The Impotence of Being Earnest

We all need a garden, and we all need fun. The garden doesn’t have to grow food or be in the ground or even have dirt in it–what the heck, maybe it’s a nice colony of the North American bathroom mushroom, Peziza domiciliara, in the shower caulk. The fun doesn’t have to be TV-sanctioned stupid elbow-pumping, either. We need both like vitamins, and like vitamins their lack in the long term does subtle, sneaky, unexpected damage. Your eyes will get sandy and dim, your bones will wilt like ferns in Phoenix, your teeth will wobble and your senses fade–or maybe you’ll just be duller than you have to be and never notice the difference. One way or another, it’ll getcha.

I wouldn’t’ve thought anyone could garden for long without getting their RDA of laughs–it’s sure full of occasions to laugh at oneself–but some years ago I read a pair of books by Helen and Scott Nearing. These two are canonized saints of organic gardening, and one hates to dump on either the dead or the allies, but let me quote a bit about the reasons for their moving from Vermont to Maine:

“In almost every newcomer’s house in the valley, dancing and liquored parties were the social enjoyment of the young people. To what purpose? We felt that life was earnest, that it was an opportunity to learn, to serve, to build truth, beauty, justice into the world. If this were not so, dances, gossip-bees, and beer parties might be in order, because then life would be futile and meaningless and any form of escape would be preferable to boredom. … In any case we were not happy in surroundings that were becoming a center for trivial activities and purposeless living.”

Now this isn’t about fleeing a noisy student co-op, a bachelors’-pad condo, or a block of crack houses. The Nearings lived on a farm in Vermont, not even jolly Southern California–and they left in 1951, before anyone had heard of discos or even rock ‘n’ roll. No one was throwing bricks through their windows; it’s unlikely even the noise carried to the Nearings’ place. They cite as damning evidence of the neighbors’ intolerable frivolity their persistence in extending merely social invitations.

These people moved out of Vermont because their neighbors were having too much fun! That, I submit, is a species of jaundice.

(To be fair, the Nearings also cite pesky tourists who interrupt their work. Why they didn’t hang a “No Unannounced Visitors, Please” sign on the gate and get on with their chores is a mystery. Apparently they didn’t think of this until 1978.)

All that time in the garden and no dancing? Not even foot-tapping and appreciative hoots from the sidelines? These folks need a dose of Emma Goldman.

There’s a sizable body of opinion that holds the life without dancing to be the more futile and meaningless, and I tend to agree if dancing is broadly defined. All I would exclude from it is constructive or paid activity. What I see here (and here and there, too) is people who don’t know the difference between seriousness and solemnity.

And I certainly wouldn’t invite a gloomy poop like that to my party.

Does this have any long-term effects on the brain? There’s evidence in the Nearings’ writings that it does: the same people who speak so sensitively of caring for the soil, of being self-sufficient and not depending on fossil fuels, of allowing forests to mature, mention approvingly a Soviet scheme in which “Eurasian rivers, among the largest on the planet, which have flowed north for millennia are being turned around, made to run south into the Central Asian deserts.” What is this, ecological Stalinism? How is this different from the recent cockamamie plans to drain Canada’s water into the southwestern US? Is the disastrousness of this stuff apparent only in hindsight?

I doubt it. The first thing to go in a case of humor deficiency is the sense of proportion. Maybe there is such a thing as tending one’s own garden too long. Maybe those who undertake to live a worthwhile life should hire someone to sneak up on them once a week and tickle them.

But there, see, I’m doing it myself: trying to make frivolousness serve a higher purpose. Like any other endangered species, silliness is its own excuse for being. Like some endangered species, it just happens to be good for what ails you.

Like many of my fellow activists, I’m a veteran of a Catholic upbringing. I know how Catholic scrupulousness transfers easily to environmental scruples–I learned very young the fine art of examining my conscience–and how seductive the temptation is to value sacrifice for its own sake. But pain has no more inherent value than paper money; what matters is what we trade it for.

We can paralyze ourselves trying to live without impact, just squeezing every breath for Values and Significance. Looking at the well-intentioned disasters in all our histories can paralyze us, too: Is this new seed going to grow into some equivalent of pampas grass? Is that biocontrol the new starling? Is the latest drain cleaner harmless only until it reaches the waterways? It’s certainly interesting, trying to be conscientious without being blame-ridden.

It’s also interesting trying to be effective without buying into commercial pietism. The idea that we can stop pollution by picking up litter is as aesthetically offensive as the litter itself. Cigarette smoking, whatever its dangers, is not a leading cause of acid rain. Fur coats take fewer lives and cause less pain than plowed grainfields.

People seize on this stuff because it seems more reachable than the policymakers at Maxximum Exxtractive Industries Int’l, who probably don’t see themselves as nature-rapers. (The nature of a big bureaucracy, public or private, is such that they may not see themselves as policymakers, either.) The anger’s legitimate; just the aim is off.

So why do some of us analyze the effects of our actions and try to husband our resources and make big changes, too?

Most of us fell in love. This is where the garden comes in. (You were wondering, weren’t you?) I’ll define it as broadly as I define dancing: the garden is the place we make in our lives and holdings for other species.

It’s where we see how other beings live, how they affect us and we them, what they need and what we need, how it all connects. For most of us, that visceral connection is the first step into the wide world that we learn to treasure. It obviates questions like “What does an oil spill have to do with poor people?” when we know we’re all together in being robbed of our heritage before we get a chance to figure out what it is.

It’s not a luxury. We all breathe. We all eat and drink. We all have minds and senses that need to be fed. We all need to make that connection somewhere or I swear we’ll be less than we have the right to be.

We don’t have to be rich or middle-class before we have the right to want it, either.

Wanting it, lusting for it, is going to motivate a lot more people a lot more strongly than either guilt or piety. If I evangelize about gardens, it’s because I’ve seen in myself and others the opening up to the unmediated, unprocessed world that happens there, the temptation to look around and take the next step and occupy our rightful place on Earth. I have no problem with appealing to our baser nature because I think our baser nature is the most hopeful thing we’ve got.

RON SULLIVAN is the Garden Editor for Faultline, California’s Environmental Magazine.

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