Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Ethics of Care and Place

More and more support for the way our relationshops are changing and must change even more in the natural and built environments. And by extension how our gardens play a key role in this change.

"Our moral vision and imagination are tied to the vocabulary we use. Today the dominant ethical language comes from words like freedom, interests, rights, and justice. The meaning of each of these ideas is keyed to principles or rules rather than to relationships. Is this language inclusive enough to allow for all that needs to be said concerning human responsibilities for flourishing and resilient biotic and civic communities?"

This is exactly why it's so hard to advocate for change in landscape design -- our language is so often inadequate to how we experience the world, and even I might add, to how we respond to it based on our own ethical and moral codes (even if or especially if those codes are right on target -- something misfires between thought and action). Our relationships to nature are so much more visceral.

"[...] beliefs and feelings that lead to human behavior are most often rooted in the lived experience of a specific place, one with particular natural and social characteristics, landscapes, and cultures. To change the way one thinks and feels about a place is to change how one uses and relates to it. An ethical vocabulary adequate to the ecological challenges of our time must have the power to do far more than our current language of freedom, interests, happiness, rights, and justice."

If we use our gardens as places primarily for our own aesthetic experience, doesn't that cast ownership over the landscape which excludes other life from the landscape? That may in fact alienate us from the landscape in deeper, unnoticed ways. Aldo Leopold might think so. When we call a landscape "beautiful" we ascribe value based on personal experiences, judgements, and social / ethnic / economic background. Happiness is not freedom when it excludes the well being of other creatures that also, as it so happens, directly contribute to our literal physical well being in the form of ecosystem services. 

Here's a bit from Steven Sullivan's essay Finding Your Own Passenger Pigeon:

"What I am not content with is the fact that we, as a single and supposedly sapient species, are arbitrarily and ignorantly destroying biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in more than 4.5 billion years. Whether you take the perspective that such biodiversity is the conscious product of a deity’s creation or is the happy accident of amazing natural processes, the destruction is unconscionable. If this rapacious consumption were the result of a single individual’s avarice, perhaps this behavior could be seen to have some kind of justification. But our destruction is not the result of a single person. It is the result of collective decisions: decisions made in the home, the store, and the voting booth; decisions we advertise through our behavior and our bellies. These decisions are not solitary. They affect the world. Your decisions affect me and mine affect you. Daily, even hourly, the news reports how such decisions affect us on a strictly economic basis. Few people are attempting to quantify how such decisions affect us on an ecological basis."

Our gardens matter; they mean so much to ourselves and each other. I'm so thankful for the Ethics of Care and Place from the Center for Humans and Nature. There's another longer piece I want to talk about here in another post -- about the psychology behind ethics and our connection to other species; I'm still unpacking it, but it's jazzed me up! 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Business Rambling from the Prairie

Our dream is to run a small, boutique prairie nursery with local ecotype seeds (100 or less species). We'll have a 1/2 acre display garden that's highly designed and will be a destination in its own right, as well as idea generating. Out back will be a prairie. We may have a field solely for generating prairie seed. An artist or two will stay in small cabins in residency for a week or two at a time, helping give prairie another artistic voice. All of it will be tied together with events, activities, and technology that brings the prairie home, or brings us home. I have so many ideas I can't contain them -- ways to engage people with plants via approaches seldom conceived of... ways to make plants and gardens part of everyday culture again.

The last few weeks I've been researching trends in the nursery industry, and it all looks good for 2015 and what we're planning for -- if we were at that point (lotto ticket, don't fail me now). We'd be right in line with what's trending and what people are wanting. I'd like to focus on designing gardens and on consults, speaking around the country, writing books. That means I'll need a nursery manager and some sales people down the road.

Then legal issues arise for anyone who visits. Paying a livable wage with benefits to employees. Logistics of plant production that relies totally on winter stratification with minimal assistance from costly and earth-unfriendly heating, fertilizers, or pesticides. Go LLC? Probably, and keep the biz separate from the personal.

The business plan is progressing. Market research being developed. I'll be much more active in promoting Monarch Gardens this spring through new marketing measures and grassroots door knocking. I'm an introvert but I have a passion I can't contain. Prairie is too important. Climate change. Biodiversity. Us. Our home. A meme I saw today: "Activism is my rent for living on this earth." Prairie up.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Images of a Nebraska Winter's Soul

I'm in love with winter. Head over heals. "Brown is a color, too" is something we should hear much more in the gardening world. Summer gardens don't do it for me anymore. Maybe in winter I enjoy the peace more, the cloistered silence that is perhaps the first reason we have to create a garden -- it's an escape from overt thought, the world out there, the din of the mind and the business of life. Winter gardens show me the base structure, the heart of the matter, the absence which is the fullest presence, the negative space that in all art gives more power and resonance to the objects being focused upon. There is little else more elegant than a wash of bluestem rolling in the north wind on open prairie, seed heads of aster and coneflower poking up through drifts of snow, the act of following the tracks of some creature until they vanish inexplicably into the distance. Winter is the garden's soul born out fully, heart on its sleeve, the purest intention of space and place that a gardener can ever know. Spring can wait.

Just west of Lincoln, Nebraska -- a sudden shaft of rain
Footsteps in the garden
The garden path becomes a directing river of snow
Sunlight hits trees at Conestoga Lake

Monday, January 12, 2015

Stages of Environmental Grief -- Deep Love & Loss

In my presentations on the ethics of designed landscapes in a time of climate change and the 6th mass extinction, I make my way to what I consider the heart of the matter: that facing the reality of how we live on the planet is not healthy or sustainable. Immediately, this can become for some an indictment, judgement, or even sermon in the most traditional Baptist way -- which is unfortunate and not my intent. We should be aware of our role on the planet, how our land and fossil fuel use is linked to very disturbing facts about the environment and ecology -- we should not put our heads in the sand and hope for the best (could you imagine what would've happened if "The Greatest Generation" did that?). There is nothing wrong with learning about these issues, but it's not easy, and it hurts. In a way, we have to face the loss of things we love -- homes, treasured landscapes, the idealized hope for our children to live how we've been fortunate to live, and a sense of innocence; this sense of innocence has been lost time and again in periods like the civil rights movement, equal pay for women, marriage rights, and even adding species to the endangered list.

Facing environmental loss is part of going through the traditional stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (I always include a 6th -- empowerment / liberation / freedom to think for yourself via education). I just read a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times about how these 5 stages aren't exactly right; in it, therapist Patrick O'Malley recounts the story of a patient named Mary, who lost her baby to SIDS and was helplessly making her way from therapist to therapist because she just couldn't get over the death. Two quotes at first stuck out to me:

"The depth of her sadness was simply a measure of the love she had for her daughter."

As Patrick asks her to tell the story of her baby from beginning to end for the first time in her life, something happens as she cries in the deepest way possible:

"Now, in my office, stages, self-diagnoses and societal expectations didn’t matter. She was free to surrender to her sorrow. As she did, the deep bond with her little girl was rekindled. Her loss was now part of her story, one to claim and cherish, not a painful event to try to put in the past...." "[Society says] a person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.... The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation."

In the same way, how we grieve for the planet -- for melting ice and monarchs and passenger pigeons and lesser prairie chickens and salt creek tiger beetles -- is entirely unique; it can't be anticipated or explained away. While the 5 stages of grief may help us identify solutions as we work through grief, true grief never ends because it is part of deep love, even if we don't consciously recognize or experience that deep love every day (I'm thinking working in the garden, holding bumble bees, taking kids for walks in prairie, etc).

For Patrick, the story of loss has 3 chapters

1) "Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love."

To me, this means that the more we act out the 5 stages of grief, the deeper our love, and perhaps the more empowered we can become.

2) Death "is often the moment when the person experiencing the loss begins to question his sanity, particularly when the death is premature and traumatic. Mary had prided herself on her ability to stay in control in difficult times. The profound emotional chaos of her baby’s death made her feel crazy. As soon as she was able, she resisted the craziness and shut down the natural pain and suffering."

Humans prize control -- it helps us feel safe in the wilderness of life. You can see this flying in a plane with roads and cites laid out in grids, rows and rows of crops, and manicured lawns surrounding suburban homes (even in the way we schedule our lives). What happens when the illusion of control over the planet begins to erode? What happens when the safety of what we think we know is challenged or redefined?

3) "Mary wanted to reassure her family, friends and herself that she was on the fast track to closure. This was exhausting. What she really needed was to let herself sink into her sadness, accept it."

We need to embrace our grief and loss as surely as we need to embrace the "good" times in life -- they are all authentic responses to the human condition, and our special ability to connect with other species and landscapes and to care for them. It's believed that we once spoke the language of animals -- indeed, some remote indigenous tribes still mimic the call of birds as they communicate with one another. 

"'All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,'" said the writer Isak Dinesen. When loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died."

I grieve by exploring environmental ethics in gardens and landscapes; this isn't unique to me, and it surely stirs the pot of grief in others and how they deal with these environmental issues. The only way I see to overcome grief is to embrace it -- by telling stories in our gardens by the choices we make in the plants and hardscapes we use. We tell these same stories in efforts to conserve or restore, or to pursue the new ideas of novel ecosystems. We must connect to the world through action and thought at once, be open to the extreme highs and lows of love for place as we are for love of one another in our best moments. Love a place so hard it hurts -- love it so hard you know the full measure of joy and sorrow and become fully human, connected deeply to life. Prairie up.

Sri Nisargadatta: "The mind creates the abyss, & the heart crosses it."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Poll -- Why Can't We Have 100% Native Plant Gardens?

This is a genuine research question as I work on a book; it's not me baiting anyone. I'd love to hear your genuine reasons, those you've heard as well as those you believe, in why native plant gardens aren't practical, possible, or desired. Or whatever. I want to hear it all!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Love Winter, Love the Miracle of Earth

Stop dreaming about spring and summer and get your head in the game, back into life. I've found that in those all-to-rare periods in my life when I am fully here and now, everything seems more balanced, wholesome, fresh, and empowering. Embrace winter, which teaches you patience, silence, reflection, and a whole new realm of beauty and overcoming that the other seasons can't. And when you live winter fully, those other seasons have a deeper resonance when you get to them. I feel blessed to experience four distinct seasons and to see the world change and reflect that change in me. I feel blessed to see birds taking shelter under grasses in my garden during a storm. I feel blessed when, in spring, I witness native bees emerging from hollow stalks of perennials weeks before honey bees. The walk to work might sting, but the sunrise through the bare trees that also dances off sparkling snow is a reminder to celebrate this Goldilocks world.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Embrace Native Plants & Redress Climate Change

I've been waiting for western religion to get on the climate change bandwagon, seeing creation care as a more prominent moral & ethical issue. Love seeing Mr. Pope stand up. As climate change increases extinction rates for plants and animals, how we manage private and public landscapes is a direct response to our moral and ethical beliefs toward ourselves, one another, and all life. Choosing native plants in our gardens is certainly one way to celebrate life, to become empowered, and to connect with larger issues that might seem too big or too hopeless. Native plants stand a better chance of helping wildlife adjust to climate change and will be better adapted to climatic swings.

Don't let anyone tell you natives are "limiting," or that advocating for them is "finger wagging" or "preaching." The truth is, using native plants awakens us to our negative (and positive) role on this planet, something we don't want to address or confess; that's human nature. But when we embrace the anger, denial, grief, and loss we become something MUCH better than if we hadn't -- we become agents of super positive change, stronger, more resilient, and beacons of faith in action. Our landscapes become selfless acts of defiance. Our gardens become homecomings.