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Can Gardens Save the World?

Originally published on April 12, 2019

Author Benjamin Vogt

Can gardens literally save the world?

Benjamin Vogt explains why his answer is "no" in today's excerpt from his book A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.

Excerpt from the Introduction

No. Even if they are linked together to create some new hybrid habitat — even if that habitat is mostly native plants — gardens won’t make more   than a dent in the thriving ecology of other cultures. But gardens are far from powerless; in fact, I believe they are a lynchpin to greater steps — from alternative energy to permaculture — that will save the world.

Gardens are exponentially powerful. We are removed from wildness. We are removed from knowing the voices or lives of other species. We’ve so quickly and efficiently changed the world to our uses and our convenience that a different kind of silence permeates our bodies, one that is as subtly painful as a leg or arm that’s fallen asleep.

Photo by elias morr on Unsplash

Gardens can save the world by saving us. They can bring us back into contact with diversity. They can do what landscape architects like Olmsted envisioned: bring different cultures together in an open, democratic space to share their lives and learn from one another so that they might grow stronger together. Gardens in our back and front yards, gardens along urban streets, gardens in suburban parks, gardens surrounding schools and churches and corporate headquarters. Gardens buzzing and humming and rustling, forming connected highways of mammals and birds and pollinators and microbes. Gardens that heal our broken bonds to nature and to one another. Gardens as activism as surely as any art form, and as surely as any mercy we might bestow on one another in times of sorrow or anger. Gardens that stir our   senses and give us actionable faith and hope.

Photo by Joel Holland on Unsplash

But we should always be wary of hope as a goal of its own, as it can be as dangerous as privileging beauty in the gardens this century needs. Both hope and beauty whittle down complex emotions and perceptions to black and white, while simultaneously smoothing over the roughness of our consciousness and the consciousness of all life. Hope says that, in the end, everything will be okay and creates a complacency that lacks the urgency to fuel immediate action. Hope puts off grief and anger and even some level of interceding compassion. Beauty says life is a vista that primarily soothes and inspires, that how we aesthetically interpret something is as relevant and important as the inalienable rights at the core of the lives or places we are judging, if not more so. Beauty gives worth to not just an experience but the surface composition of entire species and ecosystems. Like hope, beauty paints a façade over life so that we feel better about ourselves without having to do the hard, honest work of critical thinking — and then acting — to create a revolutionary biophilia within the rough edges of our existence.

Photo by Jeanne Blanche on Unsplash

Gardens may give us hope, gardens may give us beauty, but if this is what we primarily seek or talk about with each other in these spaces — if hope and beauty are confined to the surface textures, colors, and forms — gardens will never be enough. Gardens can and should be far, far more. Beauty and hope are in the soil. They’re larvae eating the leaves. They’re wasps laying eggs in those larvae. They’re birds feeding insects to their young. They’re ants farming aphids. They’re plants giving off VOCs as they communicate with the ecosystem around them. They’re coevolved nature tooth and claw, welcomed into our lives and altering our lives fundamentally, expanding our perspectives, moving our empathy on to the rest of life, so that in the end loving another life form helps us love ourselves ten times more. Hope and beauty are the fight for equality, and they are painful and uncomfortable in their most revolutionary forms.

I don’t want to always feel better in my garden. I don’t want to be healed. I need my pain. I need my anger. These emotions are not enemies but indicators of empathy and compassion. They let me know the depth of my feeling and the power of all life struggling for justice and equality. If I deny the full feeling of my being, I deny the full power of my ability to comprehend and live in a thriving world. Science tells me we are made of the same stuff, that we all speak a similar language. Religion tells me the divine, the numinous, is breathed into every life and landscape. My nature is a nature of defiance for the bonds we break between us in the name of power or personal liberty. My freedom is based in the freedom of other species and other places, even if I never see them. This is why native plant gardens matter more than we may want to know.

Photo by Yen Vu on Unsplash

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