so you might as well make some extra space. Thus, in economic terms, a small house rather than a tiny house makes more sense.
But the tiny house movement is not about economics. It is, in part, an attempt to, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song to get “back to the garden.” In this way, the contemporary tiny house aspires to Adam and Eve’s pre-fall tiny house described in John Milton’s poem, The First Love of Adam and Eve,
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade,
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub,
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Rear’d high their flourished heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay
Broidered the ground, more coloured than the stone
Of costliest emblem
But the tiny house also resembles a full embrace of melancholy that’s been unfashionable for at least 150 years. There’s a whole genre of now nearly forgotten “dark” poetry that Cambell quotes from, such as Thomas Parnell’s ‘The Hermit,’
Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
From youth to age a reverend hermit grew
The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well.
It’s not too great a step from this picturesque melancholy to full desert father style escape from the consumer matrix. Right now we’re riding high on an economic boom. Inevitably there will be another bust. No sane person knows when that bust will happen again, but when it does I predict we’ll see more garden hermits and fewer tech bros.
Full credit must go to Gordon Campbell for the quotes in this post and to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for the Joni Mitchell reference. You can also listen to a Futility Closet Podcast episode about garden hermits.