Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gardening After the Apocalypse

The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?


Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage at Dungeness. Photo by Michael Peters
I’m no doomsday watcher. I scoffed at Y2K, ignored the Mayan calendar, and can’t even bother to keep a Homeland Security-endorsed emergency supply list. But lately it has become increasingly hard to ignore the fact that something is stirring in the waters.

First, there are the climate-related problems: the continuing drought in the Midwest; hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy; and the fact that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. Zone maps are changing, species invasions are increasing, and extinctions are rising. I don’t care whether you believe climate change is man-made or just some temporary blip; there simply is no normal anymore. Gardeners more attuned to seasonal changes are the first to notice a difference. In my own garden last year, I noticed several bugs I have never seen before; I lost several perennials because the winter was not cool enough; and my daffodils started to emerge in December.

Throw in some global political instability (the American fiscal cliff, the European debt crisis) and there’s only one reasonable conclusion one can make about the future: the only certainty is a whole lot more uncertainty.

Ok, ok, so maybe the sky is not falling yet, but it is reasonable to say that the threats we hear about in the news lately are particularly ominous. Perhaps more catastrophic in nature. Globalization has linked us in many wonderful ways, but it has also exposed the fragility of world systems. Thus, a single financial firm (Bear Stearns) declares bankruptcy, and the global economy collapses. A water shortage along the Mississippi River causes food prices to skyrocket in China. Volatility breeds volatility.

It’s with this context in mind that I think about gardening. What does it mean to garden in an era when the threats we face are apocalyptic? The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?

Or to put the question more pointedly: Do we continue to grow marigolds even as the emergency sirens blare?

photo by Michael Peters

I've been thinking lately about the garden of the late Derek Jarman near Dungeness, England. Jarman was a British film maker and writer. Toward the end of his life, he created Prospect Cottage, a simple wood house that stood on the shingle beach of southwest England. For me, the garden is prophetic. The cottage is one of several fishermen’s shacks, wedged on the beach between the English Channel and the Dungeness nuclear power plant. It is a brutal landscape. Nature is overwhelming: sun, wind, and sea salt continuously scald the beach. The horizon stretches in all directions, only interrupted by power poles or the flashing lights of the power plant. Yet within the sunbaked shingles, a garden grows. Sea kale and poppies bloom among the flotsam that Derek arranged throughout the garden.
Dungeness nuclear power plan on the horizon. Michael Peters
To attempt to create a garden—a paradise of sorts—in one of the bleakest corners of the earth is one of the most optimistic acts I can imagine. Frivolous? Yes. Pointless? Of course. But what a joyful, life-affirming act of defiance! Prospect Cottage’s poignancy is sharpened by the fact that Jarman created it while dying of HIV. Jarman’s imminent death did not stop his act of creation, but instead infused it with new vitality. It is a testament to the irrepressibility of love amidst the cruelty and indifference of nature.

A garden is an extravagance. So creating and maintaining any extravagance seems particularly silly in an age of dire threats. We weed, dig, and plant all while the storms gather on the horizon that will wash it all away. We are helpless to control nature and the weather, yet we gardeners still engage in acts of care for our plots. We live in a post-Edenic world, yet as Robert Pogue Harrison writes, “Fortunately for the gardener, there is enough of Eden in the mortal earth that despite the vagaries of the weather, the miracle of life erupts and blossoms year after year.”

And that's just it, right? We are addicted to that miracle. From the miracle of compost, to the miracle of a seed germinating, to the miracle of a bud opening, we are hopelessly hooked to shepherding life into the world. “Gardening is an opening of worlds,” writes Harrison, “of worlds within worlds—beginning with the word at one’s feet.” Whether the weather supports our plans or destroys it, the point is that we become most fully human when we engage in thousands of acts of care and love. It is why we need the garden more now than ever.

Perhaps focusing on cataclysmic doom is really a way to put my own mortality in perspective. I may survive mega-storms and mega-recessions, but my time is coming. And when it comes, I want to be in the garden. Not under trees, with their cloak of longevity. Not with the shrubs, who promise another season. Instead, you will find me pondering the annuals. These one-season wonders understand it best: that time is merciless.

Yet at the nadir of their existence, they choose the ultimate act of defiance, an irrepressible impulse to live:

They bloom.


54 comments:

  1. Which is such a wonderful statement about those who garden. After reading I wished there wasn't 10 inches of snow preventing me from tending everything underneath. No matter what various forms of media would tell us, the world is still here. It just changes. Which is good. Otherwise I'm afraid we would get bored if everything was perfectly easy. I say that as I begin a couple of banana trees inside, to plant outside this Spring... in Minnesota. Because I can. Because change can be a good thing, it's all how you look at it. Great article!

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    1. Bananas in Minnesota! Good for you. I always love a bit of garden foolishness. Right now my windowsills are full of annual seedlings and tropical bulbs I'm forcing for a summer border. Our summers are essentially subtropical, so in many ways these annuals are better adjusted for our heat and humidity than many hardy perennials that brown out midsummer. Of course, I'm also installing several hundred regional natives in another area. Both ways, I am never bored. In fact, most of the time I just wish my job and life would get out of the way so I could work more in the garden . . .

      Loved your comment!

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  2. When we stop nurturing the soul we become soulless, and that's what got us into this mess in the first place. When we give up the light we give into the dark.

    We live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in our city. I started working on the front garden before the house was finished. I'd just moved back from the Netherlands and always loved the front gardens people had there and wanted one of my own to share with passersby. At first I think people thought I was a bit crazy, digging out paths, hauling in compost, soil and gravel, building it up, but they also stopped to talk, stopped to look. I was a curiosity. Many of the people here have never known a life without hardship and adversity and yet are still drawn to beauty and miracle. One can run like chicken little when the sky falls but I refuse to give in to the dark.

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    1. Wow, I loved your story. Very inspiring. Yes, yes, yes!

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  3. I found reading about Derek Jarman's garden in Dungeness really moving and inspirational. This morning I was reading an article on the internet about the imminent collapse of the British economy and it got me wondering about the right response in times when all that is certain is uncertainty. I had visions of needing to share our house with another family (anticipating garden design becoming a luxury no-one can afford), and of turning all the garden over to productive growing. The last bit felt pretty grim - to only grow what has utility value, and not to nurture a garden for its beauty alone, or for the wildlife. The average British garden is so small these days, if times were really hard, there wouldn't be any space left over after food production had been taken care of. And yet ... I feel sure there would still be flowers among the cabbages, somehow.

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    1. Hi Rose,

      I have the exact same reaction as you. I read these dire stories of imminent catastrophe--be it economic or ecological--and I think: what the heck am I doing designing gardens and landscapes? This past recession was brutal, and my wife and I have had plenty of kitchen table moments like yours worrying about the worst.

      But I love the metaphor of "flowers among the cabbages." That is exactly right!

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    2. "...to only grow what has utility value, and not to nurture a garden for its beauty alone, or for the wildlife." But we all know that it's the flowers and the wildlife that make the garden work - pollinators, bugs and birds that help keep the balance with the pests with minimal reliance on pesticides....The flowers among the cabbages are NOT frivolity!

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    3. Stella, I agree that all work together, but I also know that my veg garden in the winter with large areas of bare soil or just mulch, doesn't do nearly as much to gladden my soul as the rest of the garden with overwintering grasses, evergreen shrubs and small trees - and the birds find a lot more interest in the multi-layered structure of the ornamental garden. Of course one could argue along the lines of productive forest gardens, which are layered, although I personally believe that given the light levels in this part of the world, crop plants need to grow away from the shade of taller plants... a whole other debate!

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    4. I think the same thing, Thomas: Why the heck am I designing landscapes and gardens? Like you, I had many a kitchen table moment throughout the last recession. And then the answer came: last year, after three rough years of recession, the phone started ringing again. Clients were saying, "Enough! Recession be damned! I can't live without my garden anymore." It's almost as if a new appreciation has emerged, a need to create a personal retreat vs. keeping up with the Joneses. With sequestration looming, who knows what this year will bring to our field, but, like you say, I'm getting pretty used to the normality of uncertainty.

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    5. Your comments put me in mind of this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZaBbH4bCjY

      There's a running gag with a gardener.

      Deirdre

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  4. Derek Jarman's garden is the quintessential act of making light against the darkness. I admit, too, to thinking about it in my darker moments, using it as a kind of talisman of hope, in times when I fear some oncoming acopylypse--what dark beast, it's hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethelem to be born--teetering on the edge, facing some general collapse of governments, financial systems, what else? Gardening in whatever form it takes is about care, and creates the opportunity to practice care. If we all face a diminished future, no doubt we will contiue to garden, in some way, to care, and the garden will be an important place to cultivate that virtue. - James

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    1. Hi James,

      Yes, Jarman's garden--as bleak as it is--is as you say so eloquently, "talisman of hope" for me, too. Your phrase about "care" being a virtue to be cultivated is interesting, too. Cultivating virtue is a rather antiquated concept, right? But one that resonated strongly with me when I read your comment. I'll enjoy pondering that today.

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  5. Thank you for this beautiful article. It reminded me of a book by Kenneth Helphand called Defiant Gardens (2006) in which he describes situations of human suffering and despair which occurred in the trenches of World War 1 where displace individuals planted gardens. He illustrates that growing a garden is not simply a bucolic, leisure-time activity, but becomes an instinctual need where harsh and alien physical environments threaten one's sense of self. A primordial survival instinct led these individuals (and others like them featured in Helphand's book) to cultivate gardens, thereby asserting an expression of control amid situations were they felt helpless. Planting a garden is life affirming behaviour that expresses the most fundamental human emotion- hope. Hope motivates one into affirmative action by focusing on the future. Although gardens are grounded in the present, dreams of their aspired growth draw one into the future.

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    1. Damn, I hate it when I find out someone has written a book saying what I was trying to say, but a million times better. In all seriousness, it sounds like a great read. I may download it now . . .

      Always lovely to hear from you, Olga!

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  6. The last image of annuals blooming -- well, those are perennials for us here in Austin. ;-) But I take your point. Lovely post, Thomas.

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    1. Ha! And your annuals are perennials for those in Mexico and Brazil.

      Thanks, Pam.

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  7. Jarman’s imminent death did not stop his act of creation, but instead infused it with new vitality. It is a testament to the irrepressibility of love amidst the cruelty and indifference of nature.

    I really enjoyed reading this, it is amazing how much words are like seeds. They bloom in the mind.

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    1. Always value your feedback, Allan. Thank you.

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  9. I was planning only perennial starts this year. But you've caused me to reconsider the annual and enjoying the moments.
    Thank you. And thank you for eloquent, thoughtful writing in general.

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    1. I'd never encourage anyone to abandon perennials. They are my first love. But annuals offer something special as well.

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  10. Ah yes! And do you know the title of Jarman's final volume of his journal? "Smiling in Slow Motion". He trails off in the last days... A great affirmation of LIFE in there too!
    I do love reading your posts. Thank you. Jack

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    1. I've actually not read his journals or book. But I think I will now.

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  11. Beautiful testament to living life. Thank you for sharing with the world.
    Maura Farrell Miller, PhD, ACHPN, GNP, PMHCNS, BC
    Director, Thereapeutic Gardening Program
    West Palm Beach VA Medical Center

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  12. Notice what is happening in your garden to understand what is going to happen in the world. Here in Italy 2003 was the worst drought for 150 years or so, 2012 the second worst! Yes global change affects us NOW! Great thoughts well written thank you. Chrisitna

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    1. Yes, I think we can understand changes happen more directly through gardening experience than perhaps even the headlines. Great point.

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  13. What a lovely piece of writing. Jarman's garden is inspirational, both for what it is and the context within which it was created. There is something stubbornly life affirming about sowing new seed each year, not knowing what that year will hold. And I think every garden needs some ephemerals amongst the stalwart perennial and evergreen plants that give continuity, the sudden blaze of short-lived plants is magical.

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    1. Yes, that is very well said. We need it all, the "stalwarts" and the "sudden blaze of short lived plants." Each offers its own rewards.

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  14. Yes, continue to plant the marigolds! The louder the sirens, the more marigolds, and more defiance, and more irrepressible impulse to live - there is perhaps no better metaphor for how to embrace what is coming than to know the ephemeral and yet restorative power of a garden. Nice work!

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  15. If I could keep the slugs away from Crambe maritima, I'd get a little homage to Jarman going in my own garden. Wonderful read, thank you.

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    1. Crambe is one of those plants I've lusted after, but not sure it will make it in our heavy clays and humidity. Maybe once I buy my coastal property ;)

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  16. A beautiful reflection, Thomas. In the end, gardening is always a life-affirming act. -Jean

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  17. You probably know that Derek Jarman was not allowed to bring in to his beach garden any soil of any kind as it's a conservation area. That may be why the garden sits so well in its environment.

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    1. I did not know that. THat's rather fascinating.

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    2. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here.
      Thomas Mueller

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  18. Thanks so much, Thomas. Lovely piece on the influences of Jarman's garden and James Pogue Harrison's prophecy. When I visited Dungeness, 10 or 12 years ago, I went looking for the fish and chips shop that Jarman talked about in his book. I loved his garden very much but I'm still on the look-out for the fish and chips, that he called, the best in England.

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    1. Searching for an amazing garden is a great quest. Searching for great fish and chips is perhaps an even higher calling.

      Always good to hear from you, Allen.

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  19. Well good thing that this is not real or else we can't see this beautiful garden you'd post. Good thing that the world is not perfect and still we have a reason to change it to a better new.

    monument patios

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  22. I know before I type that you are going to roll your eyes and just maybe sigh, so go ahead, let's practice...there, now...in the midst of all the your beautiful blog post, and I am sorry to say, big words, I have ADHD, I loved loved loved your photographs!! I am pulled to just one thing...there you go...it's time...do the roll thing...did you plant the sweet marries in the midst of rocks? Please tell me it's so...I so want to copycat you if you did...I will love you forever if it's true. Thanks and tons of Alabama Hugs, Rita

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  23. "...we become most fully human when we engage in thousands of acts of care and love. It is why we need the garden more now than ever."

    Wonderful quote, Thomas. I may borrow it from time to time if you don't mind.

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  24. Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for writing this. Have you seen Ian Frazier's article in the New Yorker about the post-Sandy landscape? Not analogous, but associated.

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  25. Hi Thomas,
    Fascinating article which I came upon by chance, having found a very useful tip elsewhere on your blog regarding root ball watering - thanks for that also.
    Just as a point of correctness, Dungeness is in SE England not SW.

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  26. Really enjoyed this post. And all of the comments to go along with it.

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  27. This is a really lovely sentiment. I'm inspired to plant more and be more daring with my landscaping and garden. Thank you.

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  28. Hello there, I was looking for a landscape design newton ma and I came across your blog, very informative and entertaining, it shows that your an expert in your field.
    I will definitely be back for more. Keep it up!
    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete

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