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.


Caleb Melchior said...

A garden can practice reconciliation. That's a beautiful phrase, Benjamin - resonates with the Old Testament sensibilities with which I was raised. Can reconciliation only be achieved through native plants, though? We ridiculous humans definitely need to consider the desires of other species, but it seems that there might be more to this issue than primitive geographical boundaries of species distribution.

Thanks for giving this perspective. I do think, though, that it's okay for something to exist just to be beautiful - otherwise, why treasure paintings or pieces of sculpture that might not have any "practical use", for humans or other species? I'm all about native plants, celebrating the indigenous species that occur in an area, cultivating them and planting more of them - but is it really appropriate to contain our plant choices within this boundary?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Caleb -- It's not "primitive geographical boundaries of species distribution" that defines a native plant. It's the co-evolution in practice between plants and other organisms. As for beauty, what is beautiful and who says? We're told to appreciate the Mona Lisa but it's a rather plain painting, isn't it? Or is that just my idea of beauty being supplanted on the artwork? I don't find native plants limiting -- they are instead the opposite when it comes to wildlife, they are liberating. They are selfless compassion for lives other than my own and connect me to lives I'd otherwise not know.

I always think about formal poetry, sonnets and villanelles, how for much of my writing life they seemed constraining and even unnecessary. Then one day it clicked, and suddenly, through the practice of writing within what I presumed were boundaries, suddenly my writing in free verse and prose was so much tighter and visual and alive. Thank you for your thoughts, and I hope you'll read me book when it comes out this fall -- and let me know what you think.