Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Art of Selfless Garden Design

After reading this article on the moral imperative of renewable energy, and being fueled by the Pope's call to ethical rethinking of nature -- I feel lots of momentum regarding how we interact with nature on personal, emotional, cultural, scientific, and ethical levels; it's as if everything is coming together! Here are my thoughts.

I think there’s a myth out there that good garden design for humans can not also be good garden design for other species (and other humans, in the case of filtering groundwater, cleaning the air, etc). It’s not an either or proposition.

Speaking in generalizations, garden designers, to me, feel beholden to a function and a style that comes from another time and another country; maybe it’s 1700s England or 1600s France. An outdoor space isn’t just a room to relax in, to escape to, to express our status -- it is a bridge between the world we hold at bay in almost every moment and our incomplete selves that hunger for contact with nature. This is where the theory of biophilia comes in – that we have an innate need to connect with the living world around us. Do gardens that inhibit other lives and biological functions fill that need? 

We gain completeness through experience and knowledge. When I began learning about native plants I felt more in control of my garden-making process – I wasn’t picking up any old thing at a nursery, letting current trends or tired choices (hello, hosta) be my guiding light; no, I was beginning to understand how plants interact with the world, how they are part of a larger system, not just a cog in the wheel but integral fibers of muscle and tissue. When I realized I could be a part of that fiber by how I gardened and what I learned through more informed plant choices, I was generally happier, more confident, and more passionate about life than in any other point of my short existence. I fully realized my garden mattered as much to me as it did to bees – that collectively all of our gardens mattered so very much.  

Gardening is therapy? Yes, but not just in the sense of walking through a flowering meadow or dipping toes into a babbling creek to calm our nerves ; gardening is therapy in the sense that it circumvents the cultural systems we’ve made up that say there’s a hierarchy, a certain way to do things, universal beliefs that are tried and true. Gardening shatters the wall between rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, human and monarch butterfly. Maybe gardening is for radicals in the sense that when we become empowered advocates who study, observe, and nurture open curiosity, we challenge the exploitative systems that hurt our world and ourselves.

Designed landscapes can be for us – utilitarian in their sidewalks and fruiting trees, gorgeous in their flowers and foliage – but there’s no reason in the world that at the same time they can’t be places for birds to raise their young, butterflies to lay eggs, bees to forage for nests, and soil life to flourish. To think that gardens are just for us is self-defeating and selfish, and is simply a lack of imagination; I even believe it’s an inability to extend our ethical circles in some really cool ways that would enlighten and heal many of our cultural and social problems. If nature calms us, if nature helps us recover from illness faster, if nature eases ADHD, why can’t gardens also help us see through another’s eyes, champion equal rights and equal pay, become the people we dream ourselves to be in our best moments (like those stories that end every news broadcast).

A designed landscape that does not see beyond the human is a landscape that is devoid of the human – it’s devoid of forgiveness, mercy, hope, equality, and community. 

Human art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, a way to bridge how we interpret the world emotionally, how we internalize and experience life, what we value in our most authentic moments of reflection and connection. Plants themselves are not art. What we do with them -- how we honor their life processes in a garden -- that's art.

Prairie smoke doing its thing.
“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning


Brian T said...

Garden design is only selfless if the gardener really wants to plant daylilies, pansies, and petunias but, to be more virtuous, plants instead milkweeds, asters, and native grasses. But what about the gardener who is intensely interested in which pollinators are attracted to the rattlesnake masters, or enjoys watching goldfinches plucking seeds from the heads of perennial sunflowers, or is just happy to see seeds of their zigzag goldenrods sprouting in unused areas where previously only crabgrass and dandelions had dared venture? I'd be giving myself too much credit if I felt selfless just because I would rather feast my eyes on a clump of penstemons with exquisitely-shaped blooms evolved over millenia to accommodate its most effective pollinators, rather than an overblown peony flower that sags to the ground in a rainstorm like a soggy wad of tissue paper.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Virtuous? Let's call it ethical. Let's call it connected and aware of the ecosystem and web of life. Give yourself credit. It's ok.