Monday, August 10, 2015

Gardeners and Nature

Growing up, I had little exposure to horticulture. My grandmother in England had a large garden in which she grew vegetables, as did many to get through World War II, and I can recall shelling peas in her kitchen in the 1950's. My grandparents also had a bomb shelter in their back yard. But when we moved to the U.S. we lived in a rented house followed by an apartment, and we never had a garden until my last year of college. As an adult I began to grow flowers and vegetables in 1977, and I have grown at least tomatoes ever since whenever possible, probably during twenty-two summers in all. Over the last eight years I have received greater exposure to how others perceive gardening, and it has been a slight surprise to me to which I am only gradually adjusting.

My original interest in gardening stemmed from the somewhat hippieish point of view in vogue at the time, which connected it with nature. Hiking and the outdoors were popular in the 1970's, and there were still communes and ashrams around in those days, though I was never a follower of fads. I liked the idea of growing your own food, and in fact it did taste much better and was probably healthier than what was available in stores. I found flowers pleasant and I liked and still enjoy seeing them, but, as you may have noticed, I try to concentrate on what is essential, and food is more essential than decoration, so I quickly focused on vegetables rather than flowers.

I tend to look at everything as part of a continuum in nature, which in a way makes even the most cultivated and exotic flowers nothing more than prettified versions of what grows spontaneously in the wild. Technically most of our vegetables are exotic too after centuries of hybridization and, more recently, genetic modification, but food occupies a different category in my mind, because you can't live without it, though you can easily live without adornments to your surroundings. In other words, food is essential and decoration is not. As an aesthetician of the wilderness, which is where we all live whether we admit it or not, I experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance with the thinking of gardeners, women usually, whose goal is to create aesthetically pleasing gardens and flower arrangements while not only ignoring the inherent beauty of many natural plants but also waging quiet wars against those plants which might interfere with their plans.

Since few men seem interested in growing flowers other than as a vocation, I am tending to think that flowers are the province of women, and that they fit into the context of what I said earlier about a possible female-specific desire to live in appealing, controlled environments. From a male point of view it is easy to see this as a waste of time, or at least, with respect to priorities, as far less urgent, for example, than preventing the lawn from becoming a jungle or having dead trees falling over and knocking down power lines. Based on my exposure to the local garden club, I don't think that the members have much interest in botany - curiosity is not a factor here - and their primary goal is simply to have pretty flowers and yards, something more akin to interior decoration than anything else. Besides the garden club, it could also be instructive to look at the Dutch tulip bulb bubble of 1637, during which the price of a tulip bulb became ten times that of the annual wages of skilled craftsmen. On that occasion, beyond a simple female interest in pretty things, there must have been competition to own a rare and expensive item, perhaps with prices additionally boosted by speculators. Probably female thinking regarding gardens encompasses both innate predispositions and immediate methods for attaining higher social status. Certainly some women's gardens do serve a competitive function with respect to other women.

As one who inhabits the male end of the gender spectrum, the garden club take on gardening is still somewhat of a mystery to me, though my aesthetic side is sympathetic. The thing that is funny to me is that all organisms can be beautiful in their own way, and often the visual differences simply mask similarities. I prefer to see organisms within their natural habitats going through normal life cycles. If there wasn't a babbling brook with pumped water there before, there needn't be one now. In a way, flower gardens can be as artificial as AstroTurf, another scar on the earth left by mankind. A dying old sugar maple is just as beautiful as and even more interesting to me than any new tulip.

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