Monday, January 20, 2014

Teaching Gardens: Aesthetics, Ecology, & Climate Change

My whole like I've felt like an outsider. In college, and even grad school, I was an English major taking writing classes. I wrote poems then essays then memoirs, but I never was part of the crowd -- I never felt like I really gelled. I wasn't into the same lifestyle as my writer cohorts, my beliefs were different, plus I was / am a massive introvert and needed writing to make sense of my emotions and daily interactions. I am my best self in words.

Just as I felt while in school, my second career, if one can call it that -- perhaps a midlife crisis -- is landscapes, gardens, etc. The garden is my way of making sense of emotions and daily interactions outwardly, an echo of the words I write. But my background is from literature and philosophy, not generally recognized as practical tools to landscape design or thought except maybe by some of the diehard landscape theorists. I am a horticultural outsider.

When I researched and wrote my first memoir, Morning Glory, I read everything about the history of garden and landscape design, and much philosophy on nature (hundreds of books and articles). I got into the philosophies and cultural critiques of deep ecology and eco feminism, which inform the activist role I see needing to be in 21st century landscape design. As much as urban vegetable gardens and food forests are an act of defiance and a call to level the cultural / social playing field, I see gardens focused on native plants a leveling of the cultural / social playing field among all species. Or, an act of empowerment.

See, we're disconnected from the world. You'll argue we aren't -- why, you just took your dog for a walk in the park this morning. But nature is absent from our lives. We don't depend on it actively, only passively, and maybe this is why some in the field lament the lack of interest in the horticultural field. Nature is background. It has been diminished to an aesthetic. Oh, isn't that pretty? What a beautiful view. Such lovely colors. Want to know how to make a festive container for your front porch?

But my larger point is we think of gardens with words that can't begin to hold the deeper power inherent in nature: words like "beautiful" and "pretty" and "gorgeous" and, well, other adjectives that border on the abstract. Do we not have the language necessary to convey our true feelings, or do we lack true feelings in nature? Is it both? Is it a tributary from our ancestral fear of the world, and abstractions help keep us safe from imagined predators?

I think people -- especially younger people -- want landscapes that make them think, and when they think, they get connected. If gardens become not just something pretty, but also something that stands for a larger meaning directly applicable to everyday life and other social movements, then we have something.

Lincoln's Union Plaza can show & teach a lot more
If we create gardens combining aesthetic -- careful design -- with ecological functions, we can teach. When I write memoir and essays I'm always conscious of combing lyric passages with researched knowledge; when a reader is both enveloped by the beauty of language and its rush of emotion while learning something practical and real, a writer can activate both sides of a reader's brain. It's fully immersive.

Why can't gardens do that? Why can't we create gorgeous gardens full of ecological processes that mimic even larger processes going on outside the garden's edges? This is place-conscious gardening on a much larger scale. This is, here in Nebraska, designing with native prairie plants. The plants will educate about local ecosystems and, ideally, connect people to their homeground in more meaningful ways. Often, these plants are completely unfamiliar, just as the call of a common blue jay is to my students, or the fact that we are tearing up the last prairies at a rate faster than before the dust bowl, or that with the loss of these prairies comes more social ills than you can shake a stick at. 

Gardens, public and corporate, should be doing far more. They should be asking us to think while involving us in local culture and texture. They should be teaching us that nature is not a static pastoral painting that needs constant maintenance to keep it pristine, but that it shifts and evolves just like we do -- this will connect us to nature in profound ways. I'd also like to see public gardens that aren't destroyed at the "end of the season." If we're not gardening for all four seasons, we aren't connecting to place -- we're missing a solid 1/4 of our lives. We're also eroding some natural ecological process, a double teaching moment.

In talks I give and articles I write, I see a constant and growing desire to learn about both garden design and ecological processes, about the larger role designed landscapes play in a world we have now forced ourselves to tend as gardeners because we have our hand in everything -- climate change, industrial agriculture, logging, dams, the Pacific Ocean garbage patch full of plastic, et cetera. Since we are gardeners it behooves us to learn not just about aesthetics and good design, but the way in which garden spaces function to repair or create awareness of the need to repair larger ecosystems around us. When both sides of our brain become involved we are transformed -- the garden becomes an act of defiance as we reconnect and learn about the planet in ways many large corporations would prefer we didn't. When we garden with place in mind, we won't feel like outsiders, but will instead feel empowered. This is why we need to garden with native plants.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Being a Teacher

I don't often, perhaps never, talk about my teaching here. This is a garden and environment blog, and though I share my own writing I'm hesitant to share my teaching -- or more precisely what others say about my teaching

This last fall I taught my first ever online writing course. I've taught over 40 writing and literature courses before, but in person, which meant I could build meaningful bonds with students easily, that they could build bonds with one another, and thus get more out of the class. Somehow I pulled this off online, too. What amazes me constantly is how perceptive students are -- I guess I always feel like we're just all floating through the motions in a busy semester. You never know what little thing is gonna stick and expand and be meaningful (or crushing).

"I was not initially motivated to take this course but I was motivated to do well in it. In hindsight, I can say that this course has reshaped my perspectives on analyzing literature, writing for others, and changed the way I make decisions in on a daily basis. I love the impact that this course has had on me, my thinking, and my life."

"I learned a lot about myself and how I think in this course. It opened up my eyes to things that are happening in this world that I would usually dismiss. I also learned how to learn by writing."

"Dr. Vogt was an excellent devil's advocate in the discussion for the books we read, he stimulated discussion and forced us to look at new perspectives we had not before."

 "Dr. Vogt would nudge us in certain directions, but it was always the students who would make the discovery.... Dr. Vogt was much more about quality than quantity."

"The teacher really wanted his students to to open up their minds and explore new ideas."

"Dr. Vogt was so helpful and really made an effort to make a one to one connection with each and every one of us."

"He really pushes students and doesn't sugar coat things. If you are doing something wrong he'll let you know. He gives tough love."

"He is extremely enthusiastic, open, honest. He established a great deal of trust and respect with everyone in the class."

"Dr. Vogt is exceptionally responsive and always willing to assist with questions and problem areas. I have had quite a few good professors in this regard, but Dr. Vogt goes above and beyond in his quality interactions with students. He works hard to guide students into defining the class and their own experience."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Nature of Cultivating Home in the Great Plains

We live in a culture predicated on the belief that humans know better, that science will solve all of our problems, and that the faster we go the better off we are. Pioneers practiced this and it produced the loss of one of the largest grasslands in the world, the near-eradication of countless Plains Native American tribes, led to a dustbowl, and ultimately created a dead zone in the gulf of Mexico, among countless other issues you're likely familiar with.

I'm not a Luddite, but you'll think I am. Without a sense of place, without a connection to where we are and where we are from, science will never be the sole answer to addressing our most pressing cultural concerns. But in concert with our emotional and psychological connection to place? Then probably. We are an insane species. So many of our problems stem from not being connected to each other, to home, to region, to place. We don't care about where we are. We are transient. A suburb in Georgia looks a lot like one in Iowa looks a lot like one in Oregon -- big box stores, the same landscape plants and design, the same restaurants. Only when you stop to look hard, REALLY hard, can you find differences, but those differences -- those places of community and connection -- are only on the margins.

Those same margins are in agricultural fields. They are shrub borders and tree windbreaks, marshes and ponds, bits of prairie between the road and the field the farmer hasn't plowed up yet. But we're getting to them, making way for one more row of corn and displacing whatever is left of history, of place.

I know, you're a farmer and you argue that your place means a lot, it's been in you family for 100 years. But that place is manufactured by you -- the only resonance it has is human memory. Do you know the memory of the land? Of the flowers and grasses? The birds and mammals and the insects? Do you know how the ecosystem works? Do you know what plant eases fever? Do you celebrate the predators, those keystone species that make an ecosystem work, or do you shoot them for sport and out of fear? In what ways can you incorporate place / prairie into your fields that will be better for the planet and your bank account?

The pressure of ethanol mandates means more corn fields. Crop insurance means a farmer can still make money even if the crop, planted on newly cleared erodible land or marsh, completely fails. GMO research will produce corn that can stand up to more drought, and so more prairie -- upland and dryland -- will be torn up. And once it is life dies above and below the ground. Suddenly, we become gardeners in a forcible way, the land dependent on us and our carbon inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and weed killer.

We like to think we know better. Frankly, there's a wisdom in plants and animals that we've pushed to the brink, not only to the margins of our emotional and physical lives, that have much to teach us but that we'll never know because we don't stop to learn. Without a connection to and knowledge of place, we can never be real farmers or real stewards or real gardeners or have a real home. How do we get nature back into our lives? Why does it matter? What's at stake beyond food security, clean water, easing learning disabilities, ending violence and depression? In a world slipping into irreversible climate change and mass species extinction, the questions carry more weight than science alone in any field can address.