Thursday, July 24, 2014

What's the Point of Gardening? A Gardening Ethic for Our Times

Why do you garden?

If you're like me at all (and I suspect that many gardeners are), you probably have several reasons you garden - several passions that gardening feeds - several functions that gardening performs in your life....

I garden because it makes me feel good to see flowers blooming around my home.

I garden because it's a form of exercise that I enjoy and it gets me outside, in the fresh air.

I garden to increase our property value (I hope).

I garden to provide some good, chemical free food for us to enjoy.

I garden because plants and animals fascinate me in their infinite variety.

Most of all, though, I garden because it's my way of doing something very concrete, very local, and very specific to make the world healthier and more ALIVE.  I garden, and I garden the way I do, because it's my way of helping to heal the life force on our planet, which seems to be in serious danger from the increasing human assaults on it over the last 100 years or so.

"Okay, Cynth, " I can almost hear you sigh.  "What brought this up?  Can't we just look at pretty pictures and move on?"

Well, of course you can.  But I read something the other day that really got me thinking about my role as a gardener.  Ben Vogt of Nebraska, who blogs at The Deep Middle, posted a commentary that struck a deep chord with me:  "Is There Any Difference Between a Land Ethic and a Garden Ethic?"
Hmmm.  Is there?  Why DO I garden?  Why do most people garden?

Ben started his thought-provoking post by quoting bits and pieces from Aldo Leopold's wonderful statement about developing a land ethic, as written in A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold finished writing this small, but important, three part book in 1948, just before he died.  The book was published a year later.  I think the most concise statement of Leopold's land ethic is actually written in Leopold's own forward to this book, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."  (My italics)

Filling the last 25 pages of A Sand County Almanac, the entirety of Leopold's "The Land Ethic" is certainly too long for me to quote here, but it's well worth reading...and rereading.  In it, he moves from showing how we humans have developed our ethical codes, first working on the relationships between individual humans and later developing codes such as the Golden Rule and democracy for how the individual relates to society as a whole and how society relates back to the individual.  Now, Leopold believed, it had become necessary to develop another layer to our ethical codes to govern how humans related to the land and to the plants and animals that shared it with them.  Otherwise, in Leopold's words, "There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man...."

Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948 and presumably developed his ideas even earlier.  What would he say about the way we treat the land, and the plants and animals on it, now?  I'm rather glad he's not around to see what we've done and, even worse, what we're in the process of doing.

Because I am around to see what we've done and what we're currently doing, I try to treat our little 10 acres according to Leopold's Land Ethic, adopting this ethical code, to the best of my ability, as my gardening ethic.  I try to treat our land, with its associated plants and animals, with love and respect, thinking of it as a community that I belong to rather than as a resource to maximize.  Realizing that communities - like most complex things - are healthier when they have all of the parts that they should have, I am trying to reintroduce plants that have disappeared over the last 150 years while this parcel of land was being extensively and intensively farmed.  I'm hoping that, as the plants reestablish, many of the smaller animals will find their way back too.

My goal is to have as stable, as healthily functioning, a prairie community on our 10 acres as I possibly can.  Someday, perhaps, the plants and animals that remain on this tiny piece of land will serve as a source to move back out into the wider landscape as a whole, helping to heal it as well.

Towards the end of "The Land Ethic," Leopold talked about a schism among folks who work with and on the land - he called it a cleavage - that divided people into 2 camps which deeply affected their relationship to the land they worked with:

In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes:  man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen;  science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.  Robinson's injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as a species in gelogical time:
Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave.

As a gardener, which cleavage do you belong to:  the conqueror or the citizen?  Is your garden your slave and servant or a community that you belong to?  When you are gone from your garden, what will you leave for the future?  What mark will you have made?


Greggo said...

Something to ponder. I like to think as our time on earth as being a very short time in the grand scheme of things. But I also believe what happens here echoes in eternity (i know that's pretty lame, from a movie. But I think it's well done).

I think the question is, what does really matter?

Gaia Gardener: said...

Yes, I think that's a good question, Greggo, especially related to our gardening. How would YOU answer it?

Benjamin Vogt said...

We're here for a short time, but our impacts are long lasting. Shoot, in just 40 years kids growing up today see 30% less butterflies and moths than their parents did. That's a lot of impact in a short amount of time. When we get to heaven, if you believe, will the question not only be what did you to for your own species, but for others? How did you care for the gift of creation?

Gaia Gardener: said...

Ben, we are part of life on Earth, not above and better than it. I agree with you completely.