The Human Animal and the Garden. Why?

For some animals, gardening is instinctive, or even accidental. Bees spend their lives inadvertently pollinating flowers while collecting nectar, and squirrels unwittingly plant thousands of new oak trees each year while burying acorns for winter eating. As humans we appear to garden for leisure, taking pleasure in the acts of planting, tending, and nurturing an outdoor space, or in admiring the beauty of its end result. But is there something more primal at play for us as well? Is it our basic human need, or impulse perhaps, to connect with the earth that has us getting our hands dirty?

I found myself asking these questions after recently downsizing from an Australian three-bedroom home with decent front and back yards to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Our “outdoor space” was limited to two window boxes, only accessible through security bars, and the steps of our building’s stoop (which, technically, we shared with the tenants in the three other apartments, but they say possession is 9/10 of the law and we laid our claim early on).

The window boxes were my very first purchase after we moved in. We had no kitchen utensils, no sheets for our bed, and certainly no money to waste on frivolous items, and yet I knew without hesitating that this was something I needed in my life. So I trekked out to the back blocks of South Williamsburg, dragged home two insanely cumbersome and heavy wooden boxes on the subway, and nearly bid farewell to my marriage over the installation. But then they were there, and thus began four years of micro-gardening, as I liked to call it. Very quickly it spread, to a gathering of pots on the stoop housing giant tomato plants and all kinds of herbs. Meanwhile, inside the apartment, every windowsill, tabletop and mantlepiece was adorned with a pilea, a peperomia, a philodendron or a fern, and kokedama hung around every window.

I know I am not alone in the joy I derive from surrounding myself with plants – I’ve seen many an apartment with plants clustered so thickly in front of the windows that the light struggles to trickle through.”

But why do we feel this urge? In their book, Mädderlake’s Trade Secrets, Tom Pritchard and Billy Jarecki of influential New York flower shop Pure Madderlake note that “There is a basic human need for beauty and a sense of nature in one’s life.”

This is perhaps not a “need” that might stand up to comparison with traditional survivalist concerns such as food, water and shelter, yet few of us who surround ourselves with vegetation which might be considered merely ornamental by some would agree to do without it.  Far from superfluous, plants, with their own pulses, their own rhythms – imperceptible perhaps, but ever present – can be a source of  deep human satisfaction. They can be life-giving even.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of joy to be found in taking a small plant – or better still a seed – and watching it grow and develop into something luscious and strong under our tender care. Any home gardener will attest to the therapeutic nature of gardening, the pleasure we get from touching, smelling and seeing natural beauty, and importantly from literally getting out hands dirty.

There is an inexplicable pleasure that comes from the feeling of submerging our hands in the earth, or from that unmistakable rich sour odour of damp soil.”

I once worked in a plant store in New York and we had a little table in the back where we would pot up plants. One time a customer wandered up and lingered a little uncomfortably, watching a colleague and I at work, before asking: “Would you mind if I just put my hands in that dirt? It’s just such a good feeling to get your hands dirty and I never get to do it.”

Once again, I’m tempted to ask if  there is something primal at play here? Perhaps there is a part of us that is driven to return to the earth that made us, to be at one again with the other living species of the natural world. Or perhaps like the bee and the squirrel we are performing our part in a natural cycle, unaware of our role. When humans brought potatoes, tomatoes and coffee from the New World to the Old, was it us or these species – suddenly allowed to thrive beyond their wildest dreams – that benefited the most?

Occasionally I can feel overwhelmed by the brilliance of nature. On a clear-skied day, when a fresh breeze blows, I’ll feel an urge bubbling up inside me. I’ll feel a great desire to run wild and free through a field somewhere or somehow physically embrace the natural world around me. A particularly bucolic scene from a book or movie can have the same effect. It is this same sense of needing to reconnect that I experience when gardening: something both human and entirely animalistic at the same time.