Of all the things our gardens do for us, arguably the most important is their role as our teachers, even in winter when a temperate garden ‘rests’, its surface crust or top few feet, frozen, maybe sheltered beneath the cover of snow, or, as ours so often are, simply too cold for active plant growth, the soil wet, the rain too heavy to percolate fast enough down through its layers, without the active aid of either the direct heating of the sun or its effect on plants, through evapotranspiration, pumping water back into the air as the plants grow. Gardens teach patience. They encourage us to become more careful observers…to think and plan, to anticipate and prepare, to understand that there is more going on here than we can readily see…and they teach us about faith and trust in the natural world, that there is always more going on than we can see.
The seasons are not a simple on/off switch for our gardens…they are always on. Life does not end in winter…and then suddenly begin anew each spring. There is an important difference between dormancy and death and there is, too often, a gap in the modern person’s understanding of what is happening in the world about them as seasons change. It would be more accurate to think of it as a cycling from one stage of growth to another, from resting to active, from a ‘retreat’ or recalibration to replenishment in an annual larger process of adjustment.
We learn that even an annual plant, its life spent, in a burst of flower, continues, its vital spark, alive and well in embryonic form within its seeds, waiting for its own time to re-emerge, like sprinters passing a baton around a track, never ending, while herbaceous perennials retreat groundward into the meristematic tissue within their crowns, readying for their own re-emergence, but always alive.
They can teach us about harvest and death as well, the brief pause of stepping outside, the return phase of the cycle, where all that was once invested into growing an individual life is given up, returned, feeding, what was once gifted to them to the possibility of another life, feeding whatever species that consumes it in turn, breaking it down, down, down, enriching the life in any one place, before it is broken down into its most basic form, ready for another plant to reacquire and build it back once again into the complex dance of compounds, metabolites, cells and tissues that comprise every organism. We come to understand that when we harvest and remove, we’ve broken this cycle and to maintain its vitality and complexity we must add it back in some form or the land and life upon it degrades and suffers.
Plants are not limited to the structures you see before you, like any living organism, they are the spark, the verb, the life force itself, manifested in billions of different ways. What we see is the physical form of their unique becoming, consistently growing, adding cell to cell as it builds toward maturity and vitality, seasonally adding structure, that staves off that lost to injury and rot, replacing that given up as leaves are shed to stress and season, their own individual lives spent. In animals this is expressed in the process of apoptosis, programmed cell death, cells spent within the organism’s structure, sacrificed, until maturity begins to accelerate this process of cell death and it begins to outpace its ability to replace old cells and with it, its ability to maintain itself, beginning its slide into death, returning everything that it once was to the Earth and the promise of rebirth. Plants do a similar thing though they tend to do it in mass shedding root hairs, leaves, even branches in bunches or its entire above ground structure, replacing them completely new growth, from the shell of meristematic tissue that lays protected just below their epidermal surface and crowns.
In a tropical garden, there is no annual ‘cold’ phase in the cycle, instead, very often, there is a rainless dry cycle, to ‘test’ plants, to rein them back and, in a way, even the ‘board’, resetting the next ‘wet’ cycle’s beginning point, a kind of ‘reminder’ to the life there of the limits and parameters, the ‘rules’ within which they must all abide. In the wet tropics and tropical cloud forests, the limits are less pronounced and the relationships, as you might imagine, are very different. When the opportunity for growth is continuous, the plants must find other routes to ‘success’, without the pronounced seasonal differences in their growing conditions one might think that they would grow like a cancer in gross attempts to overwhelm and dominate the others, but in such places the cues and advantages are widespread and subtle…one might say competitive, with each individual poised to take advantage of every opportunity, but one can also argue that it is the cooperative aspect of individuals, a cooperation that extends across species differences, that make these places the most complex and diverse of any region on earth.
If we open ourselves to it we begin to see the parallels between our gardens and the larger natural world and wonder at such a world’s beauty and capacity, it’s complexity and diversity and how well we fit into it or how far our lives have strayed from it, because as a product of the living world we too have an important role to play.
There is a term that came into more common use with the two Gulf Wars, ‘embedded’, when journalists were chosen and teamed up with various combat units, but that is a very narrow and political use of the word. Doing this was an attempt to limit and control the news that came from the battlefield. Yes, it gave reporters an access and perspective that they may have never had of our troops on the ground, but by structuring the ‘relationship’ this way it powerfully shaped the news and views that came out of the war. If we are to think of ’embededness’ in more ‘organic’ terms, we are talking about belongingness, community and the quality of being connected, intimately and integrally to everything around you, to all of the factors and forces that impinge on your life. In the living green world this includes not just those that you are in direct contact with, but also all of the countless, thousands, millions, and in some cases, billions of others that effect the environment upon which your life depends and to which you, by living, contribute.
There are many types of gardens and a very wide range of climates, regions and locations in which to grow them. As human beings, as gardeners, we get to define, to a large extent, the nature of the gardens within which we live and ‘work’. For all of the other organisms, this is not a choice…they simply live in relationship ‘with’…and I don’t intend to diminish that fact in any way. They know their place, but we…have a choice!
What would the world look like if we were ‘embedded’ locally, if we lived in conscious relationship with the life around us, because this is essentially what every other species does. Ours has been the only one to set ourselves outside of this. In biology the world can be divided up in many different ways one of them is the simple division between heterotrophs and autotrophs. Most fit neatly into one or the other, with a few exceptions. What’s a heterotroph? borrowing from Wikipedia: “A heterotroph is an organism that cannot produce its own food, relying instead on the intake of nutrition from other sources of organic carbon, mainly plant or animal matter. In the food chain, heterotrophs are primary, secondary and tertiary consumers, but not producers.” This is the group to which we belong. Autotrophs, again from Wikipedia: “An autotroph or producer, is an organism that produces complex organic compounds from simple substances present in its surroundings, generally using energy from light or inorganic chemical reactions. They are the producers in a food chain, such as plants on land or algae in water.” We are by nature consumers and must be, but the manner in which we do this is entirely up to ourselves.
Our gardens are little microcosms of the wider world, not that world itself. They are manifestations of our worldview and our relationship with it. While many of the parameters are set for us by our climate, latitude, the nature of our soils, the incursion of invasive species, the seed bank and the integrity and vitality of the surrounding organic communities, we still are able to determine what we will do on our own particular patch, whether we will do anything at all, to the broken, disturbed and ‘developed’ landscapes within which we live. Even given all of this our choices are virtually limitless while our individual time to explore them is very limited. It is the depth of our commitment to our gardens that provide us with the opportunity to engage in a deeper relationship with nature.
We may choose to grow what we can to feed our families, to grow flowers for a vase, to recreate some comforting childhood garden, an experience or desire, to create our own version of beauty, a respite from the ugliness that too often permeates our cities and communities, or to feed birds, to make some attempt at recreating the wildness that was lost generations earlier, practical sacrifices to desired development. Whatever the kind of garden we might have, there is also some element of control, a limiting or encouragement of the processes in play at work on any site. When we garden we presume. We make decisions informed by our own knowledge and perhaps even more by our biases and desires, our willingness to yield and these are things not entirely within our conscious control. In a very real sense our gardens are an opportunity to explore ourselves and that which remains hidden from us, our relationship with the world and life itself. When we garden we presume to know. There are decisions to make and we must act even if that action is to sit quietly and simply observe. If we are to garden well we must do so openly. It is not just the plants, individually, that we must learn of. They are a part of the ‘hook’ that can initially draw us in. It is the complexity of the relationships between them that they share with one another and their place…and by extension, their relationship to us and ours with them, our gardens and all of the countless other places that together work to create and maintain the world, because that is what they are doing…it is not just some mad competition to out grow one’s neighbors.
Plants are autotrophs, producers. From sunshine, water, air and soil they have helped create the world. The heterotrophs, the consumers, including us, are every bit as necessary to the processes of life, to its cycles. Through us and our consumption we limit and shape the world and we do this by returning the growth, breaking down its components and gifting it back to the cycling of nutrients, energy and life in such a way that it can continue in an ultimately beneficial way. More than any other heterotroph we are uniquely suited to shaping, redirecting the ongoing evolution of life on this planet, just as we are in our own gardens, if we are open and aware of our relationships with it. Obviously this is not a given. If we do not embrace our role as an active participant in the ongoing creation on this planet and neglect our roles as nurturers, ‘shepherds’, stewards, as necessary and grateful participants…well, that is the path we’ve found ourselves on today, the path we must find a way off of if we are to stem the continuous and increasing levels of taking that today defines our relationship with the life on this planet. Just as fire is a natural part of the world, when it occurs too frequently, burning too intensely, a landscape is diminished and the species that have both helped create and support it are as well, leaving the mineral soil unable to replenish itself, unable to support that which it could before. By almost any measure today we have been unwilling as a society to make the commitment to both change this pattern of consumption, oxidation, using, burning and do what we can to heal the wounds. One thing our gardens will teach us, if we are open, is that the Earth is a living system and that we currently are a rouge, aberrant, element, causing increasingly disruptive damage. We must recognize our role!
It wasn’t until about a year ago that my wife and I began to actively feed the birds in the garden. For years I intentionally planted for the hummers and have long had representatives of our year round resident Annas here. I would leave my garden ‘standing’ through the winter, making minimal efforts to ‘clean it up’, leaving, even adding leaves to the soil surface, with dead stems and stalks left in place, providing cover for ground feeding species as well as for wintering over insects they could feed upon. We made water available too in the form of a small pond and left it about in saucers, but putting out bird seed and suet seemed false somehow, believing what we really needed to do was preserve, protect and increase the natural areas within the city, rather simply assuage our guilt and complicity over the destruction of their habitat, by putting out seed for them. But now I feed them, having come to the conclusion that we may never see the world again in which they once flourished, and must instead do whatever we can to make up for the injury we have caused them. Guilt is okay if it spurs us toward action, toward ameliorating the damage we have down and still do.
Yes, we need to stop the continuing destruction, but this is one small thing that I have complete control over. Now I’m better able to enjoy the life that remains in the city, life that had been largely invisible to me. This winter we’ve spend time watching the Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, Chickadees, Oregon Junco and Jays, Bush Tits, crowding our feeders and look out for the occasional Downy Woodpecker and Flickers. One afternoon we watched a Cooper’s Hawk patiently wait over an hour in our Parrotia, the songbirds conspicuously absent. Seeing the Hawk made us smile as I realized how each action we take has effects, that can be positive, well beyond our intentions. The Crows are already everywhere being well adapted to the urban availability of road-kill, carrion and waste that seem to go with cities though they seem quite adept at cracking open the nuts from the neighborhood’s exotic English Walnuts. The Robins don’t visit our garden much but they do the neighbor’s Hawthorn and smaller fruited Crab Apples and I’ve always been partial to the Cedar Waxwings, that in small swarms make their rounds feasting on Serviceberry among other neighborhood fruit offerings…there needs to be more. I watch the wildlife and the ‘inefficient’ way in which the feed and conduct their lives, in stark contrast to our own ways, ways that leave little for other species in our consumptive zeal, while laying waste to the landscapes these wild species require for their simple, balanced, lives.
When we build cities comprised of unbroken gridded development with only lawns, foundation plantings and the limited palette of aggressive and ubiquitous weeds crowding waste spaces and our unbalanced, limited, landscapes, we are excluding wildlife, turning our neighborhoods into barrens and dead zones and we fool ourselves into believing that it is either enough for us or the wildlife. We allow only limited ‘wild’ areas which, in turn, can support only limited wildlife and many of us think this is okay, that subtracted from the wild, this matters little, that the world is simple and, I suppose, that if later, it turns out that such places are actually necessary, that we can ‘easily’ add them back…but an understanding of life demonstrates that a solution isn’t so simple that it can be so easily ‘plugged’ back in. Again, our gardens can help teach us how the world works, about its complexity and necessity.
Our gardens and landscapes provide us with the opportunity to learn our role, about humility and gratitude and the over riding value of life, about beauty and our necessity as planners, healers, stewards…even as a kind of ‘acolyte’. Not nearly enough of us are doing this. All too many have bought into the dream of consumption and convenience in a world of utility and scarcity and so have acquired a ‘hunger’ which can never be sated. Through our gardens, by reconnecting to the larger living world, we can rediscover the meaning and purpose so many have lost and begin to develop another, better, more supportive and harmonious way to live. The industrial/consumer age, in its own narrow rush for success, has rejected almost entirely the world of indigenous peoples who out of necessity had to live in relationship ‘with’, though for many it was also a choice. Now, as we literally burn our way through the earth’s limited resources, clear and ‘develop’ ever more of our wild and ‘wasted’ lands, we are in desperate need of an alternative way, a way in which we very consciously re-evaluate the old rejected world, and its values, as well as assess the value of the goods and promises of the modern world when balanced against their costs. Our gardens, again, can give us the time and opportunity to do this. The courage to implement the needed changes will come as we build our confidence in the world we are moving toward as we begin to re-engage with the world and life on it. To set a course based on a world of scarcity and fear leaves us blind to our choices. This life has always been a grand experiment, a gamble and we, as a species, cannot afford to make our decisions based on fear, or some idealized version of the past. We must open our eyes and truly begin to understand that which supports life on this planet.
I sense the Professor Kimmerer in you! Plants as teachers. The beginnings of where we must go.
Thank you for this outstanding article!