Anthropocentric asMichael Pollan
may be, he recognizes that he is dependent for his health and survival on many other forms of life, so he is careful to take their interests into account in whatever he does. He is in fact a wilderness advocate of a certain kind. It is when he respects and nurtures the wilderness of his soil and his plants that his garden seems to flourish most. Wildness, he has found, resides not only out there, but right here: in his soil, in his plants, even in himself…But wildness is more a quality than a place, and though humans can’t manufacture it, they can nourish and husband it…The gardener cultivates wildness, but he does so carefully and respectfully, in full recognition of its mystery.
Last year, a fellow gardener came to visit from the East Coast. It’s always fun to welcome a simpatico enthusiast into the Mojo Gardens (named for our late great dog Mojo) and talk about garden schemes: large scale composting, water-efficient hedgerow and tree well designs, a large potager garden, and other homespun engineering projects. I urged her to tour the local art museum, specifically a small installation of the eco-artist Paula Hayes -- whose work I admire. My friend brought back a quote: “Hayes creates ‘living artworks’ resembling biomorphic forms that are ever changing and evolving.” “Biomorphic?” she puzzled, “isn’t that what we do?” And then she asked why all serious gardeners, the ones who push beyond a basic marigold border, aren’t considered eco-artists. She pointed out that gardeners have a singular understanding of the climate crisis because they take note of subtle and dramatic changes in the weather, wildlife patterns, and soil. For example, the Garden Club of America has a conservative reputation yet its lobbying arm is focused on conservation education. How fluid are the boundaries between gardener and consciousness raiser/artist? When can you lay claim to advocacy as well? Basically, we had no idea.
I googled gardeners and eco-artists and found some interesting rabbit holes and a celebration of the genre’s stars, like Andy Goldsworthy and Ana Medieta, but no definitive answers. We concluded that gardening gets tucked into that purgatory of creative outpour where the sorting of how one process gets ordained to a higher order is entirely up to the whim of the very few. Defining what qualifies as “art” is more baffling than ever and subject to expanding contradictions. It doesn’t help that many art critics and some artists use byzantine rhetoric to describe the creative process. Sometimes reading an artist statement or art review feels like a caricature of good communication and writing, ensuring a climate of obfuscation and exclusivity. And so much comes down to branding. If you position yourself a certain way, then you can be validated and resurrected into any shape you desire.
Here is what I do know: there is no doubt that keeping a simple kitchen garden and supporting sustainable agriculture further binds us to the planet. There is no question that gardens are vital to the human psyche and offer sanctuary, especially in urban landscapes. There is no doubt that all gardens --humble or celebrated -- can inspire us. Monet’s garden was--and still is--a feedback loop of inspiration and creation. Eudora Welty considered her gardening life an integral part of her writing life. And Wendell Berry is another advocate in this space. Personally, I have no formal “training” in garden design, so I learn as I go. I identify myself as a gardener and benefit from the constant tug of wonder I get while tending my flock. Gardening also puts me in a state of suspension — some call it the flow state — where I can problem solve and spin more ideas. As for the inhabitants of the Mojo Gardens -- they don’t care what I call myself -- gardener, artist, laborer, eco-artist -- as long as I get back to work.