One of the most important reasons to have a garden is that it gives us a chance to fine-tune our connection with nature. A garden is a place where even the most powerless person can play almighty: create a small, self-contained world by whimsy, and change it completely at will. Yet the climate and seasonal forces that govern it keep the gardener in touch with the pre-industrial, natural world within which our civilization exists as a momentary episode.
We Americans created the concept of untouched wilderness as nature, and now it is kept “out there.” The great majority of us live within that part of the American tradition which sees nature as a dark, brutal force waiting to smash civilization. Much of the “development” of this country (a word expropriated and misused, to my way of thinking) represents a sort of preemptive first strike against nature: we strive to dominate, subdue, pave over nature, before it has a chance to rise up against us. Wilderness comprises a mere 8 percent of the land in the United States, while the other 92 percent is, in one way or another, shaped by humanity.
Even if they want to commune with nature, most people go no farther than the crowded campground of a national park. But the more adventurous, those committed to wilderness, also often fall prey to the feeling that nature and human culture are mutually exclusive, even antagonistic. That there is so little compromise between the deep, untouched wilderness and the suburban shopping mall is a sure sign that naturalist and developer alike can see no middle ground.
Until recently farmers existed in a mixed landscape. The very existence of suburbs shows that many humans need that middle ground—a landscape that is partly wild, partly tame. After all, in practical terms, there is no frontier left in America: nature is the park, the yard, or the garden. Yet our gardens exist within nature, if only we would slow down our hectic pace a little bit, open our eyes, and think about it. Open spaces are our surest connection to nature, and a well-run organic garden (or yard, or park, or even homestead or farm), in its balance and its sustainable, cyclical interaction with the natural world, offers a good model for how we could structure our human world as a better, safer, and more pleasant place to live.
The feeling that we must always choose between no intervention of any kind in natural systems—total wilderness—and the complete replacement and destruction of nature—as in our high-tech farms and cities—is both a symptom and a result of the belief that we are separate and apart from nature; that our ordering of the world around us is inherently unnatural. If there is one thing that gardening teaches the observant, it is that he or she is part of nature! There is little question in my mind that the principles of good garden management, used as guidelines for other types of development, would certainly improve the quality of our neighborhoods and homes.
In addition, for those of us who are parents, having a garden helps awaken this same perspective in our kids, the next generation. We hear a lot of talk about family values these days, yet in many homes the hearth is no more than a color television and family interaction consists mostly of agreeing on which program to watch. The homemade music of earlier generations has been replaced by a Walkman with headphones, and the children’s imaginative play by video games and the VCR, which every American child now knows how to operate by age three.
But a garden can still capture the imagination of a child. It is the perfect combination of the wild and the tame because it is close to home, yet contains a myriad of new and interesting creatures. And, as the season progresses, a new script of seed, sprout, flower, and fruit provides constant surprises and joy.
“But you live in the country!” I can hear some readers saying.
Yes, but it is in the cities and the suburbs where a garden provides the most reward for a child. Here in the country we are surrounded by nature: the weather, the birds, and the beasts. Any morning I might surprise a moose or wild turkey venturing cautiously across the dirt road on which I live. My ten-year-old son knows the calls of dozens of different songbirds. But in built-up areas, gardens are rare oases of nature, wonderful places, a child’s wilderness, one of the best ways to bring a bit of nature into the hustle and bustle of the burbs.
Today, many urban areas have community gardens where families can maintain a garden plot of their own, growing healthy foods and enjoying a few hours together working, exploring, discovering, and interacting with other families whose plots are nearby. They are well named, because these small plots bring back a sense of community, a place to regain some of the old values that are missing for too many of us these days. Yes, the simple, wholesome, good sense of a garden is hard to argue with.