Class Warfare in the Coreopsis

I’ve gotten a summer job offer–and that’s very good news, given the fact that being “freeway faculty” means I don’t have an academic home after May 22.

Coreopsis verticillata “Zagreb”–one of my summer faves.

It’s a job that I might not have taken were it not for my new-found serenity. Normally, the very thought of summer joblessness–of any joblessness–would have thrown me into such heart palpitations and panicked hand-wringing that I would have applied for just about anything …

Indeed, I was on the verge of applying for a summer job at the community college wrangling college-bound high school students–something with a high rate of pay but for which I am vastly overqualified …

But instead of plunging into the application, I simply paused for a moment to think … And No, came the answer from that deep silence within, I would prefer not.

See, I believe I’ve learned a few lessons from the vicissitudes I’ve endured during this period I’ve started calling “the Great Depression 2.0” (inspired by the fact that during the 1.0 version, no one ever admitted that it was anything but a recession). I have, in fact, gotten downright “lilies of the field” (“they spin not, neither do they sow …”) about stuff that used to send me flat around the bend.

So the job offer I decided to accept? I’m going to work for the McVicker.

I think it makes sense. He needs someone to handle the administrative end while he’s out in the field on a backhoe, dreaming over his sketches, or out in the nursery communing with his viburnums. I’m great at talking, massaging egos, and organizing the activities of all persons other than myself… Plus, it means I get to put my priorities first: talk plants all day, work on my community gardening initiatives, and even … gasp! Write!

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s that I’m learning some things I didn’t know, or that maybe I hadn’t thought of, and that I certainly don’t like, about the American Way of Gardening.

You see, most of the McVicker’s clients are a dream–they feed you lunch or glasses of wine, they’re endlessly curious about the natural world and want to talk plants well past the time you’ve allotted to respond, they’re patient or quirky or kind or crack-me-up funny–each one awesome in his or her completely individual way.

And then there are the … well, frightening people who remind me first line of Anna Karenina, only in reverse. Tolstoy, quite the gardener himself, now that I think of it, said something that’s always stayed with me: “Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is  unhappy in its own particular way.”

Well, maybe that goes for families, but with unhappy gardeners, I’m here to tell you, the complaints are all alike. There are the can’t you do it faster people, the can you do it bigger people, and the can you cut the fee people, all closely related to the humph! we can do better than that ordering online crowd. I swear when you get a couple of those folks on the phone in a row, it’s like they’re reading from a script.

Is your grower ethical? Have you ever even wondered?

The ordering online complaint really gets me. Sure you can, I think to myself. But do you know anything about that cheap plant? Is it from a grower  that pumps the stock up on hourly infusions of water and fertilizer so that they’re catalog perfect when they arrive and DOA the instant they run up against a heavy clay soil or a Virginia heat wave or freeze?

Sometimes, I even say that. Folks need to understand that, when it comes to plants adapted to one’s particular soils and microclimate, local really does matter.

But the other  complaints raise issues that are much more complex. Issues that, at this early stage of the game, I have not figured out the most productive way to address.

I think I have put my finger on at least part of the why: the proliferation of garden shows on HGTV and even my beloved public television. With their blizzards of buzzwords and one-stop solutions profferred by genial hosts, these shows turn gardening into a sort of time-lapse spectator sport in which no problem is too complex to solve before the homeowner gets home from work or the 60-minute time slot has expired.

When was the last time you started seeds?

What’s created in viewers is an orientation to the natural world that is essentially consumerist. Got a problem? Buy a solution.

Since only professionals or the most passionate of amateurs propagate or grow from seed any more, large swaths of the population have lost the sense that growing things is both a relationship and a process.

The McVicker is always saying that horticulture, once woven into the fabric of everyday life, is no longer a part of American culture, and it needs to be again because it’s the solution to many, many, many of our ills. But the other piece of the puzzle that’s been lost is the fact that horticulture, while a word for a science, is also a word for  art, and art takes time.

The unhappy gardeners are simply more extreme versions of us. We don’t have time for relationships; we don’t have time for art. We want it now.

I was sitting with Kevin a few days ago–one of our best friends from church. I was explaining what I was thinking and feeling, sort of fumbling around on it. And Kevin–who’s not just smart, he’s downright wise–put his finger right on the wrongness I could feel in my bones but couldn’t quite get to.

“I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m a small businessman, too, and you see that attitude all over. See, people don’t realize you can get that instant scale–or if they want it really fast and really cheap, you can get that, too. But to get it, you’ve got to take it out of somebody’s back.”

When he said that, it was like getting beaned between the eyebrows with a lead bar. “Kevin–that’s it–you’re so right!”

Kevin has a deep rumbling voice with a beautiful broad Kentucky accent, and when he laughs it sounds like a bass saxophone rumbling out into mountain hollers. He laughed then at my expression, but then his face turned somber because, even though he has a nice business and a nice family and a beautiful home, he grew up poor in Kentucky and he knows exactly what time it is.

“Yeah, usually it’s some poor uneducated slob–here, mostly poor blacks and poor whites. Now that they’re not quite so desperate, we got the immigrants and refugees to exploit. It’s sick.” He paused and took a long meditative swig from his red wine. “Folks don’t think about it, but everything costs.”

So that’s what it all boils down to. Everything costs. And if you’re not willing to acknowledge your complicity and your ethical responsibility, you’re basically committing class warfare in the coreopsis.

The irony is that I’ve been teaching this stuff all semester in my class on “the Big House,” the myth and the reality of the plantation. Week after week, I’ve been marching my students through these novels and films and contrasting the idealized vision with the collateral damage in terms of blighted lives, poisoned relationships, and depleted soils that accompanies the plantation economic model.

I’ve been saying, This stuff has a legacy, particularly in the food we eat and the way we grow it

A must-read…

A carnation plantation…

But I have not made the obvious connection to the plants and flowers we choose to grow, where and how we source them. It’s been lingering there in the back of my mind, but it’s kind of stayed there.

That’s perhaps because the McVicker grows his own and sources what he doesn’t from suppliers he knows well either through the City Market or through relationships forged over decades.

Now, he used to work for one of the big boys–was production manager for a area nursery with 17 farm sites running 5 tractor trailers per day all over the mid-Atlantic region. He turned his back on that life well over a decade ago and, except for the occasional funny story, never mentions it except to say every now and again that he just doesn’t care for that way of growing plants.

And now I think I understand why.

So none of this helps me talk to the bigger, faster, cheaper crowd. But it does help me clarify my personal ethics around these issues … and someday, maybe soon, I’ll know the right thing to say.

 

6 comments for “Class Warfare in the Coreopsis

  1. Tim
    April 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Tell them that ‘gardening is meditation’ All the struggles you are having bring you to a place where you can ‘let go’….50 percent of people become experts in gardening, 50 percent become experts in meditation, and living to 100 years….Practice your hippie voice, and sell it big.

    • April 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks, Tim. Wise words. And you’re right. We are a hippie guerrilla operation just trying to “keep it real” in the 21st century.

  2. Elizabeth
    April 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Great post. Very thoughtful.

  3. April 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I was worried I might be harshing out a bit.

  4. Anjana
    April 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Not too harsh at all. These are real choices with an impact on your world and the world. Perhaps it is because we do so seldom have the time to put thoughts and feelings together that so many people fail to consider the ethical implications of even these seemingly innocuous acts. How many of us would continue in our paths if we stopped to put the dots together and allow ourselves to listen to that inner voice of truth? Hmmmmm…

    • April 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm

      I’m still astonished at how long it took me to connect the dots. Thank you, wise woman.

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