Gardening After the Apocalypse

The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?

Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage at Dungeness. Photo by Michael Peters
I’m no doomsday watcher. I scoffed at Y2K, ignored the Mayan calendar, and can’t even bother to keep a Homeland Security-endorsed emergency supply list. But lately it has become increasingly hard to ignore the fact that something is stirring in the waters.

First, there are the climate-related problems: the continuing drought in the Midwest; hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy; and the fact that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. Zone maps are changing, species invasions are increasing, and extinctions are rising. I don’t care whether you believe climate change is man-made or just some temporary blip; there simply is no normal anymore. Gardeners more attuned to seasonal changes are the first to notice a difference. In my own garden last year, I noticed several bugs I have never seen before; I lost several perennials because the winter was not cool enough; and my daffodils started to emerge in December.

Throw in some global political instability (the American fiscal cliff, the European debt crisis) and there’s only one reasonable conclusion one can make about the future: the only certainty is a whole lot more uncertainty.

Ok, ok, so maybe the sky is not falling yet, but it is reasonable to say that the threats we hear about in the news lately are particularly ominous. Perhaps more catastrophic in nature. Globalization has linked us in many wonderful ways, but it has also exposed the fragility of world systems. Thus, a single financial firm (Bear Stearns) declares bankruptcy, and the global economy collapses. A water shortage along the Mississippi River causes food prices to skyrocket in China. Volatility breeds volatility.

It’s with this context in mind that I think about gardening. What does it mean to garden in an era when the threats we face are apocalyptic? The very nature of nature is changing. What then about our gardens?

Or to put the question more pointedly: Do we continue to grow marigolds even as the emergency sirens blare?

photo by Michael Peters

I've been thinking lately about the garden of the late Derek Jarman near Dungeness, England. Jarman was a British film maker and writer. Toward the end of his life, he created Prospect Cottage, a simple wood house that stood on the shingle beach of southwest England. For me, the garden is prophetic. The cottage is one of several fishermen’s shacks, wedged on the beach between the English Channel and the Dungeness nuclear power plant. It is a brutal landscape. Nature is overwhelming: sun, wind, and sea salt continuously scald the beach. The horizon stretches in all directions, only interrupted by power poles or the flashing lights of the power plant. Yet within the sunbaked shingles, a garden grows. Sea kale and poppies bloom among the flotsam that Derek arranged throughout the garden.
Dungeness nuclear power plan on the horizon. Michael Peters
To attempt to create a garden—a paradise of sorts—in one of the bleakest corners of the earth is one of the most optimistic acts I can imagine. Frivolous? Yes. Pointless? Of course. But what a joyful, life-affirming act of defiance! Prospect Cottage’s poignancy is sharpened by the fact that Jarman created it while dying of HIV. Jarman’s imminent death did not stop his act of creation, but instead infused it with new vitality. It is a testament to the irrepressibility of love amidst the cruelty and indifference of nature.

A garden is an extravagance. So creating and maintaining any extravagance seems particularly silly in an age of dire threats. We weed, dig, and plant all while the storms gather on the horizon that will wash it all away. We are helpless to control nature and the weather, yet we gardeners still engage in acts of care for our plots. We live in a post-Edenic world, yet as Robert Pogue Harrison writes, “Fortunately for the gardener, there is enough of Eden in the mortal earth that despite the vagaries of the weather, the miracle of life erupts and blossoms year after year.”

And that's just it, right? We are addicted to that miracle. From the miracle of compost, to the miracle of a seed germinating, to the miracle of a bud opening, we are hopelessly hooked to shepherding life into the world. “Gardening is an opening of worlds,” writes Harrison, “of worlds within worlds—beginning with the word at one’s feet.” Whether the weather supports our plans or destroys it, the point is that we become most fully human when we engage in thousands of acts of care and love. It is why we need the garden more now than ever.

Perhaps focusing on cataclysmic doom is really a way to put my own mortality in perspective. I may survive mega-storms and mega-recessions, but my time is coming. And when it comes, I want to be in the garden. Not under trees, with their cloak of longevity. Not with the shrubs, who promise another season. Instead, you will find me pondering the annuals. These one-season wonders understand it best: that time is merciless.

Yet at the nadir of their existence, they choose the ultimate act of defiance, an irrepressible impulse to live:

They bloom.

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