Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gardens Are Not Beautiful

Whenever I see the word "beauty" used to describe a plant or garden, I cringe on the inside. Beauty is an abstract term based on highly personal and complicated emotions, which are filled with subjective human experiences. While one person may perceive something -- a landscape, a moment -- as beautiful, another may be witnessing ugliness or discomfort.

This is true for other species. Which species of bird, butterfly, spider, bee, or soil microbe find our gardens beautiful? How is that beauty measured and for what purposes? Beauty may be a condition of being useful. For humans, a garden is useful because it tickles our senses and stirs an emotional response, which helps us engage and bond with the world around us. The garden is a contrived space, though, like a painting or music, even as it carries usefulness beyond our own species. But the way in which we and other species find usefulness and beauty are often very different.

Leaving stems 1-2' tall in spring is useful for carpenter bees. Is it beautiful? To whom?

The plants we use and how we grow them are not for us alone. It's not just the why of the endeavor, it's the how and for whom, and when. A hosta is for us -- we find it beautiful, or, we've inscribed meaning on it in some way (my grandmother grew them and I remember her in this way, or, I like the texture of the large leaves). But for most wildlife, hosta is ugly and useless. Very few to no species lay eggs on the leaves, or evolved to recognize or thus be able to use the pollen or nectar form the blooms. By using a hosta, we privilege ourselves over the functioning landscape and erode beauty for the real world -- the 99% of other species we depend upon to have the luxury to discuss beauty or meaning in plant arrangements.

A garden can be beautiful and useful for all of us at once. It can practice reconciliation, community, understanding, and equality. The way is through native plants, because the way is through displacing our perception and conception of arranging nature solely or primarily for ourselves. Garden making, especially in the altered urban world, is a translation matrix between the wild we've forsaken and the wild we yearn for in our bones (even if we don't know what it is or how to name it).  Garden making is a sacrifice that elevates the world around us not purely through our artistic vision, but through elevating the needs of the real world. If we can't provide what's beautiful to other species, then our gardens are not, in fact, beautiful at all.

Friday, April 7, 2017

How We See Animals

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

-- Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod