Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Not very long ago I had a bit of a personal epiphany. I was over at my uncle's house, trimming his hedges. The sun was shining, but had just rained a few hours before, so the leaves were dripping wet. And as I went down the row of bushes, manually shearing off the excess, I realized that I really love doing this. The sharp yet quiet sound of the shears, the fresh coolness of the rain against my skin, and mainly, working with the plants. There is something about gardening that really appeals to me at a deep, soul level.

Seems like most of the other jobs I've had has been somehow anti-life. Certainly the home remodeling of recent times, which is hugely energy and resource intensive, very wasteful, polluting (with toxic chemicals), etc. Even retail jobs produce a lot of waste, and encouraging consumption doesn't quite appeal to me. Generally our economy is anti-life, speaking broadly, which is why we say it's unsustainable. This of course filters down to the lowest level, where everyone contributes to it.

I don't feel like I'm contributing anything positive to Life, not even really to the human world; I'm helping some investors make their unholy profits, and managing to feed myself on their scraps. If I were merely providing housing for people, fine, that's honorable; but we can all be real about this. No matter how used to them we are, our 2000 sq ft houses are wildly out of proportion to human needs. Unless you have a very large family, who needs such a big house? The way we arrange ourselves, everyone having their own room, typically at least 10'x10', it's pretty gluttonous in terms of space and housing. Certainly it is not the only way things can or should be. Indeed, humans evolved living in tents and huts, or large but communal long houses or lodges.

I visited, on my way to Utah last spring, some of the ancient pueblos in Arizona and Colorado. It is incredible how small those things are. The buildings seem large, but the actual rooms are claustrophobic, hardly enough space to fit a man's body laying down. Yet this is how they lived, for centuries, them and their families cuddling in these small spaces. Why do we all sleep separately (save for couples)? Why do we need so large a space for a bed room, where the chief activities are sleep, sex, and general rest? Many of our basic assumptions on this and other aspects of every day life are so clouded and myopic it sickens me.

It's the same thing with most fields of work these days: everything is tainted by the profit motive, even such basic and honorable things as farming and medicine. I've never been afraid of hard work, but I do hate knowing that my work has, inseparable from it, this threading of dishonor, the sleaziness of greed, corruption, power. Nothing is pure. This is the stuff Marx and Engels talked about. How can I really love what I do if I know that, even if I'm farming and feeding the world, I'm also poisoning the soil and rivers, or keeping livestock in barely livable conditions? I've never been able to find a fit for myself, because everywhere our system is corrupted, and I'm looking for truly honorable work.

With gardening, I am able to encourage and produce life; at least if done right. For example, trimming a bush doesn't hurt it, because it will just come back twice as hard. You can grow food and also build the soil and biodiversity as you do. In this there is still some true honor. And as I stood there in the sunlight and the rain-wet leaves, I realized that I need to be doing something with plants in my life. I'm almost thirty years old and I think I've found my calling, in general at least.

So I've been brooding on this a bit. Brooding is kind of dark sounding; call it musing, pondering. Trying to figure out which way to go with it, while realizing all the more how right this epiphany is. I mean, since I can remember I've loved plants and gardens. My parents say I used to play under the bean poles as a small child, they were like teepees, and even as I grew older I preferred being outside. I loved helping my dad in our massive flower gardens as I matured still more, propogating plants, helping design new plots, turning the soil, adding truckload after truckload of compost. Never felt like work to me. We'd smile and attribute it to our Irish blood, which makes us love to have our hands in good soil.

There was this one corner of the garden, it was my spot. It was a fairly large, lush bed on our side of the fence; meanwhile, the neighbor behind us had a big hedge, like a green and living wall. The neighbor to the side had let that part of his yard grow wild, as it was out of sight out of mind, behind his garage. There was a huge Norway spruce growing there, a good sized white cedar, tons of weeds, and a thicket of some kind of bamboo sort of plant, which spilled over into the yard behind him, also a forgotten place of decaying firewood and weeds. It's pathetic, because I'm talking about a very small area, but it was the wildest part of the yard, and I was drawn to it.

I know also that I've been missing having a garden for years. Every spring I wish I had a plot to put some seeds down in, and every summer and fall I simmer in jealousy at a few of my friends' pictures they post online, of their produce. Seems like every year, I'm not situated somewhere that I can do this for myself. Part of that is, of course, me following my other loves: camping, and, later on, hiking. Wilderness has always called me, but I'm realizing that maybe half of that call was the call of plants. To simply be in places surrounded by the vegetal world. The wild-freedom-call is another thing aside, and not to be ignored here. But plants... they are strange to me, mysterious. Living beings so far removed from my human experience that they rather baffle me. Alive like me, but mostly foreign. Their body form is different. Their senses are different. Their life cycles, different. Gardening is a conversation with this mystery. Even hiking in the forest is a sort of communion with kingdom Plantae, though it goes beyond that into general ecology too.

I think even the way I get all fired up over sustainability and permaculture and all that, is largely fueled by this. There are many good things to be done in those fields, and I'm not saying I'm purely all about the growing of plants. I'm fascinated by many aspects of sustainability, the basic philosophy of it, the science and ecology of it, and specific fields, like urban design, new building materials and methods, and new energy sources and methods.

But those will have to be for other people. I want to have my hands in the dirt, somehow, some way. My part in all this, I think, must be working with plants. I titled this "Gardening" but it could be anything: farming, working in a nursery, or as an arborist, or a conservation forester. I hardly know where this could take me.


  1. Great post. Plants really are a wonderful form of life -- kind of alien, actually, when you contrast them with us. Somewhere back a half billion years ago their ancestors chose a different path than ours: roots and chlorophyll over legs and lungs. They live on different time frames than we do and see the world in ways we can only dream of. They are even intelligent, although it's not the same sort of intelligence we have, and it's not usually manifested in any specific individual but is found in the interactions between many individuals and in the cooperation that arises between different species of plants and with animals over time.

    1. Glad I'm not alone here. In a way, fungi are even more amazing, being more closely related to Animalia, yet so different. They are like inverse-animals, in a way... I think I'll be posting on this soon.

  2. Yes, yes, yesss! So happy for you that you found your calling! Found your blog randomly as I was looking for the Guesilla Gardening logo picture. After reading that post I had to read this one too and it gave me a happy, happy smile! All the best for finding your way with plants!!!
    Greetings from snowed in Helsinki, Finland