Fantasy garden apocalypse metaphor*

Let your eyes close gently. Don’t force them.

Breathe in deeply to the count of 4.

Breathe out slowly to the count of 8, letting your breath move gently down through your body.

Continue to breathe in this way until you no longer have to count and you are in a deep state of relaxation. This may take a few tries.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_Earthly_Paradise_(Garden_of_Eden)Now. Imagine yourself inside a beautiful walled garden, a place where you don’t feel threatened and where you are perfectly peaceful and calm. All your needs are met and you relax in your favourite lounge chair with a bowl of fruit collected from the trees around you. It’s sunny, and the dappled light comes through the branches and warms your bare arms and legs. There’s a nice breeze and there are birds and woodland creatures, building nests and frolicking. They are friendly and allow you to pet them as they accept nuts and seeds from your hands. You breathe in the lightly perfumed air, scented by flowers in bloom. Nothing can bother you here, and everything seems in perfect balance with the universe, including you.

Suddenly, you hear a low rumbling in the distance, and a voice, far away, crying out in distress. You try to ignore it, sinking deeper into your chair and shutting your eyes tighter, but the sounds become louder and closer. Eventually, you’re forced to rise and break the deep calm that had settled into your body. The creatures scatter and birds fly off, panicked. You feel the same anxiety, prickling the nape your neck.

You climb a trellis on the wall of the garden to get a better look. Your arms and legs are scraped by thorny stems and nettles, but you press on, upwards, determined to find out what lies beyond. When you reach the top of the wall you cautiously peek over. As your eyes register what’s on the other side you feel your bowels loosen and your mouth becomes very dry. Shocked, you have to grip the wall to keep from falling backwards.

The scene is one of absolute chaos. Tower blocks are ablaze, the smell of burning synthetic materials is thick and suffocating. People run terrified in all directions, clutching their worldly goods. Rental vans careen toward crowds, their drivers’ eyes wild with malice and despair. Knife bearing terrorists and vigilantes attack at random in the name of particular ideologies, while disenfranchised opportunists smash and grab from shopfronts. Police and armed forces looked stunned, unable to decide who to help first. There don’t appear to be enough of them to be effective. Firefighters spray high powered hoses at flames which only spread faster up buildings carelessly designed as deathtraps. A thin bird like woman stands on a podium and shouts in a quavering voice that everything that could have been done has been done and we are still STRONG AND STABLE. A group of men in suits stand around her, alternately laughing and weeping, heads in hands.

320px-Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_HellAs you take in the detail your mind and heart struggles to understand what is happening. From your dreamlike hypnotic state you have been dropped into a horrifying dystopia in which violence, suffering and trauma are everywhere. Your first response is to flee, but where can you go? The chaos seems to be spreading in every direction, surrounding your little garden and trapping you inside. Perhaps you should go back to your chair and focus on your breathing? There isn’t anything you can do (the women said everything had been done, right?), and if you exit the garden you may never find your way back. Worse, others could discover it and destroy the peace you have created. You must protect your quiet personal space from the disfunction and rot that is causing society to collapse in on itself.

Then, someone shouts something in your direction. You quickly lower your head below the wall but it is too late, you have been spotted. They cry out to you again, a plea for help. You feel conflicted: on the one hand you fear interaction more than anything – you don’t want to be contaminated by the needs and complications of other people. On the other, you feel a strong desire to attend to them, to offer support and share what you have with them.

You take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Just a minute”, you say, and climb back down the trellis. You find the secret rock that’s in the shape of a toad and retrieve a key, rusted from neglect. It has been a long time since you used it. Pushing aside the overgrown bushes and hanging branches you uncover a door and with the key open it, slowly, apprehensively. A wild, bloodshot eye appears in the crack: “Please, help me!”. You open the door wider and let them in.

More follow, and soon your garden is filled with people recovering from the chaos that had enveloped them. They cough up smoke and blood and clean their wounds, some sleep in the dappled shade, others eat from the fruit trees and excitedly hatch plans for a brighter future. You are glad that you opened your garden to them, but worry that there’s not enough room and that they will take too much and leave you with nothing. You climb back up the trellis and survey the garden, and are amazed to realise that somehow the dimensions of the garden have expanded to accommodate the crowds of people. As more enter, the walls extend further and your little private utopia transforms into a sprawling arcadian landscape, with rivers and verdant valleys to shelter and replenish the injured and the destitute. To help them start again.

Things are far from perfect in the garden, now that it has become a public sanctuary. The conflicts and inequalities that arise in all cultures are manifest, and frustration and anger at differences threaten the community. One of the most frightened and cowardly of the group suggests BUILDING A WALL through the middle of the garden, to separate THE BAD from THE GOOD. He even proposes that THE BAD pay for it because clearly they’re the ones who are the problem. People laugh at him because even though they are characters in a metaphorical story they understand that things aren’t that simple. They stick flowers in his bum so he will stop stinking up the place with bad ideas.


There are celebrations, skirmishes, resentments and reaffirmations, and the garden is home to all these things. But with some important changes: now when they build houses they think of everyone’s needs; they learn about each other’s differences before jumping to conclusions and stereotypes; and they stop isolating themselves and others. Instead, they work together to become STRONG AND STABLE without the miserable bird-lady and her gaggle of ineffective suited men.

You observe these changing dynamics with new found hope. Sometimes you catch yourself missing the perfect calm that came with unchallenged personal space, when all your needs were met and you didn’t have to deal with the messiness of others and otherness itself. But then you look around the wild fantastical place that has grown up around you, with all its collective quirks and foibles, and inconveniences and interruptions, and misunderstandings that sometimes lead to understanding, and discomfort and pleasure all mixed together… and you think: “This is better. This is interesting. This is how we are meant to be”.

Now I am going to count to 5, and when I reach 5 you are going to feel awake and ready to carry on being the world.

1 (starting to move your fingers and toes) ….

2 (remember that others’ needs are just as important as yours) …..

3 (interesting things happen when you open the door to others) …..  

4 (gardens are better when they’re co-cultivated) …..

5 (open your eyes)


* This post was inspired by my emersion into hypnobirthing scripts with my partner over the past few months, my joys and challenges as a resident of a co-housing community, and the especially distressing nature of recent tragedies and acts of violence that have been further distorted and amplified by news platforms and social media.

Images: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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