Becoming Better Gardeners


IMG00022-20100324-1254 Right now, I'm at Asilomar, a conference center in Pacific Grove, California, with my husband, a journalist who is covering the event taking place here, the Asilomar Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies. This is first large conference to deal with the governance issues surrounding geoengineering, or the deliberate manipulation of the earth's climate.

Geoengineering is a science being born out of desperation. We are simply not cutting greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we need to, to keep global warming at some level we can handle. And given the incredible political cowardice surrounding this subject, it appears that we won't, either, in the near future. So geoengineering would actively cool the plant, by, say, brightening clouds to make them reflect more sunlight away form the earth or building machines to suck CO2 out of the air.

There is clearly the sense here that the assembled scientists are doing the most important work on earth…trying to save human civilization from itself.  At the same time, there is also just a boatload of assembled whimsy and craziness and genius, and plop yourself down next to a wild-haired professor at dinner and you may learn absolutely anything at all! One scientist told me that beavers are climate felons who contribute mightily to rising temperatures by building swamps that absorb the sun's warmth.  "We ought to get rid of the real beavers and instead have cement beavers in our gardens next to the garden gnomes," he said slyly. I am having a marvelous time!

Asilomar is on the Monterey peninsula.  The water here is an amazing cerulean color that I've never seen before in California. I chatted with an ocean modeler at breakfast who suggested that the key to that might be extremely fine sand particles. The place is also completely abloom at this particular moment, a spectacular riot of exotic color in which I can identify exactly two plants: rosemary and iceplant.

I am agog at its beauty. And equally amazed at how little I care that it's beautiful.

Compared to any ordinary country meadow in upstate New York, this part of the coast is a lousy experience. Like much of California, it is completely despoiled by the automobile. Despite its many charming Arts & Crafts buildings designed by Julia Morgan in the 1913, Asilomar itself is loads of ungardened asphalt with a few Monterey pines allowed in for good measure. And a highway runs right along the beach, making the experience of having a run along the bluffs more about car exhaust and trying not to be killed by someone pulling out of a parking spot than the scenery.

In a book about that will be published in a few weeks, my husband compares geoengineering to gardening the planet.  

The generations that shaped these few miles of Pacific Ocean were crap gardeners, the kind of gardeners all about the riding mower, the weed 'n feed and the grubs-b-gone.

It's up to us now to be better gardeners on the largest scale, to start rearranging things to better reflect the ineffable beauty of our world–and what is most beautiful in our own humanity as well.


  1. Wow, nothing like starting my morning with having my beloved California coast (and one of the most astonishingly beautiful parts of the coast, no less) completely trashed. Sometimes, you see what you look for. Comparing it to an upstate New York meadow is a tip-off that you might not be considering the area for what it really is. Do yourself a favor and try again tomorrow. Trust me, you’re totally missing something really amazing.

  2. Many years ago when my son was living in California we traveled to the Monterey peninsula which is truly magnificent. A hope the book will give us some hope. I just saw a totally depressing documentary about the acidification of the oceans which essentially said we are doomed. And doom is coming sooner than we think.

  3. Tell me, do they include any of the data that shows a strong correlation of the sun’s radiation and energy output influencing the earths climate compared to man’s influence? Anything about the Holocene climate optimum that happened 9,000 to 5,000 years ago compared to the latest climate changes?

  4. I’m no rocket scientist, but the idea of “brightening clouds” to make them reflect the sun sounds pretty scary to me. Kind of like something that happens at the beginning of a science fiction novel that tells us how our efforts to do good turned bad.

  5. I’d like it better without all the damned gold courses…. we did enjoy the beaches, though. There are some wilder parts if you look around.

  6. Hear! hear! about more mindful gardening…and let us not forget that gardening of any kind is creating an “artificial”, changed environment, anywhere you do it. Unless, of course, you accept that humans as a species are a natural part of the environment, just like fish, birds, and….beavers 🙂 (By the way, those ponds the beavers are creating also sequester CO2).

  7. Wow. One of my favorite places is “despoiled by automobiles?” How did I not notice that? I have walked along that stretch of road (it is at the end of a looooooong recreation trail designed for walking, cycling, running) for years and have never felt endangered by the drivers. I have only felt awe at the beauty, and a sense of community from all the other outdoor enthusiasts I passed. I have never had a “lousy experience” in the vicinity of Asilomar.

  8. I think I could hold my nose long enough to soak in the sights of Echium candicans in full bloom.

    I have walked that sidewalk along that stretch of road (in a different season so I missed the blooms), loved the ocean view, loved the rock squirrels, the Monterey Pines… but I don’t expect heaven on earth when I travel, just different than home.

    As far as saving the planet – I don’t think you can have a meaningful conversation about it without mentioning human overpopulation. If we are never going to address the fact that resources are limited and there are too many people we’ll never get ahead of the problem.

    A long time ago I determined that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. This could be why I spend so much time outside enjoying the garden.

  9. Brighten the clouds? And if it doesn’t work, darken them back again. Like tweaking a digital photo? Oops! Bye bye Earth.

  10. I have to agree with Claire and Kelley. You’re being a bit harsh, Michelle.
    Pacific Grove, and Asilomar particularly, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, much more beautiful than an ordinary coutry meadow. And such beauty survives despite harsh ocean winds. Just look at how the cypress lean away from the onshore winds.
    There is a beautiful trail, OFF THE ROAD, that goes all the way from Asilomar to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, another first class establishment. Try to have a more open mind, please, and open your eyes.

  11. I think she left out or ill placed part of a thought folks.

    “I am agog at its beauty. And equally amazed at how little I care that it’s beautiful”…. because they f’d it up with cars and roads all over the place…”Compared to any ordinary country meadow…”

    Correct me if I am wrong Michele.

    In 2006 or 2007 after much drama and turmoil Buncombe County, NC passed its first ever zoning ordinance. That was over turned by the courts on the technicality that the commissioners had not done the public hearing routine according to procedure. After faithfully executing public hearing procedure amid a dramatic hue and cry the commissioners again passed a zoning ordinance for the county. You would no longer be able to build a nuclear power plant next to a daycare or elementary school or start a pig farm and plop a doublewide in a residential neighborhood. Communism they cried. How dare you tell private property owners what they could do on or with their land. This is the end of freedom. America is doomed. Damn government is stealing our rights.

    Last year Haywood County, NC tried to pass an ordinance under public health, nuisance or some such avenue to prevent people from storing their collectibles all over their property out in the open. You know junk cars on blocks, old washer and dryers, sacks and bags of aluminum cans, boats, rusty campers, dog kennels, old lumber, plastic jugs and the like. You know, collectibles. The council meetings were packed to the rafters with outraged citizens demanding their rights to do what they wished on their own land. The council backed down in fear of the irate citizenry. In Haywood County you are still free to store your collectibles where ever you want on your property, right out in the open, in wind and rain and snow and mud. That’s no varmint. That’s my pet. Verleen chain that thing up, would you.

    Michele there is a long way to go before folks in this country are up to the task of being better gardeners on the larger scale.

  12. I knew pretty soon after I started reading it was a Michele post. Before I got much farther I guessed it would be about five sentences before she pronounced upstate New York more beautiful than ugly California, but I was wrong. It was actually several sentences!

    Who says your writing is predictable!

  13. There is no question that the Pacific Coast Highway is an impediment to enjoying the
    California coast. But if the situation were any better, then even MORE people would want to live here.

    The only native plant is in the first photo, all the others are immigrants that have moved here and put down roots.

    Photo one: Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterrey cypress) [might be Pinus
    (Monterrey pine) but the branches don’t look fluffy enough]; Aloe arborescens (Tree aloe) from South Africa; and Carpobrotus edulis (iceplant) also from S. Africa.

    Photo two: Echium candicans (Pride of Madeira) from the Canary Islands.

    Photo three: Delosperma cooperi (iceplant) and Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup), both from South Africa.

    Photo four: Tree aloe and Bermuda buttercup.

  14. Too bad you cannot appreciate the beauty of what is in front of you in the moment.
    Sort of takes all the fun out living and exploring new wonderful areas.
    No worries, you’ll be back in an ordinary meadow in New York soon and will only have memories of what you chose to capture in your memories.
    Kinda sad really.
    Might as well just stay at home in an ordinary meadow in New York. Nothing could be better than that .
    …. not.

  15. Highway 101 runs between Forks WA and Santa Barbara CA. One great drive if there was that much time to spare. If your vehicle predates electric land cars you might be snubbed.
    Amtrak follows along near the Pacific coast. Get to look at oranges, seacapes, and pampass grass gone wild.

  16. Michele, I was eager to hear about the conference, but when you trashed our lovely, wild CA coast, you lost me. If it wasn’t for PCH, you’d never be able to get to Asilomar, the terrain is just too rocky & mountainous & prone to slippage.

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