The Poetry of Plant Life

From Epicurus’ garden school, to the grandeur of Versailles, to the crop of community gardens popping up in cities the world over, humans have been in conversation with plants since the beginning of time. The nature of the conversation has changed but the underlying desire to connect remains the same. I find this ongoing connection endlessly fascinating and something I ponder with increasing regularity. What does our conversation with plants sound like in 2014? Is it poetic or problematic?

We are more removed from nature now than at any other time in history. The majority of the worlds’ population live in urban environments, many of them with little-to-no green space. We spend nearly all our waking hours indoors looking at screens, and even when we’re walking down the street we find ourselves regularly checking in with our hand-held brains. Moving. Consuming. Seeing but not seeing. We exist in a weird, wired world divorced from the natural one surrounding us. This digital world can do nearly everything except fulfil the human affinity with nature, with no amount of technological genius able to take the place of plants, and more broadly, the natural world.

It would be easy to bemoan our current technology-crazed/saturated existence and blame it for our disengagement with nature, and I will just a little. But as much as I dream of residing in a tiny shack in the middle of a forest with not a backlit screen in sight, technology is a part of modern life as is nature.

The word biophilia is one explanation of our continued need for this natural connection. Explored by Edward O. Wilson in his book of the same name in 1984, he suggests that the affinity humans have with the natural world is part of our very biology. The biophilic theory certainly begins to explain our connection to nature but if we can get our biological fill of exposure to nature simply by walking through a forest or even a vacant city block overflowing with weeds,why do we create gardens, these contrived spaces carved from nature by humanity? Robert Pogue Harrison in his book Gardens: An Essay On The Human Condition, suggests:

‘The fact that human beings create such things as gardens is strange, for it means that there are aspects of our humanity which nature does not naturally accommodate, which we must make room for in natures midst. This in turn means that gardens mark our separation from nature even as they draw us closer to it, that there is something distinctly human in us that is related to nature yet is not of the order of nature, in short, that gardens respond to a set of human needs that are not reducible to our animal needs.’

In exploring the contrasts between the great American lawn and gardens Michael Pollan, in his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education says:

‘Gardening, as compared to lawn care, tutors us in nature’s ways, fostering an ethic of give-and-take with respect to the land. Gardens instruct us on the particularities of place. They lessen our dependence on distance sources of energy, technology, food, and for that matter, interest. For if lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery. Gardens also teach the necessary if un-American lesson that nature and culture can be compromised, that there might be some middle ground between the lawn and the forest – between those who would complete the conquest of the planet in the name of progress, and those who believe it’s time we abdicated our rule and left the earth in the care of its more innocent species. The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.’

People want to create gardens because they not only bring us closer to nature but to our own humanity. Unlike a piece of bushland, they are of our creation yet they have a life of their own.

Plants have a beauty we can never possess and can only marginally influence. This, to me, is the wonder of gardening – having the opportunity to create a space that is essentially mine, but one in which I am constantly surprised by elements outside the realms of my control. Gardens are very different to the wilderness as they bring us into contact with the divinity of nature in a way we are comfortable with.

Today we live in the most technologically advanced time in history, yet people still want/need to be around plants, be it growing vegetables on their balcony or  creating a fern jungle in their bathroom. This has changed since I started my professional life as a garden designer ten years ago, when gardening was largely reserved for old folk who loved roses and geraniums. Now it’s popularity is very much increasing with younger people, but the problem is, unlike the previous generation who may have grown up growing vegetables in their backyard, our generation generally haven’t had the same exposure to gardening. Fifty years ago growing food was a necessity, whereas now it may be considered a luxury.

We all want to garden but we don’t know how, and we have never been less connected with the natural world. This is the crux of the matter. What to do? Well, I reckon gardening needs to be re-branded and redefined.

Firstly, the redefinition: If gardening is just self expression with plants, then we don’t need huge backyards, we just need sunlight, water, plants, and creativity. When you start thinking in these terms, the possibilities for injecting greenery into our lives seem endless. Who needs a perennial border when you can have an edible balcony wall or an aquaponic system on your roof?

Secondly, the rebranding: we need to start talking about plants and gardens in language our generation can understand and relate to. We don’t want to be looking at badly-designed websites or reading mail-order catalogues aimed at the over 50s. We want to know how we can integrate plants into our lives; how we can wear them, make art with them, decorate with them, bring spaces alive with them. We want to know enough about them to use them creatively, indoors and out, and we want to grow what we want to eat. The enthusiasm is there, but the support structures are not.

I want to start a gardening revolution. We need to learn how to integrate the gravity of greenery into our increasingly virtual lives.

There are a number of reasons why we should reconsider our modern-day relationship with greenery; firstly, as previously discussed, humans have a primal connection to nature. Plants and gardens make us feel good and we learn lessons from them we cannot learn from Google. Secondly (and selfishly), I’m a little obsessed by plants and gardening, and the idea of a world where plants are valued and respected makes me very happy indeed.

Thirdly, the importance of plant adoration has never been more important than now. We have not been very nice to mother nature in the past, and we’re still behaving like a spoilt child. Taking, taking, taking and not much giving. We’re in dangerous territory and I know it may sound trivial, but I think there are a few solutions in the act of gardening.

By engaging with plants in the creation of gardens we are engaging with nature; learning important information and understanding how to work with the natural world, not against it. This has huge consequences for the entire planet; in the way we work with, manage, and support natural systems.

My hope is that through gardening we can learn how to use nature without destroying, how to respect natural processes, and begin to see ourselves as a part of the natural world, rather than separate to it (because we’re not). Gardening, the strange and complex dialogue between civilisation and nature, gives us hope.

This story was originally titled ‘The Gravity of Greenery’ and written for Issue 3 of Another Escape Magazine. Another Escape is a very beautiful independent mag based in the UK.  I was very honoured to be asked to contribute to it. Do check it out if you get the chance, its available at a range of stockists in Australia, including Mag Nation.