I’m writing from the Banff Centre for the Arts, a venerable Canadian institution in the Rocky mountains. A band is practicing in the building beyond my window, horns and voices drifting in on a cold wind. I’m here for a nonfiction conference and playing hookie as I try to catch-up on flowery writings whilst I’m away from the garden.
So much has been happening with Cultivated that I’ve had little time to reflect.
Last night I went to lecture by Wade Davis, a National Geographic explorer and ethnobotanist. A stellar performer, writer, and environmental crusader, I first read his writing in my twenties, so it was interesting to find that my response to his work was the same now as it was then: I felt oddly estranged. Saddened, yes—by the loss of languages, landscapes, plant and animal populations; how can one not be?— but also alienated, as if his images and words were so abstracted they inspired more awe than empathy.
Picture this: rivers shot from the air winding through mountains, black lakes and snow-capped peaks. Men with guns. Women with drums. A drone snapping shots every fraction of a second.
Davis spoke about ‘The Sacred Headwaters’ of northern British Columbia’s Stikine Valley, an area the size of Rhode Island sorely in need of protection from mining. He spoke about government corruption, deals and disappointments, but he also spoke of a ‘sense of place’, his intimate connection with the land that he has called home for a part of every year.
Empathy: It’s a bit of a buzz word these days (media-mad teens lack it apparently), and every day our empathy is called upon, almost exploited by memes on Facebook generated to rouse emotion in an audience saturated by causes. One needs big images, whole vistas of import to effect change. And the north has those, but is still a tough sell: few go there. As Davis noted, in the United States a person is never more than 20 miles from a road. In the Stikine, there is one road in an area the size of Oregon. We huddle in cities, cozied up to comforts, unaware of where the minerals we need come from.
But I’m getting off-topic. What I wanted to write about was that inkling of estrangement because it’s unsettling to me given my values. I think of myself as an okay environmentalist. So what gives?
I have a hunch that has been with me for a long time, a niggling disaffection, carried through a degree in anthropology and environmental studies (where people like Davis are gods), and I’m wondering (now that we have the verb) if it’s gendered— that my response to Davis’ work is gendered, or his work is, or both. Here are the tropes: woman/domestic, man/frontier; tamed/wild; garden/wilderness.
Here’s the lineage of adventurers Davis noted in his talk: conservationist John Muir, primatologist Richard Leaky, poet Gary Snyder, writer Lawrence Durrell. Male travellers one and all. Is the environment as we understand it, only that which is ‘out there’?
I understand we need big W wilderness, but we also need to feel we can make a difference. We need a daily and domestic environmentalism that is awed by a flower or a salad, an environmentalism nurtured (there I go with the essentialist lingo, ergh) through interaction with, not solely observation of, the earth.
And that’s all I have to say on the matter at this sitting, despite wishing I could sit still long enough to read more, catch up on the theories I left off on, but that’s not, ahem, my nature. I’m too busy outside.
So here’s the news:
The garden is transformed. Radically. A greenhouse is up and a series of rather farm-like 32 foot beds are lined up north/south. The borders have been widened and all of our front lawn is gone to shrubs, perennials and roses. Deer fencing, irrigation, netting, an arbor…I’ll post before and afters on the blog once things come into bloom.
I’ve been writing as well, trying to keep up the column and blog through the semester at the university. If you’ve missed the newspaper, I’ve now posted an article on gardening under cedar and a fun quiz piece asking What Kind of Gardener are You?. On the blog is a provocative interview with anthropologist Daisy Fung and a piece on an Ikebana course I took this spring.
The business is going very well (thrillingly so given it’s only April), with two retailers carrying my bouquets and four wedding florists either using the flowers or plotting to. I have an exciting meeting on Friday with Victoria’s leading wedding florist and have made spreadsheet of bloom time/flower availability all season long (whew!). Ninety-three species for sale, not to mention varieties of each type flower. How did that happen?! No wonder I’m a little bonkers sometimes.
I’m approved for the farmer’s market, a prospect that fills me with fear given the first one of the season is days after we return from a trip to Europe and I doubt the sweet peas will yet be in bloom…
And with that, I think it’s time sign off.