Belonging to the Garden

When I can't leave my garden, who owns who?

We live on the fringes of what I have heard called “Vacationland,” sixteen miles from Branson, Missouri, and just off one of this region’s chain of manmade recreational lakes. And summer is the season. We don’t do much in the tourist areas, being stereotypical crotchety locals, but we notice the busier roads, the fuller checkout lines, and the general froth of activity all around our home.

We could extract ourselves from this whirl if we chose, go off and take our own vacation. My profession as a teacher gives us the luxury of long stretches of unscheduled time in this season, and extended summer trips are the sort of thing many of my colleagues do.

We mostly don’t. Partly this is because we don’t travel well. Rachel and I are creatures of habit who like our home comforts better, in general, than the novelty of a new place. But extended trips fit awkwardly with life as a gardener. I aim to grow a mainly perennial garden that can look after itself more or less, but a busy garden in season will always have things that need tending—seedlings, plants in pots, ripening fruit. Even if you can find someone to look after your garden while you are gone, any serious gardener will worry. Karel Čapek captures this amusingly in his book The Gardener’s Year. Čapek depicts the gardener leaving for vacation “with a heavy heart, full of fears and cares for his garden; and he will not go until he has found a friend or relation to whom he entrusts his garden.” Though his initial instructions are casual—“fine minutes will be enough, just a glance round”—they quickly escalate in a series of letters that grow gradually more unhinged:

It is frightfully dry, will you give every rhododendron about two buckets of tepid water, and each conifer five buckets, and other trees about four buckets?

I hope that you have already mown the lawns. You needn’t do anything else, but destroy earwigs.

At night you ought to go into the garden with a lamp and destroy snails. It would be good to weed the paths. I hope that looking after my garden doesn’t take up much of your time, and that you are enjoying it.

So we won’t travel much this summer, keeping our trips to a length where a dry spell or marauding deer won’t put too much pressure on.

In a legal sense, I am the owner of the garden and it is my possession. But in another sense it’s fair to ask who owns who.

Some folks plant their gardens seeking self-sufficiency—the ability to provide for themselves, to depend on no-one. But self-sufficiency is precisely what we finite creatures can never attain, and a garden makes this truth shockingly plain. When I eat from my garden, my very life derives not from my self but from a network of other creatures upon whom I am entirely dependent. In his book Against the Grain, the political scientist James C. Scott makes the case that just as much as human beings domesticated certain plants and animals, our crops domesticated us, compelling us into certain patterns of living (settled dwellings, the agricultural year) to which our species wasn’t “naturally” inclined. Whether or not this thesis is accurate from a historical point of view, it certainly has an experiential reality for me. I am in a certain relationship with these plants in my garden, one which I’m not free to neglect. I belong to them just as much as they belong to me.

The theologian Willie James Jennings distinguishes between two forms of belonging. One is characteristic of our industrial modern era and is “defined by possession, control, and mastery.” This style of belonging is the vision of the garden oriented around self-sufficiency, in which my success as a gardener is defined by my ability to take control of my environment, to rise to the head of the food chain, and to subject all things around me to my control. Link this to chemical control of the garden if you like, or to racist control of human bodies and places, or to paranoid dreams of retreat from society. This vision is concerned with what belongs to me. Jennings develops a contrasting form of belonging which centers less around what belongs to me and more around what I belong to—the self, or the gardener, not as owner but as owned. Only this form of belonging, for Jennings, truly recognizes our relationship as creatures to our Creator, and only this form of belonging can energize a just and loving society.
Self-sufficiency makes the garden about what belongs to me. Better, though, to acknowledge my belonging to the garden.

I have just finished reading James Rebanks’ memoir The Shepherd’s Life, a magnificent book which provoked many thoughts on these questions. Rebanks is the rare example of a person in our transient world who truly belongs to his place—farming sheep in the mountains of northern England, he carries on a way of life practiced by his family since before recorded history. He is in a creaturely relationship with the place that makes him not self-sufficient but rather one who belongs profoundly to his home.

I can’t pretend to anything like the rootedness Rebanks possesses. My family goes back at least four generations in one place, which is a lot for we transient Americans, but I no longer live there and I never really had a shot at an ancient way of life like Rebanks, anyway. But when I make a garden I bring myself as close as I can get to belonging to the land. I belong to this place—if not for the next thousand years, at least for the summer.