Time to “Rethink Pretty” in the Garden

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Benjamin Vogt and I began an email exchange last March after I read his very interesting A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.

A few weeks ago, Benjamin had a sign posted on his property in Lincoln, Nebraska that warned him about the public nuisance he had created. He won the fight to keep his front and back yard prairie, but this got me thinking.

It seemed like a good time to share our exchange. Portions have been edited and expanded.

Onward Benjamin.

I wrote my book to make folks as uncomfortable as I felt. I wrote it to question horticulture, landscape design, and all environmental movements. I wrote it to invigorate the discussion and get us to grapple with humanity in ways we avoid in order to protect ourselves from the reality of our lost love. I wrote it in order to unearth aspects of environmentalism I thought weren’t explored enough. I wrote my book out of depression, fear, and anger in order to discover a strength we all possess — the ability to go against the force of history and culture and risk some aspect of ourselves we assumed was better for us. Gardens are places of activism in a time of mass extinction and we need to start using them as such. And if gardens are art, if that’s the primary viewpoint about them that we’re stuck with, then remember the long tradition of art based in activism and making folks uncomfortable for a purpose.

 

March 2018

Hi Benjamin,

I apologize for being slow to read your book, but I’m glad I brought it to the top of my book pile.

I thoroughly enjoyed A New Garden Ethic.

I worried at the outset that it might be full of redundancies, but when there were similar claims, “We proclaim ourselves right in a wrong world…” (p.56), each new argument augmented your case. Rarely did I feel like you were talking down to me. On occasion, there were annoying passages, such as, “Native plants are a threat to an entire Western culture…(p 59).

But here’s what I got out of your book.

  1. A garden isn’t nature
  2. Our values screw us up
  3. A new garden ethic is needed

Surprisingly, I enjoyed your bits about “pretty” and “beauty.” It reminded me of an undergraduate course in Philosophy of the Mind. Your subject is complex but well written. However, I still like “pretty” and don’t agree that “pretty,” as a premise, need be “arrogant.”  I don’t think I’ve ever gardened for “human supremacy.” I was heartened, when you briefly backed off and said, “Of course a garden must be pretty.”

“Pretty” concerns me because that’s how we primarily judge the worth of a garden or landscape — I just want us to redefine gardens, especially in the context of mass extinction. What is pretty to the silent majority on this planet, to wildlife? I don’t think many of us garden for human supremacy in a conscious way, but when we go outside and say “I want this maple tree right here” we are practicing a form of supremacy since we are placing our desires over or onto the landscape, whether we’ve researched the tree and ecosystem or not. Now, I’m not explicitly saying such actions are good or bad, per se. I’m saying we must think more critically about our actions, and that if we don’t we are propagating an arrogance that has led us to the assumption we are at the top of the pecking order and can do no harm. This is what’s created a 6thmass extinction — privileging ourselves over other species and landscapes. We do it every day in small, subtle ways and in massively overt ways.

I was glad to read the chapter: More than Native Plants. Your sentence on p. 52 is magnificent: “Every place we touch is a garden, no matter its size, and the economic, aesthetic, and emotional lessons we learn in one landscape are practiced in others.”

Good stuff on feelings: denial, grief and loss.

And, more good stuff: wisdom is evolutionary (p.66); “ethical amnesia” (p. 78) and “compassion fade” and “psychological numbing” (p.81)

This was my favorite chapter to write and research, chapter three; it’s the heart of the book, and I think out environmental crisis (and other crises, like race, gender, guns, etc). There’s a lot of psychology at play in how we view ourselves, one another, and the world around us. There’s a lot of guilt and shame. There’s a lot of self-defense that’s totally genetic and human and natural that we have to understand, identify, and process more thoughtfully. For example, when someone proposes native plants instead of hosta, it’s easy to feel defensive because we’re being exposed to new concepts that both feel constrictive and carry greater ramifications for the environment, and those ramifications influence how we perceive ourselves as acting or thinking ethically. Change is hard — learning new ideas is hard (especially when they go against the cultural / social default). Emotionally and psychologically evolving as fast or faster than the changes we are forcing on the plant is really hard, if not nearly impossible.

I wish you’d go easy on red cedars (p.79). I love red cedars!

But your red cedars aren’t aggressive thugs, right? I like them, too, but boy do they destroy our prairies. It’s all about regional context, and in the U.S. there’s lots of nuance. We burn trees in Nebraska, we don’t hug them.

And there are the useless plants… I don’t agree with your statement: “Gardens composed of both native and exotic plants constitute a precarious balance.” (p. 83) I am NOT grief stricken, although you might argue I’m in denial.

Yes, I would argue that. Denial is one of the five stages of grief, and processing grief is both an exercise in preserving the self and accepting the new self that is forming. It’s a conundrum we carry into our landscapes — our emotions dictate a lot of what we do behind our fences.

I love daffodils and peonies, among many other non-beneficial plants. I get your point and respect your radical approach. I know you don’t think there’s a perfect world as long as humankind is here on earth.

Oh I wouldn’t go that far. I firmly believe humans can be part of a thriving, balanced, biodiverse global ecosystem. But as is — given our extraction-based cultures that privilege humans — it’s not working. And the argument that nature will find a way is sort of bogus — I don’t want to live, and I don’t want my kids to live — in a world where nature is in the process of finding its way. Drought, famine, disease,  dirty water, no fish, plastic in every bite we take… We could still be in a relative Goldilocks era if we woke to the world right now.  

I’m glad you threw a bone to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)for promoting a planting spectrum that includes a large % of native plants.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to plant challenging exotics and natives that I am curious to grow. I will endeavor to try and be more attentive to what’s under foot and around me.

You’ve inspired me.

I’ve got tons of natives, even a faux prairie, but I’m a one-trick pony. I’m a plantsman, far from a naturalist. You’ve encouraged me to dig deeper. Microbes are in my future.

Go go go Allen! We’re all taking steps even if I wish (and other species wish) they were much larger and were at more of a brisk jog’s space, if not a hard sprint.

My favorite chapter was Urban Wildness and Social Justice.  You made me think of Thoreau leaving Walden Pond to take his laundry to his mom.

“(If we expect to be selfless”… p.120). Louisville needs to work harder (p. 125). My friend, Louisville tree activist, Mike Hayman is planting trees as fast as he can. Mike is the role model I suggested for you. Talk about selfless!

I hope you’ll keep pushing harder, even when you hit headwinds.

It is very hard because it seems that all I hit are headwinds; such is the role I’ve apparently chosen for myself.

I know you’re working your way toward your dream of your own prairie compound.

Paradise?

But don’t turn your back on the people, and the soulless suburban gardens, you might leave behind.

On the other hand, an ascetic life has some appeal.

 I still design urban and suburban meadow gardens for clients, some of whom are removing their front lawns. I am desperate to live on a prairie away from mowers, to create an oasis among the corn and soybeans. I don’t think I’d live ascetically, only as a way to restore and revive my soul so I could have the energy and focus to ramp up to get back into the fray. I am a massive, massive, massive introvert, and it’s still going take me a lifetime to discover how that’s a strength and not a liability.

While I was reading your book, I was also reading a book of essays by Wes Jackson, whom I admire tremendously. Your earnestness reminds me of Jackson.

As I have argued, I think your most convenient prey (prairie novitiates?) might be your neighbors. They can’t be more intransigent than the rest of built America. You could do prairie grass roots door-to-door?

Have you seen my yard? https://www.houzz.com/projects/1968383/front-yard-makeover 

I know you’re working your way, eventually, toward your own prairie farm. If you do, I worry you will be turning your back on the people and the wretched suburban gardens you leave behind. However, I understand. Life as an ascetic has always had some appeal for me.

Can you become both a missionary—hunker down and save souls in the suburbs—and escape, as Thomas Merton did, to a cloistered outpost and write down, as it was said about Merton, every thought you have. (You’re a very good writer!)

Merton could be as petulant as he was gifted. He remained a constant pain in the ass to his abbot at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Maybe you will become the artist, activist, pain in the ass and save souls.

I hope so! 🙂 We all need to be bigger pains in the ass. Especially if those asses are the right ones (you know who I’m talking about).

You’ve got options and a bright future.

You’ve written an absorbing and provocative book that reminded me of the cultural unraveling that Wendell Berry described in Unsettling of America.

That’s high praise indeed! You know I’m a Berry Fan. Thank you, Allen, for an insightful and warm conversation. Let’s have more of these in the garden world.

 

Photos courtesy of Benjamin Vogt and Monarch Gardens. A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Futuremay be purchased at Monarch Gardens.

 

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Got rid of the lawn. Planted understory trees, flowering shrubs, groundcovers. All gorgeous. My garden on TV, in magazines & books.

    Neighbors complained.

    3 times in 30 years those complaints included a policeman/woman with a gun knocking on my door. Seriously. Beautiful garden, with credentials, worthy of police action. In defense of those police, all 3 apologized for bothering me, but it was the ‘system’ when there was a complaint.

    What I still find incredulous about serious discussion of designing/planting a garden is the lack of concern for lowering HVAC expenses. Will sited plantings will lower air-conditioning bills in summer, heating bills in winter. Well sited, and beautifully placed, those same HVAC expense lowering plantings will raise property value for the home. More, good Garden Design will lower maintenance expense, and further, increase pollinators upon this great Earth.

    Missing from, above, is the sacred found throughout history in a garden. Missing too, myriad studies proving historic landscaping feeds our major microbiomes helping create personal maximum health. We NEED the bacteria in gardens.

    Glad to see this post/discussion. Every bit helps.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • Tara, you’ll be pleased to know that everything “missing” from the conversation above is mentioned in the book. But thank you for pointing out all of the other functions of designed landscapes — you are right, we don’t talk about them enough even if they are implied.

  2. Gardens are art and art is not simply limited to a single aesthetic of beauty (pretty). If we as gardeners and homeowners could get over the ridiculous romantic 19th century mindset that beauty is what aesthetics are all about we would have a much easier time accepting alternative landscapes. And maybe there wouldn’t be so much aesthetic regulation that necessitates guys with guns being the literal garden police.

  3. Benjamin, I’m inspired to read your book! Meanwhile, I would argue that nature IS always “in the process of finding it’s way”, that is just a physical fact, and you should be glad of it, because that is how you are able to effect change in your garden. It is a physical law of nature that anything we do creates change of some sort in the universe. Nature itself doesn’t hold value judgements on any of it; deserts, rain forests, mining pits, barren planets, prairies, it’s all a result of something that came before. We can’t help but be a part of it, whether we perceive ourselves to be superior or a cog in a much larger wheel. The problem is certainly OUR values, as they relate to the changes and choices we make in our lives, and gardens. I fear getting everyone on the same page is a daunting task (I couldn’t bring myself to say “hopeless”). Sorry this comment is so dark. Time for me to go back out into the garden!

    • Anne, yes, nature is always finding its way. That’s fantastic. If nature were static (like I think lots of us presume, but not us garden folks), then we’d be in a world of hurt. Still, the point is that the pace and thoroughness of our manipulation is creating a planet we won’t be able to thrive on. And I think we do have to ask serious questions about our role on the planet, and not just from a human perspective. We are causing a mass extinction — is this ok? Sure, nature will heal. Nature will heal in millions and hundreds of millions of years, as evidenced by previous mass extinctions. Do we want to live in a diminished world? Is it really ok to give ourselves an “out” by saying nature always finds a way? There’s nothing hopeless about this conversation, because asking questions is hope in itself — even if what we need is action and not merely good feelings about the future. Garden on!

      • There will always be bacteria! But if that’s all, that’s a pretty diminished world. I have two grandchildren, but I am surprised to find that I don’t care if I have great-grandchildren or not. I do, however, fervently hope that somebody has great-grandchildren, and that won’t happen if the Atlantic Plastic island continues to grow, and the oceanic dead zones spread, and the world least touched by us adapts to little more than a golf course – green, perhaps, but barren nonetheless.

        Ironically, it’s mostly the folks who dismiss this as a problem who care most whether we are properly lining up our boxwoods and petunias .

  4. I haven’t read this book but it’s going on my list! That sterile cul-de-sac landscape is just too depressing — the only beauty in it is the prairie-inspired front yard that drew the ire of the neighbors. I have been shrinking the size of my already small front and back lawns steadily over the years, by expanding more traditional flowerbeds, adding native wildflowers, and creating small groves of understory trees that include native dogwoods. No complaints yet! But I live in an historic neighborhood where every house and garden looks different, and creative gardens are prized.

  5. I cannot wait to read this book.

    It seems humans have an innate desire for order…and for this reason I have two gardens. The in-town garden is a mix of natives and conventional borders and is quite manicured. It is full of birds and small mammals, all on less than 1/8 acre. I also have 12 acres in the country, so wild that the newest neighbor had to ask “what’s THAT?” There are several open areas (dry and wet meadows) that I am slowly filling with wildflowers and fighting multiflora rose and honeysuckle. It will take decades.

    My wild space is completely different from my town space. I am lucky to have both, but the feelings I get in each are unique to each. What I think this book promises is a way to understand humans’ desire for order and then chaos in the context of nature.

    • I think this is the way to go even if you don’t own the 12 acres in the country. I have the small yard that would prompt neighbors to warn the authorities about me, but I have my “Chesapeake Bay certification” sign out front that shows all that I met the criteria of the five specialists who followed me around my yard and checked off that I met their list of rigorous requirements. The sign is like a “Keep Out” to the under educated.

      Now, I live on a watershed so my fragment most likely has a better insect genetic diversity and greater source of food than Benjamin’s yard which appears to be a tiny oasis in an inhospitable landscape, but I still know that I should not only focus in my yard to make a difference. On the 7,000 acre Agriculture Research Center in my town, I, along with others, have requested more meadows along the farm fields. And, now, they have increased in number and are teaming with large amounts of insect life. Next, I will be moving on to the local golf course where I have some nest boxes to request they become a member of the “Monarchs in the Rough” program. http://www.golfcourseindustry.com/article/monarchs-rough-butterflies-golf/

      So, my yard is important, but I can make a much larger contribution if I extend my efforts beyond my small patch of land to a far larger land mass, and I don’t even have to own it to help.

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