Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Garden Politics

Garden Politics
I am back to reading about early colonial gardens in the US and the founding fathers (Andrea Wulf's new book Founding Gardeners: The revolutionary generation, nature, and the shaping of the American nation was just published and I was given a copy as a gift by a dear friend- the book is amazing, especially if you love gardening and history). I had understood before the political connection with garden and landscape design (or, at least, the symbolic associations we make between gardens and politics), but Wulf has reminded me more strongly of this and has filled in some important pieces.

What I find most interesting to think about is how current garden and landscaping practices are echoes of political or civic ideals through time (bear with me here). Take the American lawn ("Please!" al la Henny Youngman! How I dislike grass!). Imagine driving through a suburban area- what do you see in your minds's eye? Swathes of green lawn marching across all the yards. In the past, the lawn was only available to the very wealthy, those who had the money to hire gardeners to cut it (in a time before power tools), feed it and rip out any offending weed before it got established (no roundup [TM] then, either). The lawn itself was large, a type of conspicuous consumption: no poor or "middling sort" could afford this, as all their land was necessary for the production of food (plant or animal), medicines or for other utilitarian purposes (storage or out buildings, and areas to slaughter animals, make barrels, chop wood, do the wash, etc). The large, perfect lawn was a sign that shouted "wealth be here!"

This symbolic meaning of the lawn-as-wealth transmuted upon its arrival to America. Of course, at first, only those who could afford a lawn had one, either as a broad area of land near the house or as an accent in their pleasure gardens. Later, the lawn became a symbol of democracy, with every household having at least a small one, fronting the house, to create the visual image of a continuous green swathe across many yards, to show all were equal and this was a democracy. [We see this very same kind of transmutation, in words, with activist groups, but in an opposite direction: they take the pejorative term for their group, and adopt that very same term with bravado and courage, as a slap in the face of those who perpetuated the negative stereotype in the first place. "We riff raff can have a lawn too, you evil despots!"]

But the American political ideals of democracy and equality went even further in gardening and landscape design. Think of the Court of Versailles, and the last King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Known for their excesses, the king and queen had elaborate gardens. The gardens of Versailles, like many gardens at royal palaces, were places of excess. Not only did European royal gardens have statuary, elaborate water features, grottoes and mechanical devices to surprise visitors, but they were full of exotic plants from far-flung countries and many of these were tortuously pruned into twisted shapes, balls, boxes, hedges, fences, espalier and other unnatural forms. This style of gardening was seen by political thinkers and gardeners in America as a sign of despotism, venality and autocratic rule and, hence, was rejected by Americans. Thus the American style of allowing plants, most especially trees and shrubs, to grow as they will, with a little helpful pruning, to form their own, natural shape, was born: this was viewed as an analogy for freedom. (Remember the Liberty Trees in many communities? Also that the sign you were a revolutionary was wearing a pin or medallion representing a tree?) Wildness and wilderness were viewed as quintessentially American

There are many other examples of the garden as a political act. People grew a substantial amount of produce through Victory gardens during World War II and having a Victory Garden was a mark of your patriotism (indeed, of all the homeland efforts during WW II, including rubber and metal drives, saving household fats to use in the war effort, only Victory Gardens made a substantial contribution). Prior to WWII, the Utopian movement in America (and abroad) often focused on gardening, agriculture and other natural aspects of self-sufficiency. These Utopian movements can be thought of as a way communities of individuals tried to assert themselves against social trends with which they disagreed. Currently, the Slow Food movement and the impetus toward community gardens and farmers' markets are also political, as well as social, acts.

I believe it is now time for a new political ethos of American garden and landscape that echo earlier notions of wildness and freedom. Today a lawn (as well as other modern, garden practices) is costly, in time, money and environmental degradation. I have written about this before, that a lawn uses a lot of water and chemicals and is a good as a desert for many native creatures to feed. The lawn can now be rightly seen as representing the opposite of freedom and democracy: that is, it is a new kind of oppression. This is the oppression of neighborhood conformity (can anyone say "neighborhood association?") coupled with the oppression of being beholden to large chemical companies that make the crap that is spread on our lawns, and larger lawn care outfits who spray this stuff for a fee. Lawns commit us to pollute and tie us down to repetitive work for little gain (OK, I guess to some the lawn does look pleasing when it is at its optimally sprayed and watered self, though when I see a perfect green lawn, my reaction is not to want take of my shoes and run about it with bare feet- my reaction is yuck, wonder how many chemicals I would pick up if I walked there?).

You can have a low-care yard of trees and shrubs, like my friend Mary- her yard is a no-care collection of lovely pine trees, whose needles blanket the ground suppressing weeds, and azaleas that bloom in spring. No mowing, no care, just occasional work to remove limbs after storms. Talk about freedom! Or you could have a yard that DOES something, grows flowers or food to feed you or wildlife. Gardening does something for you too- soothes the soul, improves your health and grows food, which is important for poor families or those wishing to be more self-sustaining. Yes, this involves more work, but so does lawn care. Care to re-think your lawn this spring?

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