Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Cultural Renaissance of Free Gooseberries and Outlaw Dandelions

I love giving plants away, and I hold that the sharing of vegetative abundance is the foundation of a sustainable culture. Every time seeds, cuttings, runners, crowns or rootlets change hands among friends and community members, powerful things can happen.

Let’s start with the miracle and freedom of the plants themselves. Soon after my wife and I purchased our first home, I surveyed the back yard and counted 70 ornamental and fruiting perennials that had come into our hands through friends. Some of these had moved with us from the rental property where they had lived for a year prior, and then new plants were added during the summer of our move. These plants were the surplus of my gardening friends, and freely given.

But there’s something more important. For example, when a start from a currant bush went in on the south side of the compost pile (it turned out to be an excellent location, by the way) suddenly a new being was inhabiting our space. I had no idea that in just a few years the shrub’s luxuriant growth would lead to an abundance of fruit, or that my daughter would suggest making currant jelly as a homeschool project. Making the jelly ultimately became an annual family ritual, and the ruby-red jars were a traditional holiday offering as the years went by.  It was but a stick with a few roots on one end when I got it. 

Nor could I have known how important the gift of three crowns of ostrich ferns would become as in succeeding years they multiplied and softened the air in the back corner of the lot beneath the trees from which eventually hung a hammock, the fronds grazing us with cool touches on summer afternoons. Likewise, how could I have guessed the cumulative overall effect of these and all the other plants in this community: the German chamomile in profuse sprays, the spring displays of primroses, or the long-lasting waist-high backdrop of biennial black-eyed Susans gracing many of our backyard gatherings?

In essence, these inscrutable earthly beings living in our back yard had rooted themselves not only in the soil, but in our lives. Their beauty and abundance both merited the care required to sustain them and motivated me to share them with others.

The depth of all this points to another powerful sphere where sharing plants adds value to life: human relationships and community. Sharing in the mystery of plants serves to remind us of the ultimately mysterious interface between us as human beings. Personally, I think it works this way: whether it’s a handful of heirloom morning glory seeds of unlimited potential or a dozen leafless raspberry canes in a bucket of dirty water that are destined soon to meet the earth again and spread in a friend’s back yard, human relationships that touch upon the plant world draw from it both the rootedness and the cosmic connections of the plants themselves.

At a certain point we may even wonder who is serving whom in this dynamic where plants, friends new and old, and happenstance encounters can combine and lead to growth on all levels. For example, at my nephew’s graduation party a few years back, I was asked by a neighbor if I’d like to visit his vegetable garden around the corner. When we got there, I noticed some mature gooseberry bushes and obtained permission to take a couple green cuttings, which I wrapped in a wet paper napkin and placed in a plastic bag.  These cuttings soon rooted, and six years later those bushes have reached enormous sizes, and their self-layered progeny are now growing in the backyards of more than a half-dozen friends. Who else, unknown to me, might ultimately also have gooseberry pies and preserves as scions of these plants are shared? What children might connect with something primal in themselves by plucking the blushing fruits on a hot summer’s day? It's impossible to know. I do know that I will remember the gardener who shared them, and that those friends of mine whose yards are bearing new fruit because of those two cuttings also now have living testimonials to our relationship that can weather the seasons along with us.

Friendships take on an expansive quality and a touch of immortality when we share plants.  

Finally, by combining the grace of the plants themselves and the magic they can bring to human relationships, sharing in this way also revives an ancient cultural narrative, creating a beachhead for life-sustaining values to emerge in a culture that lately seems hell-bent on running headlong in the other direction. Plants, after all, provide their services for free. In our culture, anything free is devalued. This is true whether we’re talking about the pure water that used to run freely on the one hand, or the flow of energy involved in parenting and childcare on the other. We do not value these things unless we start to pay for them, and if we really feel into it, the fact that we now pay for such things has already devalued them at a much more basic level.

The cultural habit of putting a price tag on everything ultimately means that we too are bought and sold, although this remains in the blind spot of a culture where commerce has become the central focus. It doesn’t have to be this way, but in a classic case of the servant becoming master, the markets that were intended to follow the needs of life and the living somehow took the reins and started driving. The term, ‘free market’ is, when we stop for a moment and think of it, an oxymoron, for the things we find in the market are seldom free, and many of the costs do not even appear on the price tags.

This is why freely giving plants just as they freely give of themselves is a paradigm-changing act. And it’s interesting to see how people inured to a market mentality sometimes respond to a gift. With everybody selling everything, gifts freely given can meet at first with misunderstanding and incomprehension. Good, then! That just shows how much they are needed. Ultimately, I suspect, the biggest gift is shifting the mindset that assumes our self-interests are achieved at the expense of others.

When operating in a balanced system, plants don’t do it that way. A dandelion that sprouts up in a vacant lot, for example, is in every way a pioneer and an entrepreneur. It’s also anarchical, however, in the sense that it pays no rent and holds no title. The dandelion is a squatter at best, a trespasser and an outlaw in the eyes of many. It claims its freedom and it holds the land, and in so doing it claims also a place for itself and its progeny in the world.

But if we look more closely we see that just as the plant has taken its place without title, it yields up a host of benefits that are likewise unfettered and untaxed. As rain patters down on the disturbed earth, the dandelion and its companions work together to blunt the impact and slow runoff. It does this for its own reasons, of course, but as a result erosion is mitigated for all. With its taproot reaching down into the subsoil and its leaves gathering the dew and falling rain, the dandelion furthers this process by channeling water deeper into the earth – again for its own use later, but this also benefits the other plants and trees that would find their water there.

That taproot also draws nutrients up from the subsoil for the dandelion’s own use, but these nutrients in turn are deposited on the topsoil as the plant loses leaves to growth and herbivorous animals. From the resources it procures in sun and soil, the dandelion plant also offers up food for nectar and pollen eaters, a healthful, tonic herb and vegetable, as well as a profusion of airborne seeds that can multiply all of these benefits as they colonize other areas.

My goal is to operate in parallel with this pattern from the human side. Being an agent for the propagation of plants can, when pursued with consciousness and care, give the living system a push in the direction it’s already seeking to go, and gently shape it to bring enhanced benefits to us as well. For example, lettuce seeds travel on airy puffs like dandelions, yet sharing my heirloom seeds with friends miles away helps to ensure that if I had a crop failure, other sources of seed might be available to begin again. Note that this is in direct opposition to the “market” strategy of withholding seed, patenting it, inserting genes to prevent it from reproducing, and otherwise making seed scarce and controlling it.  

The abundance principle also applies every time I share food plants in a world of increasing food insecurity. In a food crisis, I don’t want to be the only person in the neighborhood with fruit hanging from my trees or knowledge of how to garner calories from the soil. Real security rests on my neighbors having the resources and ability to do so as well. Thus I share liberally, and in my own self-interest…just as plants do.

How values got so out of whack that many people in our society fail to see this option is an important question, but outside the scope of this essay. For now, I would suggest that human life, like plant life, holds the possibility of expressing as a celebration and offering of abundance if we choose to participate in this way. Vegetative generosity is the foundation of an abundant life for all earth’s inhabitants, and it’s well worth sharing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Cliff. Well, you were right. I do very much like this blog post. The idea, of course, is one I can subscribe to wholeheartedly, and one that I can aspire to practice as well. What I loved best were the sensory details when you described various plants, as in "...the gift of three crowns of ostrich ferns would become as in succeeding years they spread and softened the air in the back corner of the lot beneath the trees from which eventually hung a hammock, the fronds grazing us with cool touches on summer afternoons." And the story of the currant jelly. Perhaps you and other bloggers of the same ilk are helping restore balance to communities everywhere with lovely images such as these!