Red? Blue? What if you’re Purple…Or Green.

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With all due respect to fellow garden industry bloggers, columnists, authors, speakers, and social media influencers who choose a different path, I chose long ago not to bring politics into my own garden writing.  I strongly believe people need a break from a constant barrage of Red vs. Blue; and there are plenty of contentious horticultural issues to debate for those of us who love to debate them.

But after experiencing a deeply troubling 2020 – a year that all of us have reluctantly shared – this gardener is galvanized to make a gentle – and perhaps political – plea. This one for order however, not chaos. For discourse, not demonization.

And it begins, aptly enough, in a garden, with my parents.

The dangers of stereotyping

My mother and my late father were two of the greenest people I have ever known.

All my life they dried clothes on a line, composted their kitchen scraps, recycled their recyclables, consolidated errands to save gas, shopped thrift stores first, cooked real food with real ingredients from a real garden, raised chickens to aid both garden and table, and made do with what they had before they thought about buying new.

By utilizing practices such as the reuse of graywater, the installation of drip irrigation, the maintenance of firebreaks, the clearing of invasive weeds, and the planting of erosion-controlling species, they acted as stewards of that land since the day they moved in. 

My father in his very green garden
My late father standing proudly by the fence we constructed from reclaimed posts and second-hand slats.

In California, where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they used their HVAC system so parsimoniously that it resembled the ’69 Mustang that sits in your great-aunt’s garage with twenty thousand miles on the clock.

But here’s the thing.  Despite those stone-cold qualifications, my parents also happen to be politically and socially conservative. My mother would chafe and my father would utter a ghostly chuckle if I announced that their actions classify them as bona fide (if quiet) eco-warriors.

Stereotypes have always been useful to politicians seeking power, but they are rarely accurate.

Red? Blue? Get in Your Box.

I have thought a lot about my parents’ lifestyle over the last few months.

If we recognize and applaud the premise of human individuality, how on earth can we believe that the world is easily divisible into two rigidly defined groups, and train ourselves to despise the ‘other’ when we know that we ourselves don’t quite fit in the box made for us?

Is the concept of having urban backyard chickens a red/blue thing? Not in my mind, but it certainly was in the minds of others when I challenged the ordinance in my last house. An eye-opener for this gardener who just wanted eggs for the table and compost for her garden beds.

urban chickens shouldn't be a red blue thing

The inconvenient truth of individuality.

Thinking is hard, and memes are fun. I get it.

But boiling down points of view into one wickedly clever two-second read is liable to subvert reality just a hair. Boiling down news into one, SEO-polished, clickable headline might have the effect of encouraging clickable headlines before the news actually happens.

It is fast-food for the brain, when we should be choosing healthier options.

A diet of this pap trains us to demonize not only those that might live several states or time zones away, and whose anonymity makes such processes easier, but those with whom we interact every day, that we have called friends – that we trust on an instinctive level.

urban bees shouldn't be a red blue thing
Urban bees – another red/blue issue apparently. News to this gardener – ’till I started keeping them.

We assign those ‘others’ motives and monikers and thus feel justified in deeming them monstrous, even if our personal experience suggests otherwise. Nor do we make the effort to calm our emotional reactions, recognize our own biases, and sit in deep conversation with those whom we have condemned. 

After all, demons and monsters are below contempt and incapable of goodness – why would one waste the time? If we do sit down in conversation it is to be won at all costs; opponents vanquished; preferably shamed and/or ridiculed.

We are not listening to one another.

Civility Lost

How many times have you been at a party or in a crowd of people in the last ten years where someone (feeling safe within the political stereotypes that particular crowd has assumed) has loudly and adamantly pronounced their views on a political subject? No invite to discussion – just pronouncement. Assumption.

Others, feeling ever-safer, create an echo chamber, oblivious to the division those words may have instantly created between them and the friend and colleague standing inches away – one who may then quietly stop working towards a shared goal, weary of being the butt of a joke but justifiably intimidated to speak up lest their job/position/social status be affected.

is a community garden bed a red or blue thing
A community garden bed built by gardeners of every political persuasion – working towards a common goal: fresh, organic food.

I have witnessed this on both sides of the political divide – and witnessed the resulting damage to friendships and working relationships, all done for a cheap laugh or to be seen as a fearless party advocate. 

If we wish to work together with people – carelessly insulting someone, or assuming their philosophies, will only undermine that common goal. Free speech is a right certainly, but graciousness is a skill.   Words, like actions, have consequences.

The failures of emotion-based argument

In the November 2017 issue of GreenProfit (an excellent green industry publication by Ball Publishing), Bill McCurry cleverly muses on the slings and arrows we chuck at each other in order to avoid discussions that could further understanding.  “Come let us reason together,” he pleads, having been earlier rewarded for such heretical thoughts with the usual mix of ad hominem.

Wild and rampant name calling isn’t the sign of a rational, well-informed, thinking citizenry.  It is a symptom of increasing mob mentality.  And as Robespierre might have written in the fall of 1794 – had he not been arrested and executed in July by the very Terror he had orchestrated – mob-thought can be turned on a dime (or rather, sur un décime), rooted as it is in the volatility of emotionally-based argument and accusation.

Those things that feel true, are not necessarily true. No matter how hard – how passionately – one feels them. The Age of Enlightenment promoted reason and scientific method over emotion, dogma and orthodoxy, but we had to work for it.

We still do. ‘Science’ is not a homogeneous, amorphous entity that bats solely for one team or whose holy invocation can stop an argument – that’s antithetical to the entire premise of scientific inquiry.

For gardeners, the planet connects us.  Love of soil and living, growing things connect us.  And as much as those things can become politicized, they can also be discussed – and pursued – without rancor, name-calling, and contempt. If we cannot do this, the failing is not with our opponents, it lies within our own conversational skills, and it may be time to sharpen them.

The harder road, but a better way forward

So, my gentle plea I suppose is threefold: to strive for (and enjoy!) better, challenging, respectful discourse in our lives. To move beyond the easy boxes of my team/your team to navigate shared goals and a shared planet; and to treat each issue, by the merits of that issue, not by the party affiliation of those who would defend or reject it.

whether red or blue, most of us love to laugh
Face to face, without the anonymity and protection of social media masks we are able to find points in common, and perhaps more importantly – laughter. Here’s to a post-COVID world with more moments together again. Photo: Machelle Lee.

Thus when skillful manipulators goad, twist, and spin, we will instinctively rise above such trickery – preferring to seek truth through research, conversation, experience and the total rejection of convenient stereotypes. Humans may be inherently frail, but we are also inherently good – evil is thankfully an aberration.

So ends my foray into politics. Next week, back to broccoli, or backyard chickens, or beating out a few words to Scott.  Political punditry is thankfully an aberration in this writer too. – MW

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Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Tropical Plants and How to Love Them (2021), and Big Dreams, Small Garden (2017). After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to national print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia.

Contact Marianne by email: marianne@smalltowngardener.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo, Marianne! If we seek commonality instead of difference, the world can be a better place. I am afraid too many politicians or both sides, are now putting party interests ahead of national interests. Your parents sound so much like mine – products of the great depression who sought to get maximum value out of everything instead of tossing and replacing.

  2. I am decidedly independent, and generally a tolerant patient soul, but although I hope and pray forgiveness for those who voted for chaos, I have not reached the point that I trust their ability to govern for the near future. Similarly, while I hope and pray forgiveness and enlightenment for those who commit crape murder, but would subsequently not seek them out to look after my potted plants while I go on vacation. Opinions are worth having. Sharing the factual support for opinions in a productive manner is vital to the democratic process. The U.S. Senate used to do that quite well. I do agree that shaming and name calling are not productive, so I will not yell at friends and neighbors for pruning their majestic Oak trees into what appear to be umbrellas. I will instead vote for candidates who will not decimate the Extension Service that could educate people not to wreck the neighborhood.

  3. In the “old days”, even though there were strong differences of opinion between the political parties (which had the same name, though not at all the same demeanor, as the current ones), there was general agreement on facts. Or at least on the desirability of pursuing reason-based inquiry to get at facts. Most people, at least in my limited experience, believed the earth was round, that gravity had sway over fantasy, and that close contact with folks who had infectious disease could well bring about infectious disease in oneself. Now however, we’re in the middle of a pandemic of denial of facts and denial of the virtue and benefit of reason-based inquiry. Pretty difficult to have reasoned discourse in these circumstances. ‘Tis all well and good to ask that we “…come reason together”, but how to start the conversation when the other conversant denies reason?

    • It may have all started with “alternative facts” ….. I agree it is difficult to reason with people who have no trust or understanding of the scientific method, or science itself.

  4. Amen…Thank you, Marianne, to remind us all to be civil to others of different political persuasions and to avoid stereotypes. One thing I do not like about Garden Rant is having a blogger’s politics bleed through some message they are trying to convey…this is supposed to be a GARDEN blog vs a political soapbox, is it not?

  5. So wonderfully expressed in the words I wish I could gather and write. The past few months have been challenging. In my own family, it is now the “pitting of brother against brother” due to aberrant political belief.

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