Originally published on Substack, March 16, 2021
I planted tomato and pepper seeds yesterday and put them out in the cold frame on heat mats to germinate. I have a little greenhouse space, but, um, I’ve turned it into a writing room. This is an experiment this year, putting them out right away. I hung one of the shop light/grow lights from the lid of the cold frame. We’ll see. It’ll either work or it won’t.
Which is sort of my core gardening ethic. It’ll either work or it won’t. I don’t go to enormous lengths to get things to grow — we’re in a harsh climate — our average is 16” of rain per year. I don’t have automatic sprinklers, and I water by hand when I absolutely have to. I use a lot of mulch. Mostly straw because it’s cheap. Winters used to be harder, but even if it’s mostly in the 20s and 30s we’ll still get a spell of subzero weather. We had one in November, and one two weeks ago. Today it’s 60. And sunny. I had to prop open the cold frame so the seeds don’t cook. I’m sure it’ll snow a few more times between now and June 1, when I can put tomatoes in the ground.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something I want to call the Garden Ethic, but I think that nomenclature is going to be a problem. People hear “garden” and they think the garden aisle at the big box stores. All those poisons. All those fertilizers. All those nursery plants they pick up and bring home like any other consumer good. Another aisle of things Capital wants to sell us.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the sense that we’re put here to take care. For me, that’s what gardening is. It’s taking care. It’s looking at what is actually out there in my yard, asking things how they’re doing, doing my best to keep them going. I plant a lot for pollinators. I have fruit bushes and trees. Since the food distribution economy hasn’t entirely collapsed, I leave a lot of the berries for the birds, and it’s birds who eat nearly all my apples, although on a motivated year I’ll take them over to Bozeman to be crushed and then we’ll make hard cider.
There seem to be two approaches to gardening and sadly the prevalent notion is that gardening is all about imposing human will on the landscape. You know, like topiary trees or my dear Posy Krehbeil’s beautiful Camp Rosemary garden with its “garden rooms” and lawn trimmed like a putting green.
Gardens are problematic in the American nature imagination. For the most part, we don’t have gardens, we have lawns, and more and more, those lawns are tended by landscape crews and watered by automated systems that go on at five in the morning. They’re just green background. Like outdoor carpeting. There’s even a word for it: plant blindness. Across most of America, we don’t have gardens, we have landscaping.
Some of that changed this year, with the pandemic. Just as, after the 2008 crash there was also a spike in vegetable gardening. We’ll see whether it takes, but for the most part, it seems that mainstream America thinks gardens are “too much work.”
Which is kind of the point I’m circling around to. For me, the garden’s work is the point. A garden, like pets or livestock, demands that you get out of your own head and tend to something else. Mid-March is when I start seeds because that’s when they need to be started if they’re to go in by June, and throw fruit by September. I’ve got a week or two wiggle room on either side of March 15, and I’ve started tomatoes as late as April, but seasons are determined as much by length-of-day as by temperature, and so that’s when the tomatoes need to get started.
I’ve become fascinated this year by the naturalistic garden movement. Projects like the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan, where Dan Pearson and Midori Shintani have been working on a one thousand year timeline. The garden is built on a piece of land that entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi bought to offset the carbon footprint of his newspaper business. The Tokachi Millennium Forest project is intended both to provide habitat for wild nature and to provide a safe space in which Japan’s mostly urban population can engage with nature. They’ve built in a number of ways for them to do this: in a forest, in the sculpted berms of the Earth Garden, in the farm and restaurant, or by riding or walking out into the forest itself. One of the things I’ve found most fascinating about this project is how it’s designed to meet people where they are, to draw people who might have very little experience of nature into the natural world, and to build the kind of experiences that will leave them perhaps just a tiny bit less plant blind than they were going in.
In many ways it reminds me of Yellowstone National Park. The vast majority of visitors to the park never leave the road/parking lot/boardwalk environment. They stay on the short loop paths, and rarely venture into the interior of the park. Which is fine. It’s probably one of the only reasons that the animal populations can withstand the impact of four million visitors passing through the park on a given year.
We’re finally coming to consensus in America that defining wilderness as physical landscapes in which people are absent is deeply flawed. Yellowstone, like the pre-Columbian Americas in general, was always inhabited. White people used instruments like the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny to declare that land belonged to those who discovered it in order to impose European capitalist ideas about using and developing it. We all learning about this in school, as though it was a good thing. And hence, these ideas have trickled down into a received sense that the Americas were terra nullis, that there was no one here, and that white people who discovered this empty territory had a divine right to develop it.
As the 20th century enclosed nature into smaller and smaller islands, a group of people who experienced the sublime out in the wild and uninhabited pieces of wild natuer that were left, came home and ignited the first wave of the conservation movement. They accomplished so much, including the establishment of the National Park, Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness systems. However, the movement was, like many social movements, nostalgic for a prelapsarian state that we now know never existed. “The wild” had always been inhabited. The Americas had always been inhabited. Just not in ways that colonizers recognized. To those first conservationists, “the Wild” looked like Eden. It seemed like the natural place from which we had all come, and to which we longed to return. It still does. The entire adventure tourism industry is built on this idea.
All of this is bringing me the long way back around to the idea of a garden ethic. It’s not really mine at all — I think it mostly belongs to Emma Marris, whose groundbreaking 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World challenges the notion that the only nature worth preserving is “pristine” in the sense that it is both devoid of people, and relatively untouched by human action. Marris argues that nature is everywhere — in backyards, city streets, even in places we’ve declared degraded by “invasive” species. She’s particularly good on the Yellowstone Model, upon which the park is relentlessly managed to match the conditions of its founding in 1879. Climate change, among other things, is making this increasingly impossible, and perhaps finally demonstrating that this is a foolish, if well-meaning, way to manage a chunk of land.
It’s hard to overstate how angry Marris’s book made conservationists, including a few here in town. The book came out just as the idea of the anthropocene was coming into the general lexicon, and the outrage that erupted at the very idea that “The Wild” was now, heartbreakingly, bounded by human action and control is hard to overstate. I had a woman ask me when discussing this, late one night in a local bar after a reading, whether I’d spent any time in the backcountry, and whether I even believed in God. For her, The Wild had the same valence as God, something beyond the human, something I think, that we couldn’t ruin.
Sadly, I think we’re all pretty clear that we were wrong about that, the wilderness part at any rate. It’s really difficult to talk about an ethic that incorporates non-wilderness nature out here in our part of Montana where we’re surrounded by gigantic wilderness areas that are always under threat. Always. So much human energy goes into fending off development into the wilderness areas that I think we often forget that wilderness does not equal nature.
Himself and I spend a lot of time in the summers car camping, often near abandoned mines (someone has a thing for amateur prospecting, and I go along for the pretty rocks). There’s a lot of country out here that’s been logged, and mined, and had roads cut through it. However, it’s still nature. In part because our population is so low, and in part because of class prejudices, we often wind up in lovely campsites in the middle of the week, out in the middle of nowhere, with trees and a creek and a fire pit. Sometimes there are RVs, and often the whine of ATVs or dirt bikes is annoying, but there are a lot of people out there actually enjoying the natural world who are not hiking into the backcountry.
I’m with Marris in wanting to develop an ethic of the front country that values non-wilderness nature. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s the worth of green spaces where people can go outside and go for a walk. Green spaces in cities as well as the big wild places of the West.
For me, developing a garden ethic is not about bending the world to my will (which is why I have mixed emotions about those raised vegetable beds I built last year), but it’s more about learning to take care of things that are not me. A garden ethic, as I’m trying to define it is based on how take care of one another. How we take care of the earth and the animals (especially if that means leaving them alone). A garden ethic would measure the course of a life not by what you buy or what you achieve, but by what you care for. Did you raise good kids? Did you love someone? Did you make a little piece of the world better than you found it? Were you kind to the animals under your care? Did you take care of your employees or the people you work with?
I did my PhD in the early 1990s, when ecocriticism was in its infancy, and I’ve never quite recovered from the professor who explained to me that the pastoral and the wild were in opposition to one another. That it wasn’t a continuum, as I’d always thought, of nature where on the one end you had say that little copse of woods and creek at the end of the condominium development where we kids used to play, and then somewhere in the middle all those slightly unkempt farms like the one my grandmother lived on, and then at the other end you had the sublime heights of the mountain ranges of the West. No, it was a contest. The pastoral was always in conflict with the wild.
Now, this is the legacy of a kind of tedious false competition of ideas that infests so much of academia, but clearly it stuck somehow, because here I am 25 years later still wrestling with this idea.
I hope you’ll all put up with me as I continue to wrangle with this constellation of notions. It’s central to this book project I’m working on, and that I’m finding these newsletters really helpful as a way to grope my way through the thicket of ideas.
A tiny bit of housekeeping: I’ll be cross-posting Substack letters to LivingSmall blog from now on. I’m not crazy about what’s happening at the corporate level with Substack, and I’m looking for a new home for the newsletter. I really like being able to send you something to your inboxes that you can click on and access as a sort of blog/discussion board. So far, I haven’t found another tool that will do that … but I’ll keep looking.