A NEW GARDEN ETHIC, with BENJAMIN VOGT
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This week on Cultivating Place, we revisit and then expand the conservationist Aldo Leopold’s "A Land Ethic" – the concept articulated so beautifully in Leopold's 1949 love letter to his land in “A Sand County Almanac”.
Benjamin Vogt is something of a next generation student of Leopold’s and a passionate advocate in his own right – in his new book “A New Garden Ethic” he takes the essence of "A Land Ethic" and he pushes its boundaries, bringing it around to our home gardens in way that might provoke us, but also get us thinking.
Benjamin Vogt is a writer, gardener and educator living in Nebraska. On his website, Monarchgard.com, he writes that “as child, being in the home landscape with my mother planted a seed in me, it was the overall urban / suburban wildness of my Minnesota youth that made a deep, lasting impression. Small woodlands filled with vocal wildlife, ponds and lakes dotting every bend in the road -- and the distinct, evocative seasons rich in their personalities."
"As I've grown older my earliest years living in Oklahoma have come to the surface – the vast openness, the wind, the mixed grass prairie, all have just as deeply colored my emotional and physical aesthetics. I'm honored to live in a diverse state like Nebraska, where prairies meet forest and mountain, and where millions of migrating birds give new resonance to the definition of flyover country."
“A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future” is out now from New Society Publishers. In it, Benjamin argues from a heartfelt position that “our gardens are protests for all the ways in which we deny our own life by denying other lives.” He goes on to shares his mission of believing that “our gardens matter, and the way in which we create them, grow them and rethink them matter on the highest of levels." Finally, that: “our legacy won’t be how pretty our gardens looked; our legacy will be how our gardens and other managed spaces woke us to a revolution of belonging in this world, a renaissance of ethical thinking that helped us evolve into our fullest potential as stewards of life and gardeners of our own hearts”
"“Plants communicate with one another all the time, through scents and sounds and touching and all this different stuff, they are also communicating with pollinators - they will let bees and other insects know what their nectar and pollen availability is through by changing the UV signals they’re giving off that we can’t see but that insects can see.”
Benjamin Vogt, A New Garden Ethic (New Society Publishers, 2018)
In the garden traditions of our time, Benjamin Vogt sees both the worst kind of hypocrisy perpetuating the decline and degradation of other cultures, species and the environment, and the best kind of bridge for overcoming and transcending such destructive short term thinking and actions.
If I thought the conversation with Jason Dewees last week about my palm bias challenged me, this week is a whole other level. Which we KNOW is good for us. We do. I do.
I’m a life long student of and voice for gardens – of all kinds – in all areas and traditions. I am moved by the vast formal gardens of past eras in Europe and Asia, I know I’m expanded by the small and well-worn, well-loved home gardens like mine and that of the members of my own garden club and gardening community. I see our gardens and our impulse to garden as creative, constructive, proactive. But then I’m the first to admit, I can something of a polly anna. I KNOW this and I’ll laugh with you when you say it even in irritation with me.
But here’s the thing – the uncomfortable crux – I know too that our gardens can be part of the problem instead of part of the solution. And I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want – especially from a place of complacency, or convenience or unquestioning adherence to “the way we’ve always done” it - to add to the sum total of suffering, degradation and a destructive hegemony of dominance, human supremacy and a colonizing mindset that is a disservice to just about everyone.
I want my garden and your garden – no matter its style or size or cost or purpose – to be much, much better than that. I might be an unrealistic optimist, but I also understand the gravity and the urgency involved, and I believe that even the baby steps of legions of dedicated home gardeners adds up to a compound effect of possibility. And I am willing to keep trying for the hope inherent in that. \
How about you over there in your garden?
Have you read “A Sand County Almanac”? If you haven’t I’m giving you the thumbs up that you should – it’s a keeper. Sometime around when I was maybe 12 or 13? My mother gave me "The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson" and my father gave me A Sand County Almanac". These two together- Aldo and Emily - might sum up my own scope of a garden ethic.
In the very opening pages of “A Sand County Almanac”, Leopold writes: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land it to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics….. our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac so obsessed with its own economic health that is has lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole word is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.”
You all know how much I love my garden – and your gardens, and I know you love them too. I’m not a big judger. And I like sharing books, plants, garden pots. I like supporting authors, artists, thinkers, growers, doers and dreamers with these conversations and with my garden. But I also know, I know, that I for one need to sit very still – again - with these thoughts from Aldo Leopold written in 1948, with these questions from Benjamin Vogt and with the wisdom of peoples and places living fully in the awareness of our interdependence.
I need to keep interrogating myself as to how my plot – large or small - can really be part of a way forward?
I don’t have all the answers, and can’t tell anyone else the right balance here - it’s going to be different for everyone. But I do know that even the choir needs challenging, retuning AND energizing on as regular a basis as anyone or anything.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’re moved to share – send me a note on the contact form at cultivatingplace.com, and sign up for the monthly A View From Here newsletter, or leave a comment on today’s program post on Instagram and Facebook. This is the kind of transformative conversation that grows us all.
Monarch Gardens, LLC, a prairie garden design firm, is Benjamin Vogt. His 4,500' square foot habitat and native plant garden has been on tours, and featured in many national and statewide publications. Benjamin has a Phd in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His writing and photography has appeared in publications from literary journals to magazines to anthologies. He writes a native plant gardening column at Houzz.com and speaks nationally on sustainable design and wildlife landscapes.
Benjamin’s new book, "A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future", about which we spoke today – is out now from New Society Publishers.
I’ll end with one more excerpt. Toward the last few pages of the book, Benjamin pleads:
“Study and learn, be open to perspectives and research that challenge and make you feel uncomfortable. Celebrate conflicting information and follow the scientific and emotional facts down to the core. Test your assumptions. Test the assumptions of others. Know that every plant and every place matters – a powerful, compassionate realization Be willing to love with a broken heart, to foster that breaking and touch the world that so many hold a distance to protect their identity. Be totally vulnerable in your mind, your soul, and your garden.”
Follow Benjamin on Instagram or Facebook.