Monday, 10 December 2018

Twenty-First Century Browne

As I've lately been reading (or rather dipping into) a book called The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, I was delighted to hear the great polymath's name on Radio 4's Start the Week this morning. Ruth Pavey, author of A Wood of One's Own, was talking about her book and her experiences of creating a new-planted wood from a scrubby overgrown plot of land. When planting her saplings, who did she consult but Sir Thomas Browne – specifically his The Garden of Cyrus or, the Quincuncial, Lozenge or Network Plantation of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered.
  The 'quincuncial' pattern is simple enough: one tree with four others disposed around it as they would appear on a playing card, thus creating offset rows, allowing good circulation of air and lines of sight. All very practical – but not for long, of course, as Browne goes chasing back into antiquity in search of a model gardener, finally alighting on Cyrus (the Second), whose methods Browne commends, before setting off again to pursue the quincuncial pattern through all of organic nature, observing 'how Nature geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things'. Having reread The Garden of Cyrus, Ruth Pavey closes the book without having gleaned much useful practical knowledge, but 'with the feeling of having been led home after an erratic, fantastical adventure'. She quotes the wonderful sentence near the end of The Garden of Cyrus, 'But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge'.
 Good to know that Sir Thomas Browne is still alive – and still read, even The Garden of Cyrus – in this twenty-first century.