The Gardenist’s Manifesto
Not long after we were married, my wife was sorting through some of our paperwork down in our basement, when she came across a sample of some of my writing in one of my old notebooks.
“Honey,” she asked. “What’s this?”
I glanced over at the entry in the notebook. I shrugged.
“It was just some notes for a book I was planning to write about ten years ago.”
She sat down on the basement steps and read the entry more thoroughly, her mouth gradually becoming more agape.
“Is this the way you really feel about gardening?” she asked, with a trace of shock in her voice.
I looked over her shoulder at the notes more closely. I had to admit, at first glance, the writings appeared to be those of a man who was seriously unbalanced.
The lettering was small, and obviously scribbled in hast with violent, deeply embedded hand strokes. It went on for about two pages in a dark red ink, and there were very few punctuation marks.
“Well, that was a while ago,” I said, a little uncomfortably. “It’s much different when I garden with you, darling.”
“You can’t have changed that much,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean, this says that you detest it. This talks about wanting to use napalm and toxic waste as fertilizer. This compares mowing the lawn to Nazi Germany. There’s no way you can convince me that your feelings have changed that much since you married me.”
This was unexpectedly putting me on the spot.
“Well, it’s better now. You’re in charge. Besides, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing back then.”
“But this compares plant cultivation to genocide!”
“That was probably a bit of an overstatement, I admit. You have to understand that I wrote that entry after a particularly bad weeding experience.”
The problem was that gardening did (and still does, to an extent) motivate me to wax eloquent. I find nothing motivates me to greater levels of expressive verbiage than a good, tough, outdoor scuffle with the weeds.
The entry my wife was referring to occurred after a particularly inspiring encounter.
I used to live in a house that had a normal, suburban backyard. Things grew back there; evil things; things that would not die. Things that would go out of their way to hurt me in any way they could. I would enter the backyard fearfully, armed with the most lethal looking implements I could find (blade saws, crowbars, wire cutters. I didn’t own many actual tools bought from the gardening section of the hardware store), and viciously attack anything that didn’t look familiar: in other words, anything that wasn’t grass.
I had written that particular entry after I did battle with a particularly nasty green thing with hollow stalks back by the woodpile. I attacked it for hours, hacking, chopping, pulling, and yanking until I thought I had beat it back into reasonable submission.
And three days, literally, only three short days later, I returned to the backyard to find the nasty green thing with hollow stalks had returned exactly as it was before.
And, as I stared at it, horrified, it laughed at me.
Such occurrences tend to inspire one to great fits of poetic violence.
The problem, surprisingly, is that I like plants too much. The only reason I considered the nasty green thing to be nasty was because I had to find a way to kill it. And the only reason I had to kill it was that all of the yards in my suburb had to have the same homogeneous collections of “esthetically pleasing” plants.
Should I have encountered the nasty green thing on, say, a nature walk, I might not have seen it as nasty at all. In fact, I may even have become friends with it.
But the nasty green thing was not “pretty.” It was invasive, which is just another way of saying that it had evolved to survive just about anything, including a sweaty, cursing man attacking it with sharp woodshop tools.
So, my standpoint (at the time), was that gardening was the practice of replacing ugly plants with a strong will to live with delicate, pretty plants that require constant praise and coddling. We attack any ugly interlopers with scissors, with poisons, and with nasty blades.
In addition, we do this by government decree (actually by city ordinance). We must inflict these horrors, whether we choose to or not.
Therefore, gardening, (so it seemed to me back then), was more about inflicting death than cultivating life. Those few plants that were chosen to survive were the exception, not the rule.
Moreover, even the chosen plants were kept only as beautiful slaves. Grass, for example, could not be allowed to achieve the length that nature had intended for it to have. It was not allowed to grow to the point where it could bear seed, thereby eliminating its right to reproduce. Instead, we cut it weekly with vicious, twisting blades. Bushes and other plants had established “kill zones”: areas beyond which they may not cross, lest noisy, vicious hedge trimmers attack them: sharp blades of electric death.
You see, it isn’t that I hated gardening. It’s more that I hated killing. And gardening to me (back then) was little more than vicious genocide combined with enforced conformity.
So to survive the emotional trauma, I buried my feelings. I became vicious. Anything that wasn’t grass must DIE. Not only just die, but also die quickly and never return.
So I sought out ever-stronger poisons–ever-sharper and more lethal blades. Gardening would be more than mere weeding; it would become massive, wholesale extermination. For, the quicker the death–the more permanent the damage–the less pain I would continuously have to inflict.
Well, that was ten years ago. I am completely over those feelings now.
Honest. I really am.
Because…uh… because things are much better at this house. Our garden now is in more of a “natural” balance, so the weeds are told by the “chosen” plants that they are not welcome in their neighborhood. So, for the large part, weeds do not prosper. The few interlopers that do manage to find their way into our precious, fertile soil are eliminated by my wife, who ruthlessly rips them out by their life-giving roots.
And, as someone else does the killing, I feel somewhat less guilt.
My job is only to now mostly to haul around bags of dirt, to dig holes, and to enforce conformity.
No! I meant that I simply cut the lawn, trim the hedges, and keep the flowers from becoming too unwieldy.
And I am allowed to plant some more of the chosen plants from time to time. Bringing in new life is a good thing, isn’t it?
Now, I must end this column, for the time has come for me to trim the hedges, and to ensure that few brave, distinctive branches are neatly tidied up so that each individual bush looks exactly the same as all of the others.
And it’s better this way.
Really, it is.
After all, the government has decreed that it must be so.