Monday, June 30, 2014

The Deeper "Politics" of Native Plant Gardens

Finger waggers. Overbearing. Politicizing. Being dogmatic. These are the most often used phrases to describe native plant advocates of all stripes. But what advocate doesn't come off like this, especially to someone with a different point of view? When anyone has an opinion about anything – from oil pipelines to twerking to drone strikes to soccer matches to tee shirts -- they open themselves to heated debate; if anything, my massive foray into social media has shown just how diabolical the waters of opinion are. 

Some native plant advocates certainly come off as uber passionate, perhaps zealous, maybe at times too "loud" (ahem). I bet much of the same was said about our greatest social change advocates. But there’s something much deeper here besides the knee jerk reaction to tone, diction, and passion -- the latter which I'm convinced most people really don't want others to have despite the plethora of memes saying so.

What's at the heart here is realizing how we garden effects the world in both negative and positive ways. That cumulatively what we do on our ¼ acre lots is a massive destructive or constructive force that also influences or is reflected in how we travel, drive, and source our lifestyle. This places a larger amount of responsibility on people already burdened with things like mortgage payments, making dinner, kids’ piano lessons, sick parents, a bad job…. We sure don’t need to think any more about our lives, and certainly not in a way that complicates them – like a recent piece I read that showed going vegetarian will cut your carbon footprint in half. Oh goodness, “carbon footprint?” That opens up a whole can of worms about what I can or cannot do, should or should not do, and butts right up against political language and the divisive nature of our stagnant government where pro / con language creates a sort of animosity of thought.

Coreopsis, Dalea, Liatris
But you know what? The environment is a political issue. And it is such because it is a moral issue. Almost every political impulse is inspired by a moral or ethical one (for good or bad) – that’s why we have more and more freedoms being passed for those in the  LGBT community, why we value clean water, why we don’t want kids sucking on lead paint toys, why you don’t drink and drive, etc.

I was watching Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace executive director, being interviewed by Bill Moyers. He talked about how Greenpeace was started by anti Vietnam War Quakers, and thus at Greenpeace's core is the idea of bearing witness -- here's how he explains it:

"If there's an injustice in the world, those of us that have the ability to witness it and to record it, document it and tell the world what is happening have a moral responsibility to do that. Then, of course, it's left up to those that are receiving that knowledge to make the moral choice about whether they want to stand up against the injustice or observe it."

For some people a finger wag works. For others a passionate cry. For others a gentle, slow, oft repeated plea. And for yet others example upon example of what we should strive for no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Each person receives and accepts (or denies) information given to them based on personal preferences influenced by their cultural and social background or what kind of day they’ve had. It’s impossible to convey meaning to someone in one sentence using a dozen different strategies.

So I’ve digressed, but if appearances are what we’re so concerned about in how we talk about gardens and landscapes (and climate change and extinction), we’ll never ever have a good, deeper conversation about them or how we fit into nature as a species which re-imagines nature through our fallible emotions and intentions -- like gardens.

Asclepais syriaca & tuberosa -- Spring Creek Prairie, Nebraska
Why are native plants important for me? They are a bearing witness to our role in nature. They make me aware of environmental issues close to home, like prairie loss which influences ecosystem services, agricultural issues such as topsoil loss and water depletion, how plant communities function above and below the soil line -- they even provide a lesson in cultural and social inequality. Most importantly they empower me. I’m not buying into a horticultural system that flashes the latest new thing in front of my eye like I’m at a New York fashion show – I’m not a self centered consumer looking for the newest temporary thrill without thinking on how that object was made; the act of buying something will only assuage my tumultuous emotions in a complex world for a brief amount of time. Plants are not LED televisions, sports cars, or shoes. Neither are pets, by the way.

I think about my actions (some say dwell). It takes a bit more work, for sure, and it makes me vulnerable to some negative stuff that hurts and shrinks my human ego. But the thinking also makes me vulnerable to some pretty incredible insights and transformations that embolden me to speak up for what I most care about – the world that sustains us and which we still know so little about, including ourselves. Without native plant gardens we will never fully understand who we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going -- and if any of these directions points us to what we really want for ourselves and those who come after.


Naomi Brooks said...

Yes, you are passionate. You are energetic. You have given this a lot of thought. I want to see how you garden now, and hear about how you got there. It is very valuable, and a great model.

But I disagree that those with a singular and clear vision have to create such heated debate. Tone is such an important factor. It touches all kinds of personal tender spots when I am chastised, or treated with scorn or disrespect.

Can you instead show me your way and lovingly describe the wonderful benefits? Can you uncover the benefits that I have been overlooking?

It will not be sugar-coating anything, and you can remind me of the repercussions of being a "self centered consumer" without bearing witness to the larger ecological issues. But it certainly will hold out a shining example of what the world could look like, and will encourage me to do more deeper thinking of my own.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit of a native plant nazi myself, but not sure what you mean about providing a lesson in cultural and social inequality. Could you expand?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Naomi -- you're asking for exactly what I said I could not provide ALL AT ONCE in my post. So I need to do another post to appeal to your sensibilities, and another for someone else's, etc. The book I'm writing will both grab using one style / tone, and coerce / model with another. But as you freely admit, you're bringing personal experiences to the table I can't completely anticipate no matter how empathic I am -- (chastisement, scorn, etc, and how you internalized them and act them out daily). Once again, Mary Pipher's book The Green Boat is a must read on the psychology of these issues.
Anon -- I would NEVER EVER use the "n" word in ANY context; and this one it is especially bad. That being said, I've written in previous posts about the cultural and social inequality aspect, and it is hard to grasp. The way we treat the planet and all species is the same way we treat each other and ourselves -- compare the rigid monoculture of corn or soybeans with how we expect people to act in various social settings, or how we once expected Native Americans to become "civilized" and homogenized with one white ideal (which itself was multifaceted and caused / causes inequality). We also demand a culture of immediate pleasure and "happiness" which is a myth -- many books have been written on the happiness myth, which comes at the expense of our sanity and health.

Benjamin Vogt said...

It's impossible for me to make the connections in one post (I've tried many times before and failed terribly, based on responses), but what Rebecca Solnit says here links up to what I'm getting at -- namely the deeper cultural and economic forces at work that frame how we perceive the world (esp her words after "the things we burned):

Diana Studer said...

we've been removing 'invasive alien' trees, and making space for indigenouse plants to support the sunbirds who are being fed sugar water in our next garden. I would so much rather offer them nectar and flowers, once I get the chance.

Karen Hamburger said...

I share your frustration. I am not a very good communicator and I find myself being asked to do speaking engagements to teach about native plant gardening and the plight of pollinators.
Here in south central Nebraska I am engaging an agricultural mind set that seems impenetrable. I have even had a woman that passes by my house and comments on the installation of a pollinator garden with a religious intolerance strait out of the dark ages.
Not being a patient person I have to reach deep,deep down and find a way to communicate with her on her level and ability to listen.
I look at as a way to cultivate a more compassionate loving way of dealing with myself and others.
I have found your writings and rantings very useful in cultivating proper responses to the knee jerk reactions I get from the uniformed/ignorant. I use them as food for thought and attempt to feed the masses.
It is easier to preach to the choir but conversion of the sinners is far more satisfying.


Anonymous said...

Well said.
Melanie from Ohio