Reasons for Gardens

Every politically engaged person should have a garden. Where a tract of land is inaccessible, as tracts of land are inaccessible for most people of the world—because of the economics, and politics, and access issues that are the disparities that have driven me to become politically active—join or organize a community garden, or raise some plants in containers in whatever space you have. A garden’s constancy, and also the pace at which a garden will change, these are necessary stabilizers in the oft-buffeted life of the politically engaged.

The green of growing things has been proven to calm us, and we all need some calming sometimes. But I am also interested in the patience that is often required as we wait for what we desire in our garden to grow. For the politically engaged person, any of us, such patience is a key to survival. A garden is never wasted space.

Two years ago, in a world that feels like it was a different world and also just more of the same, I visited Manhattan to give a poetry reading as part of a venerable series. I’d been excited to accept the invitation, but the reading turned out to be a disappointment before it even started.

I’d neglected to check my daughter’s school calendar before I said yes to the trip, and it turned out the timing of the event would require me to miss her last day of school. This was the year her whole grade participated in the annual third-grade egg drop, where each kid designed their own container in which to protect an egg that a beloved custodian would drop onto the playground’s blacktop from his post on the roof. If the egg landed without breaking, the child who designed the container earned much sought-after bragging rights. Callie had been excited for the egg drop for months, maybe years, but I’d forgotten to put the day on the calendar, and so I was on a plane to New York City the morning of the big event. Her father attended and recorded the successful launch and landing of our daughter’s egg, but watching on a phone after the fact is never the same as being there to cheer your child on.

We were reading to promote an anthol­ogy that was meant to be a celebration of the varied voices of the United States, but it turned out I was the only woman—either the only one who’d been invited, or the only one who had agreed to take part in the event. It’s exhausting, always pointing out to people that if they want to represent this country accurately, they have to represent it with a variety of voices, bodies, origins, and skins. Through my agent, it had been agreed that it was too late to correct the poor job the organizers had done with gender equity at the event, but that I and the other readers would make a point of sharing other poems during our time on the stage. When I arrived at the venue along with the seven men, the organizer said that again, reminded us of our time limit, and suggested I should have the honor of reading first.

I read my own poem in the anthology and the work of two other women. I kept to the specified time limit, then I sat down. Like an obedient girl.

Near the podium were vases filled with bright red gladiolas. I want to talk about the importance of gardening, but industrially grown flowers are not what I mean. Gladiolas are summer flowers, tropical plants. It was late spring, still cold, that night in New York. In what country or greenhouse would these beauties have been raised and cut down? The gladiolas were big and loud, stems as tall as my torso. As the reading wore on, they seemed more and more like reflections of the size and shade of my rage.

The men, every one of them, read over their times. They read their own poems or poems from the anthology, and then they read others. But their understanding of what others meant removed the apostrophe that made that word mean “other people’s poems,” which was the idea as it had been conveyed to me. Instead of correcting the absence of women at the reading by reading work by women collected in the anthology, these men read other poems of their own not presented in the book. I’d flown all the way to New York, missing one of the biggest days in my daughter’s elementary school experience, to read one poem of my own and have my voice and the voice of all the other women in the book drowned out by a bunch of attention-hogging men.

After the reading, the men gathered to choose a bar for a celebratory drink. I am not being overly sensitive when I say it was clear I was not invited to join them. I knew many of these guys, have known them for a very long time. It was not the first nor the last time they sent cues, a kind of concentrated coldness, that made it clear they did not want me in their space. Not all men, sure. But these men, that night.

I woke up the next morning missing my family, but I’d scheduled a session for a new publicity photo before I flew back to Colorado. I already have headshots I love—flattering ones taken by talented women photographers, a radiant one taken by my husband before he was my husband, when I didn’t know he was focused on me. (I saw the photo he’d captured, and I immediately realized I should stick with a man who saw me like that. I wish you, reader, someone who loves you that well, even when they know you’re not looking.) But I’ve aged over the last few years. I have significantly more white and gray in my locs—and a different kind of exhaustion in my eyes—than the previous photos reveal. I don’t want to be the kind of person who represents herself as eight or ten years younger than she is, and so my agent arranged this photo shoot to help capture who I am right now.

Much of the session took place in the photographer’s Alphabet City studio. But I am writing here about why every person who finds herself constantly navigating political spaces—by which I mean every person who regularly finds herself demoralized and exhausted by some number of the everyday patterns of life in America—should have access to a garden. So I’ll fast-forward to the part of the day when the photographer couldn’t get me to light up, when the thrill of being the subject of a New York photo shoot had worn off and all I could think about was how angry I was about everything that had gone down the day before. The photographer suggested he had an outside location he wanted to try. I write so much about nature, he explained. It made sense to take some photos of me interacting with the natural world.

There were more green things tightly poised for the next stage than things already in the showy phase of blooming, but—my God!—this was an enchanting place.

The photographer held a membership in a community garden just a few blocks from his studio. This one was more like my kind of garden than the vegetable kind that requires a quid pro quo between the plants and the humans. The plants in a vegetable garden get to keep growing so long as they produce tasty and nutritious fruit for the humans to consume. We passed a few of that type of garden along the way to our destination. I was happy to see them, because it’s important to get your own hands dirty sometimes in the process of making a meal. But the garden the photographer had in mind for me was an ornamental one. A garden that, to some minds, had nothing practical to offer humans but beauty.

There was a koi pond. There were stands of lilies. This was May, still a bit chilly in New York, though the sun warmed us that afternoon. There were more green things tightly poised for the next stage than things already in the showy phase of blooming, but—my God!—this was an enchanting place.

You could see evidence of a collective sense of humor and camaraderie among the gardeners. A sign on the cork board reminded members that by participating in the work of the garden they would be doing the original full-body workout. Shoveling, hauling, digging, plugging, squatting, raking, lifting, pulling, and pruning all engaged different muscle groups. Merriment and a type of ease were welcomed. Not that you didn’t have to work to enjoy the space, but you could enjoy the space at the same time you completed the work.

Elephant ears the size of my chest! Catalpa leaves the size of my head! The smell of chlorophyll and loam. I breathed deeply in that garden for the first time since I’d boarded the plane for New York.

The religious tradition I grew up inside suggests that there was the Garden, where Adam and Eve lived in complete ease, and then, because of the misdeeds of Eve, there was the rest of the world, filled with labor and struggle and strife. I don’t know. If the sweat and sore muscles of the world’s original full-body workout yields spaces like the one I stood inside—outside, that morning in Alphabet City—that doesn’t feel like a horrible fall from God’s grace.

In the photo we took in that garden, I am standing in a bank of maple leaves, and I am looking off somewhere, toward other beings who are thriving like I believed myself, in that moment, also to be thriving. I am smiling a genuine smile. Because in gardens I find hope.

The photographer told me that day that the mayor of New York had been working to get rid of community gardens like the one we were in. Often founded on vacant lots as a way of reengaging and resuscitating overlooked land, these gardens, according to the mayor, are a waste of potentially valuable property. Imagine the revenue that could be gleaned from a building full of shops and condos on that lot. Imagine how many people could be housed—at what a high price—in that now-wasted space.

Such imagining leaves out the people who had found homes there already. The photographer and the other members of the community garden. The koi and the songbirds and the butterflies I watched with excitement during the hour I spent on that lot. In some cosmologies, worldviews I honor, these fish and birds and butterflies are also people, living beings, with lives of value. The tree people who found space in that garden not afforded to the trees on your average New York City street—what a high price we would pay upon felling them. What they give us, these trees, is a different kind of wealth. Carbon capture and a payout of oxygen, a space that absorbed the clang and bustle of the surrounding streets and enveloped us in a dampened, cooling, calming quiet. So much beauty. How do you quantify the economic value of beauty as compared to the tax revenue of another human structure in what is now a garden? A garden is never wasted space.

Yesterday, the United States had another election. I live in a battleground state, and so we’ve been at the crossroads of the battle for months, maybe years, bombarded with messaging from both sides. Overall, I don’t think the election went my way. By which I mean enough of my neighbors, nearby and around the country, see the world and our nation’s priorities very differently than I do that it’s going to be incredibly hard work to create the future I want for my daughter. I could have woken up this morning despairing. In some ways, I have woken up this morning despairing. But also, there is a garden to look after. Plants to trim and to prune and leaves to rake and piles of mulch and detritus to shovel and haul. A garden demands I pay attention to needs and cares beyond only my own.

Winter is setting in again, and the strawberry-looking globe amaranth, the bright ruffled marigolds, red and white and purple impatiens and petunias, showy fuchsia, and purple papery statice I’ve planted in containers have all been killed by night after night of hard freezes. Annuals that had been full of life just weeks ago are stiff, now, as the dried floral arrangements you find in a craft store. I will collect the seed heads for next year, then send the dead plants to compost. I should bring the pots into the garage so they won’t crack. Next spring, after a long season of nearly intolerable cold, I can fill them again—with soil, with starts, and with seed.

In the garden we are building—in only a few months’ time, maybe years, depending—we will be able to watch a new round of blooming begin.