Monday, December 6, 2010

Very educational

People often ask me why I garden. Partly, I do it because it's so very educational.

When you've tried cutting flowerbeds out of the lawn using only the power of your own back, you suddenly--click--get some idea what "clearing the forest of the new world" really means.  The first settlers on this shore weren't bringing 20 square feet under cultivation from an expanse of lawn.  They had first to fell the trees and grub the stumps and hack the roots to bring the soil to a tilth capable of being seeded. We read about this, of course, and teach it to our children, but the most attentive study of the words "brought under cultivation" just don't compare for real understanding to a couple of hours of grubbing in the lawn with a pick and shovel. (Optional for even better understanding: splitting wood with an axe.)

Gardening doesn't just illuminate agricultural history, either.  It illuminates all history in a most fundamental way. Two college boys--athletic, strapping fellows--were hired to hand-dig a sunken garden in my lawn--a 17 x 25 foot hole in the ground, three feet deep.  Over the course of two summers, working two to four hours a day, they got about three-quarters dug and lined with limestone blocks--blocks which were delivered on pallets.  It's true that the two fellows weren't working very hard, and that they were often interrupted by other projects, yet it was truly a slow process.  How sharply this illuminated the work invested in hand-made buildings.  Two summers to dig part of a smallish pit and roughly line it with pre-cut limestone--compare this to a Gothic cathedral, all built by hand of tight-fit stone which first had to be quarried, then hauled into position.  With labor limited to what an agricultural landscape could yield in the fallow seasons, it's no wonder a cathedral took 600 years to finish. And how the builders must have loved and feared their God to keep at it.

Or how about an Indian mound?  The landscape of my adopted home state, Wisconsin, is dotted with these earthen mounds, built up into the shapes of bears, eagles, panthers. The fellows who dug my sunken garden dumped the excavated soil into a sort of a little sculpted hillock, and it went so slowly! Yet think--to the Indian-mound builders, a modern rubber-wheeled wheelbarrow and a steel-bladed shovel would have been unthinkably labor-saving devices.  How much work those long-ago builders did to make their mounds, digging with sticks and hauling the soil in willow baskets on their own backs!  How much did I not realize that when I walked over them, and some of them an eighth-mile long or more!  Now that I've seen at first hand how slow hand-excavation goes, how hard to make even the smallest mound, the true achievement of an Indian mound makes me dizzy.

Gardening not only illuminates history, but even recreates it.  I am completely certain that the first agriculture arose from chance-spilled seed growing near a human dwelling--seed collected elsewhere. Further, I know as if I had seen with my own eyes what that first cultivation looked like--weedy, clumpy patches, utterly lacking the linearity of a modern garden or farm.  To most people alive today, this ancient agriculture would be indistinguishable from the background vegetation but to the gardener's eye it would look completely familiar.  It would look, in fact, just like the ground around the compost pile.  There, many plants, self-seeded from compost tossed last year,or even three years ago, sprout in ground which has been disturbed by the feet of those carrying the compost out and are fertilized by the compost itself. Modern archaeology's pollen counts and carbon-dating studies can recapture these first stirrings of civilization, but I recreate an actual living model every time I take the compost out.  I know with certainty what it looked like because I see it every day.

Gardening doesn't just light up history, it also illuminates current events. No modern gardener in the US has experienced a famine, but crop failure is certainly a common experience.  Some years, the tomatoes don't succeed, or the crows get the pepper seedlings, or the weather blasts the broccoli, or the bugs get the lettuce.  When my crops fail, no big deal--it's off to the supermarket.  My consternation at crop failure is but a pale shadow of an faint echo.  Yet, when the conversation turns to the politics of the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, I have a real understanding, infinitesimal as it may be, of some background to North Korea's seemingly insane behavior. I understand the real evil Kim Jong Il creates in forcing subsistence farming as a way of life, and the consequent famines facing millions of North Koreans. His regime's bone-deep necessity to stir bitter fear among these starvelings is also evident--no lesser justification for his draconian rule could keep order amidst such misery.

Not all such reflections are so dire or so deep. A woodchuck's depredations in the vegetable garden brings to mind the thought of fences.  Fences brings under review the
 hortus conclusus of the Medieval cloister--a thousand years of social history enclosed in those ancient garden walls--and slide onward to Mr. McGregor's fight with Peter Rabbit.  How food-secure Beatrix Potter must have been to draw loving water colors of  Peter and  Squirrel Nutkin and Diggory Delvet--agricultural pests, all of them. Next to mind is what the success of her work says about the role of representational art and the position of children at the turn of the last century. There follows consideration of Peter Rabbit as the ur-spring for the Disney-fication of ancient human enemies like mice. Perhaps these animated varmints are a root cause of the culture wars?  The cuddly view of nature vs. those who see things differently is pretty neatly captured, I think, by comparing PETA's campaign against glue traps to the music videos of guys blowing chipmunk runs sky high with a "rodenator."   

The next thought---Oh! this could go on and on.  The lessons are endless. So that's a pretty good reason to garden right there, no?

You have been reading "TK in her garden" on "why garden?"

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