Thursday, February 9, 2017

Naked Gardening

It’s February, so why am I thinking about naked gardening? Maybe you’ve heard of World Naked Gardening Day, an annual May 1 event whose existence I know about only because it makes the rounds on social media every year, much to the titillation of many who are out for a pleasant spring scroll down their Facebook newsfeeds. The idea of standing naked in the garden, well, let’s just say it’s got mythic dimensions, and while I honor those who buck their cultural programming and get out there to actually do it, my entry today is geared more toward understanding the many people who have yards surrounding their homes, but who as yet have no actual garden in which to even try naked gardening, were they so inclined when the weather warms up. 

Because, let’s be honest: standing naked on a chemically treated lawn in front of geometrically pruned foundation plantings wouldn’t be quite the same. For one thing, there’s little to do out there: no reason to bend to the soil, nothing to pick, plant, taste or smell as it offers itself out of the wet spring earth, and come summertime, no sunflowers or cosmos to sway to their different tempos in the warm breezes and strategically reveal and conceal the gardeners' bodies. Instead, there’s nothing. So let’s back it up a notch and get the gardens in place first. It’ll be more fun for everybody.

However, as I consider this more basic issue, I see that the problems involved in establishing a garden are much the same as those we would likely encounter in encouraging gardening in the nude: cultural resistance, a sense of being exposed and alone in one’s passions and life path, and quite possibly in many locations, legal ramifications. But ay yi yi! The bleak uniformity of suburban landscaping! Consider what we're really talking about here. Among people in the world, these are the privileged, and among their precious privileges is something truly remarkable: access to a piece of land. And yet out of this we see crafted a strange kind of sterile, anonymous nowhereland. What’s that about, really? Seems to me it’s about conformity, and about the perceived safety of not standing out. It’s also about class identification, as my friend Lois Robbins was kind enough to enlighten a group of us who had assembled on Earth Day some years ago. In my mind, conformity and class identification are connected: “People like us – we normal people – don’t do that.” Right. We don’t have time. We’re on Facebook or playing candy crush or watching professional sports on TV.

But given the possibility of a discontinuity in the food supply, say, or even just more of the same given that food quality has measurably declined as the decades have rolled by, it might be time to reconsider such social preoccupations. Herd thinking and herd behavior do not represent humanity at its finest, nor do they typically tend to be adaptive. Most people don’t even consider the stampede of suburban outgrowth as a herd phenomenon, but there it is, pretty much the same from coast to coast. 

Fortunately, the long tradition of American self-sufficiency has not been completely exterminated, and in fact every spring we see tons of garden centers filled with plants, including many vegetable starts and seeds. By most accounts, gardening remains the most popular hobby in the United States. Nonetheless, when I walked out to my garden a few minutes ago and stood in the snow that had fallen on the duff of leaves amidst the still-standing but stripped-bare kale stalks, I counted ten homes with windows visible from where I stood.  Of these, only two that I know of have any food growing on the property at any time of year. These do not represent substantial plantings: in one yard I’ve sometimes seen a few tomatoes, and in the other, of all things, four large container-grown fig trees, the love of an Armenian immigrant who lives across the road. The reason I can report this with some confidence is because gardening is not a private activity. What we do out there is visible, as is our overall success or failure. Regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re basically exposed for all to see out there. It’s no wonder to me that people who are unsupported by history, knowledge or community have a hard time taking first steps toward growing some of their own food.  

Noticing this, my hope is that those who “always wanted to start a garden” might gain some insight into some of the reasons why they not have done so yet, and find a way to start. I was lucky to have grown up next door to the Wu family, Chinese immigrant parents with two US-born boys about my age who treated the yard behind their ranch house as a place for productivity instead of merely a placeholder for underused lawn furniture. I vividly recall Mrs. Wu showing me how to gently pull the trumpets from her red salvia flowers to taste the nectar, and Mr. Wu showing me how to build a compost pile and check the corn for worms. Next thing you know, at age six I had gathered sunflower seeds from the bird feeder to plant in my sandbox and was watching them rocket upwards to a height of 7 feet. Amazingly, I also had family support in converting that sandbox into a vegetable garden. (It was a bottomless sandbox, and the zucchinis did especially well.) Later, as a seventh grader equipped with a plan and a shovel, I got a affirmative reply when I asked if I could dig up a section of sod out back and build an herb garden. 

In revisiting the chief purpose of this blog – the sharing of gardening and other knowledge to build  healthier and more shock resistant communities – I feel less than successful. Part of it is, I may have underestimated the zone of social resistance and the nakedness of every gardener before the court of neighborhood opinion and their own inner critics.

For this reason, if as the days grow longer this spring you find yourself feeling that this is finally the year when you’ll try growing something edible, I salute you.  If you’re planning on starting a garden but haven’t done so yet, one shortcut is to start by cultivating relationships, people who will be on your side when you go ahead and be the neighborhood weirdo with hops vines flowering on your porch. Someday maybe you can invite your neighbors in to sample your home brew – who knows what converts you’ll win? Or you can be the person who gives a neighbor girl her very first sun-ripened strawberry; it’s a moment that can change a life. Or just be the one who confidently walks out some quiet August evening some years from now and returns to your kitchen with a fresh bunch of kale to feed your family. You won’t be naked, but you will be noticed, and that’s ok you never know when you might get a visit from a neighbor kid with a lot of questions and an unused sandbox in the back yard.

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