January 10, 2023

Touch Grass: A Gardener’s Pandemic-era Political Awakening

Image by Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

Over the last two years, I have developed one of the most politically clarifying of all my habits. I became a gardener; I was not alone. The global spread of green thumb, which tracked intimately with the tally of Covid infections as they rose and dipped and rose anew, is well documented. Since the unpromising start of the new decade, everyone and their aunt’s nosey neighbour seem to have taken up a spade or a trowel and sunk their fingers into some soil, if only to the depth of a window box. I was there alongside them, forging — as perhaps a few of my fellow horticulturalists consciously did — a new relationship to my political commitments as much as to the earth. All it took were a handful of seeds and a willingness to get dirty.

The phenomenon of the pandemic-born gardener, to my mind, makes all too much sense. I’m far from the only one to know firsthand how the days and weeks and months of at-home confinement could drive a person outdoors and into the ground. It wasn’t just a hankering to be outside so much as a need to affirm a reality beholden to physical change and earthly rhythms that did it for me. The feeling of never-ending, screen-mediated monotony, the dawn of each new day portending yet another “Blursday,” made me long to mark the passing of time in a way that felt meaningful rather than dreary, arbitrary, aimless. It seemed only natural to have found a sort of calendar of significance in the surge and retreat of the seasons. In a word, by going back to the soil, this modern creature went pagan.

But this was merely the seed, so to speak, of my newfound conviction. By taking stock of the natural cycle of bloom and decay with more attention than ever before, I learned to notice beauty not just in the spectacle of flowers and the trill of birdsong but in the drunken milling of gnats, in the seedlings as they suckled on the morning light, in the rich smell of rotting leaves, in the might of bulging roots breaching the pavement, in the tenderness of burrowing bees, in the tenacity of weeds. To care about plants is to care about the wasp that eats the slug, the worm that churns the soil, the squirrel that plants the nut, the hummingbird that pollinates the blossom. It is to cast your lot with the forces of life — not just human life but life on the scale of species, communities, ecosystems, the planet itself.

It is also to take the side of the future. If the soil is spent, then nothing can grow; if nothing can grow, then no one can eat. If no one can eat, then the persistence of our species — to say nothing of others — is a moot point. To invest in the lives of plants and the conditions that allow them to thrive is thus to contemplate a timescale reaching beyond the immediate, even beyond the human lifespan. It might mean nursing a sapling that will mature to shade not yours but other generations. It might imply, instead of rashly depleting the limited resources at hand in a glut of productivity, the upkeeping of an environment favourable for cultivation for years and decades to come. Further, it might demand acknowledging the means of tending plants as something inherently communal, and their longevity as depending closely on the cooperation of multitudes — animal and vegetal, human and nonhuman. Nothing, after all, can flourish in isolation; in the garden, mutual aid is a first principle.

Now consider not just the productive kind of gardening but the explicitly unproductive kind. I’m talking about growing blossom-laden trees, tall grasses, draping vines, feathery ferns, variegated fronds, fragrant herbs — plants with a purely decorative, or sensual, purpose. It would be easy to dismiss this kind of planting, in contrast to the kind that yields masses of edible matter, as frivolous. After all, even a front lawn fully transformed into a vegetable plot cannot, in all but the most exceptional cases, sustain an amateur gardener without supplementation. But this sort of activity is far from fruitless: you do it, of course, because it gives you pleasure. Delighting in the unsaleable, the unmarketable, the uncommodified, the economically pointless or “valueless” is far more radical than it might seem. In a world that demands that everything have its price, in a culture that deems consumption the ultimate arbiter of worth, it is an act of subversion, even of resistance, to spend your time and your efforts in the garden, expending little or no money and producing nothing of any value to anyone but yourself. To defend this kind of pleasure is to defend life itself against the forces of unfettered capitalism — that is, against what has been gradually throttling the very possibility of life ever since the onset of its fossil-fuelled industrial stage in the nineteenth century.

Most of what I’m saying is pretty neatly summed up in George Orwell’s essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which he wrote for Tribune in 1946. Orwell was passionate in the garden, as he was about nature generally. In the essay, he praises the springtime spawn of toads — to him, an overlooked subject for aesthetic appreciation. A handful of years before the time of its writing, London had been blitzed to rubble; but even in the city’s then bombed-out state, as Orwell describes it, life found a way. “Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured,” he writes:

Down in the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers are budding … and even the sparrows are quite a different colour, having felt the balminess of the air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last September.

It isn’t mere sentimentalism that leads Orwell to savour these sights. After all, he asks, “if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves?” To Orwell, admiring the beauty of natural things, even the lowly toad, is a first, necessary step towards ensuring the planet is a place where we might have a chance of eking out a “decent” existence, to use a pet word of his. It is a vision of the future characterized not by over-lofty principles but by plain-old compassion. It is therefore an ideal in less danger than others of succumbing to the compromising rhetoric of the campaign, the slogan, the ideology, the in-group, the dogma, the dogmatist, the dictator, the death machine. Like weeds, these are still with us: they have yet to be rooted out.

It strikes me that gardening, in a way, is the opposite of extraction. It is generation instead of destruction, respect instead of disdain, preservation instead of despoilation, mending instead of severing, healing instead of mutilation. It is harmony instead of war — “swords into ploughshares,” and all that. It entails a way of looking at things that is attentive and humane, life-affirming and pleasure-seeking, caring and even loving. Gardening alone cannot solve all our problems; it cannot save us from the peril we have set upon ourselves. But it can teach us to set store by the living things that give us life even as we make life possible for them. Gardens, too, are places to reclaim the calm, if not the perspective, lost in an age of total commodification and constant surveillance, when we are facing down our doom. They are places outside the algorithm and removed from the infostreams. And they might just be the spaces that allow us to discover a different way of dwelling together, on the small planet we can’t help but share. If this all doesn’t contain the kernel of a political awakening, I don’t know what would. But what can I say? I just want to watch the world bloom.

Trevor Clarke - Adbusters 164

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