This is a slightly condensed version of the sermon I gave on July 27, 2014 at the Unitarian Church of Barnstable.
Revolutionary is defined as “Rebellious, rebel or insurgent” “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change” “new, novel, or innovative.”
Can gardening be “Rebellious, rebel or insurgent”? Does putting plants in the ground automatically mean that you’re “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change”? Could the practice of tending a landscape really be “new, novel, or innovative”?
Gardening – the activity we think of as highly suburban, done by more women then men…surely it isn’t unruly and disobedient. Are those garden club ladies, those planters of a few basil and tomato plants, those tenders of perennial borders…are they opposing or fighting to overthrow authority? Are they looking for spectacular changes? And can the practice of turning the earth, something that’s been a part of human experience for over 7,000 years, in any way be thought of as ground-breaking that is ground-breaking?
I suggest that when you go into the garden with open eyes and an open mind, you are likely to be lead down paths that are almost…revolutionary. Or at the very least, oppositional to popular culture, and the interests of some profit-oriented businesses.
Point One: We are a country who, since the mid-20th Century, has come to worship at the alter of EASE. If it’s easy, it must be better. When I was working on my latest book, Coffee for Roses, I set out to discover where some of the garden myths that promised a quick fix originated.
In that pursuit I read gardening books from the late 1800’s, and early 1900’s. I looked at newspapers from the same period, searching for mention of the myths that offer quick solutions. I tried to find the origin of the easy, sometimes quirky practices suggested for the successful cultivation of plants.
What surprised me is that for the most part the myths I was looking for just weren’t there at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. There was talk of the benefits of using manure, frequent weed control, and the advantages of that most useful of garden products: elbow grease. Most of the gardening books I looked at were filled with common sense, get into the garden and work at it advice. (With a few exceptions…such as the use of kerosene that was recommended for everything from mosquito to fungal control. That was kind of scary.)
Most of the myths that promise quick fix solutions started showing up in or after the 1950’s.
Some of you will remember the old Dobbie Gillis TV show, and Dobbie’s sidekick, the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. Whenever the word “work” is casually mentioned, the Krebs character jumps as if startled and yelps “Work?” and sometimes faints dead away. Although Krebs provided the comic contrast to the Gillis’s straight laced, well-groomed character, in some ways this reaction to “work” typified what was going on in the country.
This is the period when all sorts of products started showing up promising to make life easier. Instant coffee, fast food, whipped desert topping in a can. TV dinners.
In a few short years, work became a four-letter word. People discovered that the promise of ease sells products.
Gardening of course wasn’t exempt. Insect damage? Easy – spray this insecticide. Weeds? Sprinkle or spray that herbicide. And why on earth would you want to go to all that trouble to raise your own vegetables – let alone preserve them for the winter – when you can buy soup in a can, macaroni and cheese in a box, or have a pizza that is delivered right to your front door.
Now we know that there is often a downside to all of those promises of the easy fix. Some of the products didn’t work, others proved to be short-term solutions that caused long-term problems. That fast food that’s so easy is loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. Could it be that because it’s so easy, we eat more of it? And since we’re not working as hard, we aren’t burning those added calories off.
Here are just two examples of what is lost when we go for instant gratification and ease. Buying produce in the supermarket may be effortless but you sacrifice flavor – more about that later. Cut flowers? There is an indefinable but very real energy surrounding a bouquet of garden flowers that just isn’t there in a vase of florist-bought, hothouse-grown blooms.
In the mid-twentieth century the fashion in gardening became a landscape that not only required less work but also (what a coincidence!) required more products. Perhaps it’s revolutionary to suggest that easier is not better…that we might be losing more than we gain.
Point two: The yard as fashion. Let’s look down at the turf. Ah, the lawn. First the mission was to convince people that a lawn was only supposed to be made up of grass. Once they were sold on a grass-only lawn you could sell them the products to grow that monoculture in four easy steps.
You may have seen this piece that has been forwarded in emails and posted on places such as Facebook lately. I couldn’t find who wrote this, but it’s a conversation between God and Saint Francis.
God said: “Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet?
Where are the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. Their nectar attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”
St. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
GOD: Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?
ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.
GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.
ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it-sometimes twice a week.
GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?
ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags, or have someone else collect it and haul it away.
GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.
GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?
ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.
GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.
ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.
GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.
ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.
GOD: No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?
ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.
GOD: And where do they get this mulch?
ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.
GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?
ST. CATHERINE: ‘Dumb and Dumber’, Lord. It’s a story about….
GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.
Yup- dumb and dumber. There are still many yards that use dubious methods to maintain their monoculture lawns, and apply some pretty harmful products in search of the easy way out. But more and more people realize that the weed-free lawn is a fashion we can no longer afford. And we are rebelling against the programs and products created for maintaining such monocultures.
Point Three: Moving away from the lawn and into the vegetable garden, those who are called to put their hands in the dirt and grow their own food know that the notion that life can be made easy is a lie and when we buy into that lie something is lost.
Gardeners learn that a summer squash or an eggplant picked fresh from the garden and prepared just before they are eaten have flavors that are never tasted in store bought food – even if it’s organically grown and purchased at the store my husband and I call Whole Paycheck.
Not only does that home grown food taste better, it’s better for you. Those vegetables are all low-fat, low-salt, low-carb, and low-cal, even though they don’t have colorful labels telling you so.
To choose the work of planting vegetables over the convenience of prepared foods opposes the authority of a culture that wants to profit by selling you ease at the expense of good health and flavor.
Across the country vegetable gardeners are also rebelling against zoning laws that forbid the growing of food in front yards. They are challenging the notion that growing food has to be hidden in back yards, arguing that this is a waste of space, often the sunniest place in the landscape. They are taking on city hall, and often winning, as they fight for new ways of thinking about responsible use of the land. In this way gardening is causing people to unite together and become more politically active.
To plant a garden is to take your health into your own hands – literally. You see, dirt – especially soil that’s been amended by manure – is filled with beneficial bacteria that enter into your body through your skin and strengthen your immune system. Read Michael Pollen’s recent article published the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It’s titled Some Of My Best Friends Are Germs.
To enter into your gardens with open eyes and minds invites us to move beyond ourselves and think about our place in the world. Working our small patches of earth makes us ponder the effect we have on our planet. Gardeners often come to embrace Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology. Commoner was an American biologist and politician. He was one of the founders of the environmental movement of the late 20th century and he ran for president in 1980 on the Citizen’s Party ticket. In his book The Closing Circle, written in 1971 he laid out what he called the four laws of ecology.
- Everything is connected to everything else. Gardeners know this. There is one biosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
- Everything must go somewhere. Nature does not “waste” and things that are thrown out never go “away.”
- Nature knows best. Gardeners learn that when we think about how natural systems work, we’re more successful in the garden.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch. In seeking the easy way out we are looking for payoff, but what we’re likely to find is payback.
To embrace these four laws of ecology is to call for a very dramatic change. It isn’t necessarily easy…but far more interesting and rewarding.
And yes, there are aspects of gardening that are new and innovative even as the practice itself remains the same. If you have an iPhone you can download an app that allows you to take pictures of a plant or plant problem and have regional experts identify what plant or problem you have.
Gardening requires constant effort and change. It’s an activity that is never finished…like life itself. It can be rebellious, insurgent, involving a dramatic change, and even innovative.
Ann Lamott said “…you realize the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again.”
As a gardener, I would say that the secret of life is to plant, plant, plant. Place a seed in the ground, water it, pull the weeds to allow sunlight to reach your seedlings. Be willing to work. Let nature have a say and learn from that. Replant if necessary until something takes hold, and do it again. And again. And again.