“This is an art/ Which does mend Nature – change it rather; but/ The art itself is Nature.”
– William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
I grew up “wild as the wind” on a beautiful patch of land in North Carolina. I knew forests and creeks and untamed acreage. For several years, I lived mostly outside in a shack that my father and grandfather built for me and my brothers. I thought I was the boy from My Side of the Mountain, living amongst the deer and the cottonmouths and the owls. I caught crawdads in the creek, climbed trees for a good place to nap, ate “stew” I made from creek water, crabapples, and wild onions, and dug up blind, wriggling earthworms to skewer on a makeshift hook so that I could “fish.” I dissected owl pellets and kept a box of treasures that consisted of shards of cobalt blue glass I found at an abandoned hobo camp in the middle of the forest, a rusty hammer with someone’s initials carved into the handle (“D.B.” David Bowie, was it yours?), feathers, a turtle shell, shed snakeskin, cicada shells, and other and sundry objects.
I can still hear the cool hum of dawn in North Carolina. I’d get up before the sun made its sleepy climb into the cornflower blue sky and pick my way through wild grass and Queen Anne’s Lace to get to the blackberry brambles. My skin, raw from scrabbling up trees to get to the best berries, was then bathed in the pale creek, my toes nipped by darting minnows. I could stay in that place forever.
From this rarified existence a deep love and appreciation for nature was born. What I experienced was largely uncultivated earth, curbed in a loose way by the borders of suburbia. Though tidy rows of houses made up the outer border of the acreage on which I lived, the neatly trimmed, fenced off backyards created a separation between controlled outdoor environments and the untamed yonder that I frolicked in like an eager bloodhound.
I moved to Boulder, Colorado when I was 11 years old. Colorado is a spectral land where nature is ostentatious and obvious everywhere – grand mountains always in purview. But, this land felt different somehow – distant and unapproachable. It was not the home I had carved out for myself and did not contain the extreme freedom that I had made on my own. I knew the trees in my forest and I knew the creek’s song, and I knew the time of day certain woodpeckers would knock their orchestral timpani on the sycamore’s spine. This home I had carved out in North Carolina, this womb I had climbed into, was gone. Yet my enduring respect for what I learned in my youth will remain with me for a lifetime.
The naiveté of childhood is bliss. When I was young, I did not have to make sense of the wide world around me. I only had to live and be in my environment on a day-to-day basis. I did not know anything about climate change, or the damaging effect of human beings on the environment. I did not think about the future or worry about it at least. I would hang upside down from a tree limb and narrate my future as a famous writer in my head, cocooned in the belief that the earth I so dearly loved would always love me back.
I sit outside and watch the trees that were allowed to stay in this neighborhood tilt gently in the wind, my hair lifted high by the same breeze. I think about urban sprawl, and how unnecessary most of it is. Fortunately, Nature has fortified herself against human blight.
If we go outside and it’s windy or hot or humid or unwelcoming, there is a tendency for to feel annoyed. The elements carry on without our consent. That is why we build homes where we can control our environment. We can adjust the temperature, the lighting, the décor, the structure. Yet, Nature, against all mad protest, does what it wants. A few years ago, I was furious when Oklahoma winds blew my midterm across the campus parking lot. I realize now that I should not have taken it personally. I was the one in the way of the wind’s path.
This desire to control environment, to make things how we want them to be, has, as civilization has progressed, extended to the out-of-doors. Everywhere there are prim parks, manmade lakes, dammed rivers, perfect lawns. The mark of human agency is omnipresent, and is divided between that which nurtures and that which harms. I stand somewhere in the middle with this philosophical dilemma gripped too tightly in my hands: I need to respect the earth and love it with all of the tenderness and adoration that is inside of me. Yet, I have not figured out the balance for how I live on this planet. If I mow, sow, reap, till, and toil, I am doing it in order to control – in order to beat back the creeping growth of Nature that pushes insistently against our destruction? This is where gardening comes in (in a really complicated way for me). Gardening represents my physical labor on the surface of the land, my interference with nature, and my desire to do what is right (but ultimately not really knowing if I have any claim to or right to control). The catharsis of this essay will be apparent, but at the time of writing this, my answer to the dilemma is unknown. At this time I ask you, Dear Reader, to come with me on this journey.
I started a vegetable garden between my sophomore and junior year of college. Around the same time, I had – as the unstoppable idealist I will forever be – formed an unwieldy campus organization that I called the Environmental, Animal and Human Rights Welfare League (EAHRWL). One of the undertakings I never got around to implementing (there were many), was a campus garden. My backyard garden was going to be the experimental ground on which I learned. Without praxis, I had nothing to bring back to campus to teach members of EAHRWL. My experiment resulted in more than just a lesson on “how to garden.” I also learned deep disappointment, and found myself in my first argument with Nature.
First, I had to figure out a way to protect the garden from my overly enthusiastic dog, Alston. Alston had a knack for destroying things that I loved – like my favorite one-of-a-kind vintage t-shirt that he chewed enormous holes into (which I still wear despite the holes). I wanted him to be able to roam the backyard, but not tear up the ground in the garden, as he was wont to do. I dug four feet deep holes and dragged and placed giant cement/wooden posts into the ground which I nailed chicken wire to in order to create a makeshift fence. This took two days of unattractive labor – sweating, grunting, groaning, blistering. When I was done, I let Alston into the backyard. He trotted the perimeter of the fence, sniffed the air and then galloped off, happily ignorant of what I had done to protect my garden against him.
Yet, after all the hard work I did building a fence, tilling and planting, I left for India and no one watered the garden. Everything was dead when I got back. Weeds had taken over. I was angry. I felt that Nature had seen my efforts and was taunting me. What I did not want to look at was that my own neglect, and the neglect of the assigned garden-waterer, had resulted in this failure.
When gardening, you are toiling under the false notion of ownership and mastery over a small patch of land. You are neither of these things: neither owner of nor master over the land. You are, at best, borrowing the land for a time. We will not remain, but the earth will. It is older than you and wiser than you and when you set yourself in opposition to it by suppressing, maintaining and cultivating it, it fights back. Michael Pollan, food and garden guru of the decade, states in a chapter of Second Nature entitled Nature Abhors A Garden, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule” (p. 48). Weeds sprout and choke new growth, insects devour the leaves and fruit of budding plants, and, in the case of my second garden, progress can be undone overnight by a hungry possum with a penchant for peppers.
I attempted Garden Number Two last year, as it took me some time to get to a place where I wanted to try this big experiment again. At the back of the house I live in now, there was a miniature wasteland. Years of building materials had piled up in a corner behind the shed and it was littered with dilapidated door frames, rotting planks of wood, burned out television sets, rusted car batteries, etc. Instead of hauling off the trash and detritus of previous tenants, my landlords continued to throw everything into this pile. It was rank and gross and I lived with it for a year before I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore.
I look around the world, and all I can see is potential. My vision extended to this horrible corner of my property. I saw what it could be: a beautiful vegetable garden. My second garden became a project of reclamation, of righting wrongs perpetrated against my beloved earth. I thought digging and hauling posts was hard with my first garden, but I had no idea the intensive amount of labor that would go into the second.
My first task was hauling away the junk. Next, was raking up and disposing of layers of trash that had mounted underneath the junk for nearly 20 years (judging from the expiration dates on milk cartons and the like). After a few days in early February of last year, I could finally see the ground. I marked off the perimeter of my garden and started digging and turning the soil, only to continually strike the blade of my shovel against something very hard. I moved to a different area and struck against the same thing. “How big is this buried object? What is it?” I thought. I had a sinking feeling that what was buried was enormous and maybe even too big to unearth. After two days of backbreaking labor I discovered three 200-300 pound concrete slabs that were buried about a foot deep under the soil (more leftover construction materials). Two of these slabs, I hauled out of the ground with my own bare hands. I did this in a feat of strength fueled by fury. I look back on myself hauling those behemoths out of the ground with a mixture of awe and disbelief. I wanted those damn slabs gone! I wanted life to grow here! How dare these silent slumberers thwart me.
Over the next few days, I unearthed a rather ridiculous pile of buried building materials: bricks, concrete chunks, nails, broken glass, rotted pressboard. I was frustrated because I thought clearing the surface of the land was going to be the hard part. There was no way for me to know what would lie buried beneath the soil.
Finally, after I had readied the ground for plants, I realized that I did not really know what I was doing. My first gardening flop had undermined some of my confidence. I was desperate to start planting, but I felt like there was probably “the right way” to go about it, but I didn’t know what that way was. Gardening will teach you how little you really know about the natural world. Should I plant eggplant in the fall or spring? How much water does everything need? What about mulch? Irrigation? Had I planted the tomatoes in too much shade? If I was planting something that was rather foreign to me, how would I know when to harvest it? I consulted a few books, but eventually just did my own thing. In North Carolina, I saw that the blackberry brambles grew free, as did the onions, tuberose, thistles, carrots and apple plants that had sprung out of the ground in my forest paradise without human guidance. I thought gardening was going to be akin to this organic process where whatever I put in the ground would grow without much maintenance or afterthought. I guess this was foolhardy, but I am nothing if not self-reliant and stubborn.
The planting part was fun. I bought seeds and starters and delineated little rows. Once everything was in the ground, I had the patient task of watching it grow. The morning I came out and saw rows of red onion stalks pushing up through the ground, I felt a real thrill. From the wasteland of this space, something was alive, something I had planted and tended. That is, until Nature, fought back.
First, a hailstorm beat my garden to shreds. Even though my plants were puny and sad after that, they did their best to grow back. I was so happy to see this – regardless of a damaging hailstorm, life still went on. This made me realize the kind of magical powers gardening had in store for me. I planted a seed and gave it water and sunshine. This was all the seed needed before the hard little nugget that looked static and asleep, would grow into something that bore no resemblance to its original state. Witnessing this act, I feel as excited and awed as a child. From potentiality to actualization – this is the core journey of gardening.
I watched my tender shoots thrive in the spring, but when summer hit, everything went downhill. The sun began to burn up my plants. My potato garden grew at such an astonishing rate that the three-foot high stalks broke under their own weight before I had a chance to mound the dirt securely around them. I became, once again, acquainted with the misery of failure.
Nature fought back against my effort, which paradoxically, was an effort to give Nature back to herself. I was proud to have removed the junkpile from this area and to attempt growth and renewal. I was not successful. Last summer, my yield was something pitiful like 6 peppers, a handful of garlic, and a few basil leaves.
I am on Garden Number Three now. This year, I had some money saved toward the goal of making a better garden. This time, I have built raised beds that will lift my plants away from the earth enough that they don’t get baked by the heat of the sun. I have a picket fence erected to stave off the possum. I started my plants earlier than last year so they have a chance to root more deeply. I know what each of my specific plants need. I know when to pluck the leaves off of my strawberries. I have figured out the best time of day to water my plants (early morning). I have taken the bitter wisdom of what failure can teach you, and tried to do things better this time.
This brings me to where I am now and the two feelings that war in my chest: Pride and a Dilemma. I am proud that I have not given up, and that I have adapted previous year’s lessons into something better. Yet, I am left with a lingering philosophical dilemma, as previously mentioned, on the nature of gardening. The central thesis to the dilemma is: To garden, or not to garden? To claim and tame or to let grow free? The philosophical concerns I have raised in this piece will be covered in a forth-coming second installment in which I’ll turn to some heavy hitters like Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and David Thoreau for some answers.
Even when Nature fights back against me, I will meet her head on and do the dance of confrontation until I gain understanding. I am not an idle gardener, but a thinking one. If what I make isn’t a contribution to the whole, I will not continue doing it. Right now, I have no answers and I make no promises. I can only tell you one thing with certainty: what I have done, I have done out of love. When I lie back against the fragrant earth, sweating, stung, bleeding and filthy I feel nothing but peace and exultant adoration for what surrounds me.
“The world is beautiful, and this everything.” Albert Camus, Notebooks, p. 56
(c) Grace Gordon All rights reserved. Contact Grace by way of email to start a thrilling conversation on philosophy or gardening or anything under the sun.