So the flu was bad, the mold-cleaning process was worse, my car’s corroded rear shock mounts broke, and all week it’s been nice each day — while I was trapped at work — until about 4pm, at which point it rained in torrents until after midnight. I have made no progress on the groundhog or weed situations. I hardly did anything at home but clean mold and obsess about the transportation situation (I should mention that my nice walking-distance job was upended by the flood). The obsessing went nowhere, but the mold cleaning went better than I anticipated. I am too superstitious to make early proclamations that might tempt cosmic refutation, but… it seems like bathing the pine wood in Lysol might actually have killed the fungus. My basement is in a state of advanced chaos and I can’t even get to the washing machine right now, my allergies are in overdrive from all the airborne irritants even though I was masked and taking cold medications to curb the flu symptoms, I haven’t slept well all week for all the worry and chemical stench, but… I may not have to throw out the bookcases. What is more interesting, none of the books were moldy — though I did pack up two boxes for donation and tossed a few old journals into the recycling bin.
Even so, this week I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis. If I needed two large plastic spray bottles of Lysol to maintain some rather superfluous possessions, if I spent a couple hundred dollars on seeds and starts and still had to buy nearly all my food, if I had to finance another car to get to work — all things that lie well outside my values and means — then, I concluded, I must be doing life wrong.
Should I move back to New Mexico where I understood how to produce my own food and where buildings generally remained standing as long as they remained outside the path of wildfire? Should I buy a used car that has more maintenance issues and lower gas mileage or should I buy a new plug-in hybrid with all its freshly embedded energy and resource use and enormous price tag? Should I toss the books and most connections to the world and buy a small cottage on a hillside farm far from rivers and streams? Could I even afford anything other than propping up the sagging lifestyle that I already have? These days, is it possible to buy a house with a bit of property or a mostly electric vehicle if you are not preternaturally wealthy? (At 7% interest, mind you…)
I decided that what I have is what I have and there is no other path to having elsewise. Moreover, it’s not bad. It’s just that I believe it could be better.
Thus on Friday night I was reading a book ostensibly about gardening in Vermont. Now, it is a book about a garden. This garden is located in Vermont. The book is entitled in a way that makes one believe it is about place-centered gardening. However, it is not about gardening in Vermont…
In the way of most garden books published in the last few decades, the book is lavishly illustrated, with more space given over to pictures of the garden than descriptions of the garden. For the publishing industry since the advent of cheap color printing, a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe in actuality, given the time it takes to produce a photograph compared to a couple pages of good text. For most garden book images, however, which tend to be variations on assemblages of green stuff with perhaps a bit of seasonal progression for color, the picture falls utterly short of the description. Scale is partly to blame. The garden as a whole is, in truth, predominantly a jumble of green shapes. It’s not particularly photogenic from a distance. On the other hand, the garden up close is isolated colors or textures, flowers and leaves, perhaps furrows of fresh-turned soil, that are all difficult to relate to the process of being a garden, which shows that time also interferes with effective garden imagery. This is because a garden is not static. It is a be-ing, a process. It is change and growth and flow. Like a rainstorm or ocean waves on the sand, the garden does not readily reveal its stunning attractions to the camera. The allure of the garden is in moments lived through time, not snapshots of those ephemeralities.
More importantly to a book about a garden, the snapshots are nearly useless as a narrative of how the garden came to be and how it persists. A book about a garden should tell the story of the garden, and pictures do not tell a story. At best they illustrate brief vignettes within the story. Most garden imagery, however, at least the kind in lavishly illustrated gardening books, merely serves to draw the attention away from the lived story of the garden. Like photos in fashion magazines, these are aspirations and air-brushed moments of arrested development, all dewdrops on virginal petals and evening mists softening and obscuring the vegetable patch. There are no pictures of the sweaty gardener, pulling pigweed out of the perennial bed and picking potato beetles off the cherry trees. There are no images of squash plants in August, tumbling out of their beds, enormous sex organs on display and leaves made into a dishabille lacework of beetle predation. There are no images of failed seedlings curled and blackened by cold or drought, nor of attenuated infant plants torn from the soil after rampant spring germination. There are likewise no images of the steamy labor in the summer kitchen, processing and putting by the harvest, so that all the garden work has a point.
This book on a particular garden in Vermont was all light and roses, and yet it gave me no comfort as I struggled through my depression. I don’t want to see light and roses. I want to hear uplifting stories. I want a tale of overcome adversity and unforeseen serendipity. I want to viscerally know the garden and don’t much care about the gardener or his ideas, and this garden book was largely about the gardener. In fact, many garden books are, though few ever show any images of actual gardening in progress nor of the gardener in her habitat. There is little of gardening in most garden books and much about theories of garden presentation. Much about how the garden looks, not much about what the garden is. Right now, I need to know what a garden is — because right now my garden looks like hell and I want assurance that there is something more solid and meaningful under all that mess.
On Saturday I woke completely out of sorts physically — I slept through taking my thyroid medication for the first time in nearly two decades — but emotionally I felt the beginnings of the end of this slump. I woke up with an idea for a book, the book I want to read, perhaps the book I am writing in all these journals and blog posts. I stumbled downstairs and made tea — I can’t ingest anything but clear liquids for several hours after the thyroid pill — and lit several scented candles to mask the faint but lingering Lysol fumes, and then I went back upstairs and curled up on the bed with a chunky-knit blanket and a pot of jasmine green. I opened up the Vermont garden book again… and then closed it and reached for my current garden journal.
I think much on the concept of the ‘spirit of place’. That garden book was entitled Spirit of Place, one of many with that name and little to do with any spirits or places. I picked up the book because, with such a title, it should have been a story of growing roots, making a home, nurturing a habitat, all within a specific place, socially and ecologically. This specific place, in fact, my place. The book should have been closely akin to the story of this project of mine here in Central Vermont, except further along in the narrative and closer to some stage of rewarding maturity. And also perhaps more ably executed.
I realized I wanted to read that book. I wanted to wallow in it while my own garden experience was such a shambles. But I’ve been wanting to read that book for a long time, far longer than this recent misfortune, longer than I’ve been at this project of place-making. Garden books all feel like they should be that story, a story of growing a home, and yet few are that story. They are mostly stories of conquest and control, fairy tales for colonizers, not rooted lore for the intentionally indigenous. This book presents a spirit of some place, but it is manifestly not a Vermont place, nor even a generalized cold, northerly place. Its background landscapes are repeatedly compared to the grander vistas of distant lands, and its plant selection is decidedly foreign. There is reference to history, but not deep story in this place, merely the very recent crust of human relationship to this land. The past begins with Victorians and immigrant artists, not the aboriginal gardeners in these green mountains, never mind the ancestry of the garden itself. There is no meaning or culture in this book garden. There is no intimacy with ecology and knowledge of the wisdom that sits in places. It is, rather, an imposition of will, much like any suburban property, unrooted and place-less. A charming setting that could be anywhere… and nowhere… and has no inherent spirit at all.
More damning, there is no reason for this setting. Or maybe there is. Maybe an elegant backdrop is absolutely essential to a certain style of life. Maybe. But that is no reason that finds validation in Vermont. This is a land of working people — however ‘people’ is defined. There is elegance in that, in the perfect functional harmony between a maple tree and the mountain soil or between a weaver and her sheep, but it is not urbane elegance, which usually implies the useless indolence of wealth, a quality nearly unknown in Vermont. Vermont spirit is not pretty; it is practical.
A Vermont garden is likewise a place where needs are met. Some may indeed have need of facile settings for tourism, but most people around these parts have more pragmatic concerns, like food and shelter and high quality socks. Vermonters know the pretty pictures are a lie anyway. There is work hidden beyond the edges of those images of pristine plants. Work done by many people, near and far — trimming and weeding and planting, growing, cultivating, packaging and shipping the exotic plants, ensuring adequate sunlight and moisture, transporting nutrients, curbing disease and cutting out damages, harvesting and processing what counts as food, breaking down waste. Every image of elegance is underlain by years of hard physical labor mostly done by people other than the garden writer. And long before it is deemed desirable by the experts, every pretty picture arises because it meets some biophysical need. Maybe not in that place, but in some place. If a thing is unnecessary everywhere, then it does not exist. Vermont gardeners do not hide the work and the need; they revel in it, just as they brag about shoveling snow and pulling cars out of the March mud. Vermont gardens very blatantly meet Vermont needs.
As I reclined on my bed under my cozy blanket, writing about Vermont gardens as the sun rose above the eastern mountains and burned off the autumnal fog, breathing in the scents of moist soil and cedars from the open window and the candles that almost covered the residual pungency of lye and mildew coming from the basement, sipping steaming bitter tea redolent with tropical floral flavors, I realized what a Vermont spirit of place garden book should be. Or what I needed it to be in this moment anyway. I wanted a hygge garden book. Actually, I want a hygge garden. I think that might be the ideal definition of a garden in any place. A garden is the part of your home that is open to the sun and the stars. It is living, growing comfort. Its spirit is love and warmth and contentment. It is a hug from the more-than-human world, the evidence that this Earth ably provides for all our needs, beyond our dreams and expectations, with nothing demanded in return but a little merry labor from our bodies. A garden is the manifestation of abundance. It is hygge. A Vermont garden is unapologetically in pursuit of warm hearts and full bellies. It is very hygge.
There is less of style than craft in Vermont. Vermonters embrace the idea that form follows function. There is artistry, but the art is in attuning to need without need of masking embellishment. And it must be said that Vermont is a hard place to live. Those who live here absolutely need refuge, comfort, security, care, much more so than useless frills. So a Vermont spirit of place grown in a garden presents as hardy species that nourish many beings. There are more potatoes than tomatoes in the veg patch, and flowers are chosen for durability and bright color to counter the long white winters. There is often little prescribed or planned order, save the occasional garden fence and a general respect for traditional partnerships like oak trees and ramps or basil and nightshades. A Vermont garden is a living craftwork. It evolves organically and does not follow any given will or aesthetic ideal because Vermonters recognize that the garden is not solely the craft of the gardener. It is its own partnership between many beings. A working toward ecological harmony and toward the comfort that comes from being rooted in a place of vibrant, joyful balance. A place of crafted serenity. Isn’t that what a garden should be?
As there is no prescribed order, there is no typical garden, but there are commonalities. There is usually food, often of a calorie-dense nature. There are always flowers because flowers are the antithesis of snow — and because flowers exist to draw in life and, as such, are central to gardening success. There is often space made for bees or chickens or goats even in the smallest parcels of land. The fierce nativist pride that governs so much of Vermont human life manifests as a preference for plants with deep roots in this part of the world, ecologically and socially. People may flirt with artichokes and okra, but more dedicated time and space are allotted to berries and apples and maple trees and a veritable orchestra of squash — because these are traditional food plants. There may be a few tulip bulbs cowering in buried wire mesh boxes and occasional experiments with dahlias and ornamental rhubarb, but there are abundant asters and daylilies, echinaceas and rudbeckias and lilacs, rugosa roses around every home — because these are the flowers that grew in Grandma’s garden. But these are the limits of Vermont garden norms.
There are twelve different definitions of garden comfort visible from my front porch. One hardly counts as a garden, being nothing more than a patch of grass with a graveled space for an enormous smoker. One would probably please the English garden purists, looking much like a staid Gertrude Jekyll miniature. But most are more Vermonty, random and rambling pursuits of scent and color and flavor and comfort. There are maple and fruit trees, berry bushes and lilacs, the inheritance of former gardens. There are mints and sages and carefully tended potted rosemaries clustered around kitchen doors. There are many benches placed in the shade and a few patches of sand or grass for lawn games. There are as many spaces left entirely to their own devices, meadows of grasses and wildflowers that until this year’s insect apocalypse were alight with butterflies and bees and dark hedges of viburnum and cedars, twittering with all manner of birds. And nearly everyone — even the purist — has some allotted space for a veg patch, mostly contained in the ubiquitous raised beds from Vermont’s Gardener’s Supply Company because Vermont soil is thin clay and needs a bit of piling on to support things like carrots and potatoes. Still, every garden that I can see from my own is different and all are filled with a merry confusion of lifeforms and structures.
This variety is as it should be. Look at the way ecological balance is achieved in a human-free setting. It is a riot of intermingling lifeways, a disordered order, a seamless system created from a tumbled jumble of beings, all seeking their own pleasures and comforts. Trees are gnawed and broken and sprouting fungus. Leaves all have holes. Flowers all wilt and decay. Every last thing grows willy nilly, stepping on toes and elbowing each other in unlikely congeniality. Nevertheless all is alive and content and vigorous. There is no prevailing control, but order is maintained through the reciprocity of life. Disease and infestation only take hold when that order is disrupted — because balance among many means that self-aggrandizing invasives and colonizers are restrained, kept in check by healthy partnerships. (In the past this order-destroying disruption came from fire and flood and the shifting earth; these days it’s mostly humans.) The constant, the level state any place will return to after disruption, is harmonious relationship among a wide variety of satiated beings. This disordered order is what breeds comfort. This is the garden. This is hygge.
I think this is what garden books are trying to capture — but they can’t. Garden books are written by humans for humans and almost exclusively centered on perceived or proclaimed human needs. But gardens are centered on nothing save relationship. No needs or beings are privileged because privilege disrupts balance. Privileging a part destroys the whole thing. This is the wisdom of place. It is that balance that arises organically from many living beings living and being together in a specific location. Yet garden books focus on prescribed arrangements of living beings that are aesthetically pleasing to a garden authority. The only needs met in gardening by the book are human. Some may talk of ecology and organic growth, but few use unmediated nature as measure. Books may even talk of soil, but only in terms of humans building it — when soil, the very ground of being in the garden, is a living organism. Humans can’t build it. Soil grows from relationship. It grows from living needs met through being together. Humans can’t write that story. We don’t even know the principal characters. And we are not in that list.
Though we are not without our uses. Earth created humans to move things around, to transport all manner of stuff over long distances, perhaps even to disrupt order and drive change. When humans were human-scaled, this disruption could serve adaptation throughout a region by periodically culling species that were highly specialized and therefore highly fragile, prone to extinction at the slightest disturbance in their conditions. Then after humans and their novel things set down roots, balance among a wide variety of lifeways, specialists and generalists alike, was soon restored — and usually with new vigor from all the hybridization. But humans have not been human-scaled for several centuries, and most especially for the last few decades. We have not set down roots. We have been perpetually disruptive. And nothing lives contentedly amidst unending discord. A little change is good now and then to mix things up and dust things off, create new relationships and ways of being. But continuous turbo-charged, jet-fueled, globalized change?… is chaos.
Moving plants between vastly different ecosystems, simulating an arid Italianate landscape in damp and wintry England or New England, forcing perennial plants to forge new alliances with local organisms every few growing seasons merely because the aspect is all wrong — these all breed disruption and break relationship. Exerting human control over the denizens of the garden is not gardening. It is not growing contentment and meeting many needs. It is certainly not place-based, never mind a place that evinces spirit. It is just another self-centered human being an asshole to all the beings that are beneath him. There may be some pretty pictures, but pictures are, as a rule, lifeless.
Pictures are not the whole story of the garden, and they can’t be. A garden of views and vignettes is a hollow place. A garden is being altogether. It is full bellies and flavorful feasting for many palates, real and metaphorical. It is scent and allure and sex and new life. It is chemistry and biology and physics. It is embodied light. It is warmth and care and reciprocity only somewhat tempered by competition for time and space and resources. A garden is home. A garden is comfort. A garden is family. A garden is a living being. None of this is captured in an image. It is only imperfectly rendered in words.
Perhaps it is telling that few Vermont garden books are written by people who are native to this place, by people who name themselves Vermonters. This is a show-don’t-tell state. If there is a spirit of place, it is an embodied and active spirit. It is a happy chimera of doing beings. Vermont gardens reveal that spirit. Perhaps Vermonters have no need of books to tell the story of their place-making — except when the balance is overturned. (As it will be for many lives to come.) Vermonters certainly don’t readily give or take garden — or any other — advice to or from people who don’t know Vermont, neither the peoples who live here nor the places we inhabit.
It occurs to me that a Vermont garden, a hygge garden, a living garden of comfortable beings, is also a hobbit garden. I have been seeking out that story since I was a child. In that story, there are potatoes and grapes and nicotiana, lobelia and primrose and nasturtiums — and, of course, hobbits — all living in unlikely congeniality. In that story, the garden is the small, quiet space carved out of the wide, wild world where there is belonging, where the protagonists long to return at journey’s end, where people live… fully and contentedly. Frodo’s great tragedy was not that he endured immense suffering to save the world, it was that he never could go home. He could never return to his garden. He couldn’t be nourished and centered and fully alive in his place. Through that journey to hell and back, he was uprooted and unsettled and thereby irreparably broken. I thought on that while sipping my tea and scribbling and wrestling with what are mostly place-based anxieties.
If I have garden advice to give, it is to know yourself so you can know your place. Learn what makes happiness and find ways to reproduce that joy in the living world. What brings you true embodied joy almost always brings joy to many other beings. Your health and welfare are bound up with many other lives, so naturally what is truly good for you is truly good for many. Conversely, what is bad for you also damages many other beings. Self-centered people, those who chase empty pleasures that benefit no bodies and spread a great deal of harm in the process, are never happy. In one of the central and tragic ironies of human existence, we have to learn this. It is not self-evident. Except in the garden. When you seek to control, to impose your will on other beings, to dominate the landscape, there is no joy — not for you or anyone else. When you let the garden show you how it works together, then life hums along in contentment. The spirit of your place is comfortable and comforting. You are rooted.
I don’t want to move. I just want to restore ecological balance to this place I inhabit. That probably means relinquishing control to some degree, though it also means controlling the invasive and aggressive self-centered species that self-centered human disruptions have introduced and enabled. To be healthy and whole, I need to foster right relationships, and a flourishing garden will show me the way. I need to relax my expectations and enjoy what is here and now. I need to live fully in this place. To dig my spirit out of this dark depression, my body needs, my sense of home and happiness and comfort needs, I need to be rooted in this hygge garden.