From Control to Connection: A New Ethos of Care

Olga Reid, my grandmother, lived in a fibro house on the corner of Edward Street and Bells Lane in a small town in rural Australia. The front fence was low, made of white painted timber posts with mesh in-between. Pushing up against it from inside was a strictly controlled garden of ‘pretties’ as Granny called ornamental plants. A maple stood in the corner, a grape twined its way over a metal arbour framing the front door, and a prunus tree divided the front yard from back.

Each time I’d visit, we’d have a cup of tea and a piece of toast in the sunroom before heading out the back door and walking around the garden together. Granny would applaud the plants she was happy with, scold the ones who were not conforming, and squash whatever small creature (usually snail, slug or ant) she was currently warring with. This was her way.

Granny died in mid 2013, just a few weeks after we’d gathered to celebrate her 90th birthday. A couple of months after her death my mother and I visited her house to sort through the final physical remnants of her existence. It was late afternoon and the height of spring. I got out of the car in the lane next to her house and walked to the low entry gate. I had trouble going any further – I was blindsided. Granny’s carefully tended, always controlled, garden of 30 years was wild. Flowers were tumbling out of the prunus tree, euphorbias were popping up in cracks in the pathway, and a sea of calendulas marched boisterously through the vegetable patch, their bright orange flowers undimmed by loss. Granny’s hand was everywhere and nowhere and her garden had taken on a beauty and expression that she would never have allowed. To see it in full bloom, without her, was overwhelming. My heart swelled up inside my chest, slowly cracking open. Again.

That last visit to Granny’s garden re-appears in my mind regularly. It visits fleetingly, when I see a clump of calendulas or sweet Alice, or when I smell sweet peas in spring. It arrived recently and stayed for a good while after I was asked to talk about a place I had a strong emotional connection to. Granny’s garden was the first image that came to mind.

She and I were, in more ways than I realised, similar. Cut from the same cloth. Grown from the same soil. She, like me, was tall in height and frank in demeanour (though Granny, in her wisdom, managed to clothe her honesty with gentleness. I am still learning this art). Where we differ is in the manner in which we stand, stood, on the earth.

Granny cared deeply for her garden. She loved it. It was a place of solace and great beauty and it grew from a worldview grounded in human dominion over nature. Granny gardened from this place, as many, perhaps most, do. Ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant refers to this way of seeing as the mechanical mind. ‘Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the image of an organic cosmos with a living female earth at its centre gave way to a mechanistic world view in which nature was reconstructed as dead and passive, to be dominated and controlled by humans’, she writes in The Death of Nature.

My grandmother was a woman of her time, and I am a woman of mine. I am conflicted. I don’t want to demean or devalue my grandmother or her garden. I adored her, it. At the same time, I can’t not interrogate what it is to be in the world, right now. What does being a woman of my time look like? As a human, and as a gardener, how can I best care, right now? These are the questions I ask myself daily. Though I can’t claim to know where the answers are, I have a sense that they don’t lie in the worldview from which I first grew roots.

Our time is a bewildering one. It’s clear to me that a worldview grounded in disconnect and dominion has not served our species, our home, or our 8.7 million neighbours, well. I’ve felt this for a while, but have struggled to find a way to grasp a language (of gardening and living) that might serve a more connected, conscious vision. A language that might illustrate, for me, a more truthful way of being in the world.

Often when I can’t resolve an idea, I take it for a bushwalk or into the garden. After gardening my thoughts about this topic for a good while, I’ve come to realise that maybe what I’ve been trying to say all these years has been waiting for me within the image of Granny’s wild un-gardened garden. Maybe what I’ve been trying to say has to do with care and where it comes from.

For a very long time, humans have equated care with control. But what if true care is more closely related to chaos? What if, in allowing space for chaos, we can more fully care for ourselves and the world around us?

Within the framework of the mechanical mind, care grounded in control means conformity. Plants are seen as objects to be used, not subjects existing in complex relationship to humans, ants, trees, bees. Care is illustrated by how much the land is managed, maintained, humanised. Care grounded in control assumes the superiority of the human animal – all other lives must adhere to this singular vision. Care grounded in control is problematic because it assumes a disconnect between our actions and their outcomes that doesn’t actually exist.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines chaos as ‘Complete disorder and confusion.’ Writing about giving space to such things might sound mad to many – it’s a state we’ve been encouraged to fear. What I’m pointing to when I write of chaos is not a descent into all-out anarchy, but simply a softening of fear. Of moving towards ways of allowing for the mystery of the complex systems in which we exist, and within which we create gardens, to be as they are – enigmatic and tangled and messy and rich.

Chaos is feared primarily because it can’t be controlled. Chaos is what happens out there, in the wild, and we make gardens to keep it at bay. Within this mindset, an unkempt garden is frowned upon. Weeds are a disaster. Overgrown shrubs, un-mown lawns, un-staked flowers flopping onto the ground in an ecstasy of pollen and petals – all an abomination. Plants growing wayward and uninvited – how dare they! We illustrate how much we care by how much control we can exert over the anarchy of nature.

Caring, when chaos is invited to the table, might be called connected caring. Connected caring means not getting in the way of the incredibly intricate and intelligent natural systems upon which all life on earth relies. It means not assuming superiority. It means celebrating madness and wonder and diversity. It means seeing and respecting the interconnectedness of all things.

This idea of connected care reaches far beyond the garden fence. It comes back to much bigger ideas around how to be in the world. It touches on how we relate to each other and the landscape around us.

It starts with a single, simple, question: What happens when we shift the way we care – for each other, our planet Earth, and our more-than-human neighbours – from a place of superiority and control to one of humility and connection?”

What happens when we apply this framework to our relationship with a garden, farm, suburb, city, continent, planet? Would council maintenance teams still be spraying glyphosate on road verges to ‘control’ weeds? How would weeds even be defined? Would public spaces be mass planted ecological deserts or islands of wild diversity? Would 100-year-old trees still be removed to make roads because it’s cheaper to knock them down than design a road around them? Or would they be seen as they truly are – as worlds themselves? What would our gardens, farms, cities look like if we practiced care for all life, not care for our own species and control for everyone/everything else? Would they be chemicalized and terrorised or wild, diverse and alive?

Much of my time in the garden is spent pondering these questions. I natter away to myself, trying to find a pathway between ingrained notions of control and care, and newer (to me) ideas of allowing things to be as they are, of not getting in the way. The more I dig, the more I realise that the nature of the relationship between the human and more-than-human worlds is a deeply complex subject. It is nuanced and faceted in ways I am only just beginning to understand. I acknowledge, too, that the thoughts contained within this essay are a mere scratching of the surface, but for me, the simplicity of the question – What happens when I shift the way I care – for others, planet Earth, and my more-than-human neighbours – from a place of superiority and control to one of humility and connection? – is valuable. It offers a space to contemplate how I can best be in the world. It offers a place to start.

And so I take my idea of connected care and I attempt to see what it looks like, what it means, in more aspects of my life than the garden. I attempt to write from this place, to relate to others from this place, to grow from this place. I am often conflicted, regularly contradictory, and always confused. But, by god, I care.

I often wonder how Granny might see my own garden. I can imagine her now, smiling as she walks up the crooked pathway from the jetty, noticing the tiny flowers of Glycine tabacina, an endemic plant happily spreading itself throughout the garden, oohing and ahh-ing at the banksias sprouting new leaves, and being confounded by the mad wildness of self-seeded pumpkin vines and ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’ and ‘mess’. She would love it. My heart fills with this knowledge. She would love my garden as I loved hers.

She would hear, too, my garden’s murmurings, as I heard her’s that day in spring. Amid the chaos, amid the mystery, amid the questions, Granny would hear the garden speak. She’d smile again, and shake her head in gentle bemusement, but I know without doubt, she’d choose to listen.