Evolutionary biologists really ought to wake up and start addressing one of the most interesting questions about the human mind: Why is it that gardeners are so obsessed with dramatic, leafy plants–particularly plants that are just beyond the hardiness cut-off where they live?
For example, I dream about magnolias and the seductive, lax, vaguely palm-like leaves of peach trees. In Charlotte, North Carolina, though, as I learned yesterday from the New York Times, the gardeners are fixated on actual palms and are gleefully planting them now that the climate is warming up. In Atlanta, they’ve said good-bye (and possibly good riddance?) to their rhododendrons and are onto oleander and brugmansia. Even Pennsylvanians are getting into the act, experimenting with camellias.
This piece, titled "Feeling Warmth, Subtropical Plants Move North," is delightfully honest about gardeners and global warming. We think it’s terrible, but, as the Times says…"Gardeners have always had a penchant for pushing the limits."
It seems to me that if you are going to communicate seriously to gardeners about global warming, you’d better admit that gardeners crave a longer growing season, more sub-tropicals, more beauty of a more outrageous variety, more varieties of everything, more, more, more. And global warming may be intensely interesting for gardeners in the short-term, before it gets really dreadful.
This is exactly what a well-meaning document just released by the National Wildlife Federation called "The Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming" doesn’t have the wit to admit. In 40 pages, only one line hints at the true psychology of gardeners:
As numerous studies show, any potential benefits from a longer growing seasons will only be out-matched by a host of problems–from watering restrictions and damaging storms, to the expansion of unruly weeds, garden pests, and plant diseases.
The rhetoric is simply not skillful enough to accommodate the "potential benefits"–in other words, the ineffable thrill of growing palms in North Carolina.
But that’s okay. The National Wildlife Federation really doesn’t need to talk to me. I already compost, use a freaking ridiculous and impossible reel mower, deny my perennials a drop of supplemental water, drive as little as possible etc., etc. I’m a paragon–or as much of a paragon as somebody with a weekend house can be.
The problem is that this kind of effort does ZERO to address the concerns of the less enlightened guy standing in front of me in Lowe’s the other day. You know, the well-groomed 40 year-old guy in a polo shirt and deck shoes buying three giant bags of weed and feed.
I felt like shouting at him, "What cave do you in live in, that you don’t know that stuff is horrible?" But I restrained myself, having once heard a terrible story in New York City about a woman who got into a fight with her cab driver, only to be run over and killed when she hit her head on the curb. Ever since, I’ve saved my combative impulses for my husband and buttoned my lips around strangers.
So how do you communicate to THAT guy? Sorry, National Wildlife Federation, but you have no idea.
He’s not worried about the hummingbirds or the wolves. In fact, he’s got important things in common with me. He’s an aesthete, just an aesthete of a different variety. It is not the reason that makes us happy or unhappy. It’s our own strange notions of beauty that count.
The guy in Lowe’s wants his place to look neat. He thinks his six broad-leafed evergreens sitting in an ocean of dyed-red mulch look terrific. He loves his velvety lawn. If you want to do something about global warming, you have to address this guy’s sense of aesthetics, because there are millions of guys just like him in suburbs all over the country. Tell him his lawn will look even better if he uses organic fertilizer. My mother–a suburbanite through and through–had this actual experience some dozen years ago. Tell him that his yard would look even classier with less lawn, and he might be able to spend more time in the hammock that way.
This guy is not interested in virtue. He’s interested in looking impeccable. And if we really want to do something about global warming, we need to find a way to speak to him.