Serious Gardening

On this Memorial Day, 2019, with my head still spinning from the shattering blows of back-to-back war documentaries — and from solemn reflections on the humble veterans of my own life, both living and dead — I am not even a little surprised to find my brain rebelling at all the peril and death and misery of which we are capable; instead, the old noggin seems to be steering my attention toward the decidedly creative: the art of gardening.

I remember from my last semesters in school, many years ago now, that there were several weeks of a writing class where I studied gardening from an unusual angle, namely, how gardening techniques and their associated philosophies spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia up to the twentieth century. I was specificallly interested in what could be called “official gardening”; in other words, I spent considerable time to research historical material about the various gardens that were commissioned by government officials. I discovered an interesting form of oneupmanship there.

There was an endearing and peerlessly peaceful sort of international competition found around such official gardens, a kind of sportsman-like competition that predated the modern Olympic Games, and I remember it seeming like such a curious alternative to the other kinds of more grave competition that might have taken place, for instance the kinds of nuclear brinkmanship that would eventually infuse the global consciousness with chronic, razor’s edge terror. Long before Szilard theorized about nuclear chain reactions, Eurasian diplomats and travelers of other sorts noted the splendid gulf between European garden styles, with their stalwart geometries and orderly design, and the more organic aesthetics of their Chinese counterparts, flowing more riverlike, more “effortlessly” in ways that the aesthetics of western minds were unaccustomed to encountering.

For those with the benefit of exploring such environments — in this case, of seeing many gardens of English, French, and Chinese origin — of course we can deduce that they were afforded an uncommonly valuable perspective in the world of gardening, one capable of interweaving inspiration from each style. To entertain the great variety of each tradition of course broadened the frontiers that emerging gardeners were able to cultivate. Just as musicians who have the benefit of being around a great variety of other musicians, able to take what they hear and add it to the pallate of their imagination, thereafter generating new forms of music, the designers who were afforded impressions of gardens from farflung cultures were able to meander about the edges between the familiar and these striking new encounters, pick the fruit found therein, and they were able to cultivate the seeds of inspiration there, turning them to new forms of gardening that infused practical and aesthetic sensibilities from beyond their usual bounds and borders.

I used to live in a rural, smalltown environment, my childhood home surrounded by forests and farms and vast spaces where people were rarely seen; but I live in Toronto now, a city that makes much of its globally representative diversity, often called the most diverse city of the world. Here you can find persons from all walks of life and in all manners of expression; indeed, new forms of art and science are being concocted here as I write these words. Worldwide it is an unprecedented time for the inventive spirits among us, and it is so much more so for those who are able to tap into the rich networks of cities such as this, because the various forms of intelligence at play here, and their capacity to garner the attention of many people in a local area, perhaps in an immersive sort of experience; this is an important part of why we might consider these metropolises to be the petri dishes of tomorrow’s civilization.

It was not too long, maybe a year after my studying “official gardens”, that I encountered the design method and practice known as permaculture. Permaculture is an approach to systems that encourages an awareness of and thoughtful engagement with the natural systems that already abound in our day-to-day environments. In this way, it is a design method that works with nature cooperatively, that is biomimetic. (Biomimetics shares the stage with terms such as biomimicry and bionics, but I think biomimetics wins out for reasons too esoteric to bother with here.)

Essentially, biomimetics is the use of natural systems to inspire the design of new systems (or modelling of and interventions in what systems already exists). A rather common example of this is using the evolutionarily developed optical properties of the Blue Morpho butterfuly to develop an entirely new kind of electronic display technology, a really existing technology that is on the market now, allowing people to read a digital display clearly in full sunlight without using much energy at all. Pretty incredible stuff. Another quintessential example is the aerodynamic design of Japan’s maglev trains, inspired by a diving bird’s shape, if I recall correctly. The avian-inspired design both improved energy efficiency and helped to avoid the unacceptable sonic booms that were happening with the first generation trains as they exited tunnels along their path.

In all this thinking about official gardens, observant design methods, and the brutal agonies of war, I should recognize the very human tendency toward conflict and competition, and I should like to steer us well as I can toward the ripe abundance that awaits us if we are to compete within regenerative contexts rather than those tired old paradigms of power: command and control.

Ours is an age of yielding control intelligently, of cultivating the conditions such that we can do so in good conscience; and those who cling to most traditional symbols of control will be surely disappointed while their lenswork is proven unnecessarily distorted again and again. Some of our most important institutions are both crumbling from within and under attack from without, besieged by both indifference and wildly misinformed antagonisms, and our social fabric is horrifyingly frayed for it. I cannot help but ask questions like, “What if the superpowers of the world competed once again the realm of gardening?”

So many more ideas abound, but it is late, and the sun is down. You’ll hear from me again, I’m sure.

[This article was edited 2019-06-12 to correct the typo misspelling of Szilard’s surname. I regret the error.]

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