September 8, 2023

I look out upon my garden which is filled with flowering plants.  Something will grow in every square inch of it, so, except for the brick and stone walkways, fruit trees and berry bushes, I intend that those things should be flowers, not weeds, which still must continually be pulled.  My garden is a plenum – a spatially continuous living community which includes me, its caretaker – and I intuitively experience it as such while simultaneously perceiving a visual panorama, an audible space filled with the music of cicadas, crickets and birds as well as an expanse of floral perfume.

Lord Byron’s lines

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies

relate that the woman is enveloped and dwells in beauty.  While beauty is perceived by the senses, life is the object of intuition, and in my garden I am conscious of walking in life, in being enveloped and dwelling in it.

As this life is continuous, so is my three-dimensionally extended consciousness of it.  The individual plants are separated by the medium of air which, because it plays multiple vital roles in their lives is a functional part of those lives.  This means that each plant’s life literally extends into the space around it, conjoining with any number of other substances and lives, and this is what makes the garden a whole living community.  It is by no means an ecosystem, for if it were there would be no need for me to continually work in it planting seeds, pulling weeds, culling aggressive varieties, protecting less competitive ones and watering in times of drought.  I admit that toward the end of the season when the flowers reach their peak they outstrip my efforts to control them, and in their glorious and triumphant final act they together proclaim, “All good things are wild and free!”

I serve the flowers, giving them life and sustaining it, literally becoming a part of their lives, while they become parts of mine.  My life is coextensive with the garden, as I am functionally conjoined with each thing in it that I touch, which further retains my contact with it as a part of its history.  I love my garden and am aware that it loves me.

Life is radiant, and I am conscious of the vital radiance of my flowers.  Aristotle said that things were moved toward actualization “hos eromenon” – by their desire.  The second word in the Greek phrase is akin to “eros” which denotes a certain combination of feeling and physical impulsion.  After all, flowers are plants’ organs of procreation.

Dwelling on my intuition of the life of my garden I experience nearly overwhelming transcendent joy.  The flowers give me this delight because I have given them life and cared for them over many years.  Reciprocating my care in this way they further impose upon me an obligation to continue that care with actions that include promptly staking stalks that have been bent by the rain or wind and plucking off Japanese beetles.

Within my town my garden occupies only about two thousand square feet of my property in which I am conscious of being indivisibly united with it, indeed lovingly embraced.  Stepping outside of it is a culture shock.  I behold a neighbor’s severely manicured lawn, sharply separated from the mulch beds with their regimented flowers and meticulously trimmed shrubs.  No doubt his wish is to make the yard picture-perfect, which is what it is mostly experienced as being – a picture, not a place or thing, much less a living one.  All the parts appear sharply distinct from each other and separate from the observer, generating a sense of alienation: keep off the grass; don’t mar the mulch!  In my garden my life and the lives of the flowers interpenetrate, not only in the present, but with a living history and future: our lives are joint continuations of the past with a shared trajectory into the future.

Outside my garden my sense of continuity with the world is shattered, for that world mostly contains non-living artifacts – streets, buildings, cars; even lawns and trees are items of landscaping separated from peoples’ lives.  The experience of passing by unsightly highway commercial development is repulsive, disposing me to heed Walt Whitman’s words

“Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”

Increasingly today people are challenging the radical separation of people and things in the world and searching for ways to reverse it.  The solution is not rocket science but is vividly manifested  in my garden: form mutually nurturing and supportive communities of humans, living things and the earth.

My garden is rather an island paradise in a blighted world.  Yet like actual islands on the earth, from Maui to Australia, it is impacted by global environmental degradation, notably climate change.  It suffers from increasing heat and air pollution, more frequent and prolonged droughts, diseases, exotic and invasive pests such as spotted lantern flies and jumping worms as well as declining populations of desirable birds and insects including fireflies.

Still, along with exquisite pleasure, it continues to furnish material benefits for me within the larger environment by exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, cooling the air, supporting the remaining insect and bird populations, among others.  As I immediately serve it and it serves me, it further supports my life on a wider scale, obliging me to do the same for it.  My obligation to it therefore extends to combating threats to it with overall environmentally conscious personal conduct and civic action at community, state, national and global levels.

As my garden is a microcosm of the world, so it is an exemplar for broader action.  It is a single community composed of so many individual essences that interact in countless ways, with me also figuring in these relationships.  We are accustomed to thinking and acting in bulk: the garden needs watering; sections need more sunlight; seeds are planted in quantity.  In the larger sphere we have mass communication, big business, big government, and these are the usual vehicles for action.  Yet in my garden I attend principally to individual plants by monitoring their condition to remove pests or competing vegetation and adding to or subtracting from their numbers.

In tackling the larger environment systemic work certainly has its place – legislation, economic reform and elections.  However, resisting this kind of effort are some issues that correspond to knotty problems in the garden such as entangled roots of flowers and weeds as well the pernicious underground doings of jumping worms.

Although they form more and less whole communities, the basic units of life are individual organisms that demand our attention when we seek to affect those communities.  This fact is supremely important as we undertake to rescue the environment from the current manner in which humans are exploiting it.  Human communities should be approached as gardens in which the goal is for every part to thrive and be in relationships of mutual support with all the rest.  Gardeners have vital functions to serve in this endeavor by caring for the life of each part while inspiring all the people to engage in gardening as well.  The work doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the community but includes action within democratic structures to achieve the pattern in progressively higher jurisdictions and finally worldwide.

I have written this article to stress the crucial importance of not just beholding or appreciating living things, but personally acting to nurture and sustain them in order to build the desire, drive and method to fully live oneself by effectively serving the world in this moment of existential crisis.  In my gardening spirit I am practicing strategies advocated by some leading organizations to raise climate consciousness, boost personal conservation, connect ongoing projects and build demand for government action in my area.  One key objective is to encourage planting private and public gardens for the purpose of fostering in people the gardening frame of mind.  Antoine de Saint-Exupèry said that if you want to build a ship you should instill in people a love of sailing.  This will move them to eagerly unite to build it of their own accord.  So too, if we want to establish the ecological civilization we should uplift and reward the natural human desire to dwell in life.

Phila Back

Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher.  Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights.  She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard. This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process.  She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders. Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.

Tags: connection to nature, ecological civilizatiion, gardens, more-than-human world, plenitude