How Not to Garden

There is an oldish adage among writers that claims that you almost always have to write the book that you want to read. I don’t know how true that is of fiction. I have a very difficult time coming up with narratives that I like and that have not yet been written, and I’ve read so many thousands of books that I truly wanted to read. Many of them repeatedly. However, I’ve yet to read the non-fiction book I want to read. This might be me. I’m less a storyteller than a reporter, and I have a perspective that is not common among writers. So I’m not going to see my view of the world in print unless I pen it.

However, it might also be that the non-fiction writing world is in the death grip of people who do not look at the real and whole world when writing — only their own tiny, privileged bubble. This is true of publishers and editors as much as writers, so it is endemic in print. Moreover, most of the publishing industry is of course focused on selling books, not creating works of fine literature — both fiction and non — and the people most likely to spend money on a book that gets read once, maybe twice, and then passed on — the books that generate the most income — are people from the same tiny, privileged bubble. So that is the audience in the minds of most writers, that very small portion of humanity that has disposable income and a very narrow view of the world (which are likely related traits).

This privileged bubble-head view is absolutely infuriating to me.

I was so excited to discover a book with the intriguing subtitle “A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again”. I was even more interested to find out the author was a lifelong gardener who was recently more or less forcibly transplanted to New England. The title — which I will not divulge because I’m still essentially a book-slinger and do not willingly interfere with the propagation of books — coincided with ideas that have been simmering in my head for years, all dealing with roots and grounding. I thought it was referring to building community — human and otherwise — through the act of creating a new garden. I thought it would be the perfect review to write in this particular autumn and so put it in my writing calendar. This, I thought, was the book I really wanted to read at this point in my life. I suspect I’m not alone.

I have still not read that book I really want to read. The one I read was not it in spite of the marvelously enticing packaging. (Perhaps what I would really like is to meet the author’s publishing team…) I will say this little about the author: this is another privileged boomer with apparently little notion of the work or philosophy of becoming native to your place.

As I was reading and variously sneering and snarling and nearly crying at how good it could have been in other hands, I thought about how people write these glossy, coffee-table books on their own personal style and do not seem to be embarrassed by the narcissism. Do I really care what variety of hydrangeas are around your pool? Does anyone else want to read about the agonies of choosing the proper balance of grassland forbs to create the appearance of a natural meadow? Does appearance really mean all that much in a true garden?

From the wealth of books on the subject, yes… with qualifications. I think the people who buy gardening literature are very different from the people who make gardens. Those who read these stylish books are not those with dirt under their fingernails and compost buckets in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong! I think the appearance of a garden is very important. But not as a matter of style. Aesthetics are secondary to health and utility. What I want to see is abundance and well-being in all the creatures that live in my garden. Fortunately, a healthy garden is also beautiful to my eyes. It is a wealth of beautiful creatures living in balance. Nothing is more attractive! But what I consider beautiful might be rather chaotic for those who are attempting to control other living beings, molding a space into their ideas of fashionable style. A gardener grows a living being and understands that her role is subsumed in the organism that is the garden. A stylist creates a tableau of personality out of plants. The stylist’s garden is a self-portrait.

I don’t willingly sit for portraiture. 

What was irksome in this case was that there was promise of becoming rooted. Of being an outsider transplanted to this new ecosystem. Of melding into the local ecology, becoming a beneficial being. I quickly discovered that was not going to be discussed. But the worst of it was that this book was written about a landscape that had been a beautiful part of a community and was taken out of that community to become a decorative backdrop of privileged human life. Its trails and meadows are now so much private property. It was once a working farm. The barn is now used to store unused stuff. The pastures are now curated meads. The large home, once a church, is now a container for two aging humans and their accessory dog. How is this not a tragedy! This is not becoming native. This is invasive colonizing. Through hydrangeas.

What of digging the potatoes and milking the goats and making blueberry jam? Doesn’t becoming rooted mean learning how to meet your needs without much geographic reach? Roots, by their nature, attach you and all your feeding options to one place. Rooted is a good goal in a failing world. The more rooted we are, the greater our chances of survival and the less we create a situation where survival is threatened — for all living beings. There was nary a vegetable plot or chicken coop introduced into this former farming landscape though there was some discussion of the work of tending to pot-grown fruits that would not survive the local climate. I wanted to scream. Adapting does not mean forcing your wants into existence in a given region; it means adapting your wants to fit into that niche. The joy in becoming native is discovering all the new things that you’ve never known your heart desired. It’s in learning to love and be loved by a place. It’s becoming immersed in community.

I garden with my heart and stomach. I think most true working gardeners do the same. I think most people who read gardening coffee-table books garden in the mind. The tragedy in that is that mind gardens, in the rare cases where they are attempted at all, will always fail. Humans never have as much control as they think they have. You will fail to create your personal vision even if you have a billion dollar budget and a cadre of willing hands and backs. Because what is being gardened has a will also and it does not care very much about your ideology of style.

Michael Pollan once wrote “Nature abhors a garden”. Not so. Nature is a garden. Nature abhors a controlling, narcissistic colonizer. 

Nature might also abhor hydrangeas… The jury is still out on that.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021