Monday, January 4, 2010

Gardening Resolution for the New Year

I understand better now how a dedicated gardener - and gardeners are typically the nicest of people - can bristle when it is suggested that what they have planted may in some way be harmful.

Years ago, I tried to strike up a discussion about the autobiography of the "horse whisperer" Monty Roberts with a friend who rides horses. Her reaction was a terse dismissal of him. Of course: Roberts is of the opinion that the conventional method of breaking horses is abuse. What gentle lover of horses wants to believe that they are perpetuating the abuse of the animals that they love? Those who are convinced by Roberts' views would have to give up horses, or radically alter their involvement with horses.

I have given up housecats for similar ethical reasons: I am convinced that it is terribly difficult to keep indoor cats in a manner that is not abusive. The alternative is allowing cats to go outdoors, but outdoor cats wreck havoc on the populations of small wildlife. However, if I did not have a husband with cat allergies as the ultimate deciding factor, my love of cats might still win out. I would keep cats, and I would be cranky at anyone so holier-than-thou as to suggest that my keeping of cats were unethical.

Nobody likes to see their "harmless" and pleasurable pursuit politicized, but there is nothing we do as humans that can't be viewed through the lens of ethics, and found wanting. Take for example the flushing of the toilet. Such a regular and inconsequential action brings up issues of wasted water, of trees harvested and processed only to be flushed and sent for processing through a plant that likely overflows sewage into wild areas when it rains, and fossil fuels burned for the harvesting, processing, transport, and cleaning of all of the above. Try to spend a single hour pondering the ethics of every action you make sometime. It's a horrifying experience that will paralyze you for fear that any action is a bad action.

When faced with that yawning abyss of such paralysis, there is that all-too human trait that both protects us and keeps us locked into patterns of behavior: forgetfulness. How many times have I been disgusted with the meat industry and changed my eating habits for days, or weeks, only to slowly forget what had upset me and laps back to my previous dietary habits? It is easier to be anti-cat for allergy reasons than for ethical reasons. Ethics don’t cause itchy eyes.

I suppose it seems odd to mention religion in what is ultimately a context of gardening, but consider this: it is easier to pick up the work of a single garden writer and believe their opinions to be the One and Only Truth than it is to read across the spectrum and seek a balance between many worthy opinions. The former offers a comfortable set of instructions - just live by the rules x, y and z, and paralysis is avoided! All of one's actions are Good, and the objectives of one's actions are clear! By contrast, finding one's own way is a lonesome journey to destinations unknown.

Religion interests me greatly from an observer's perspective. I am an atheist, but not only in the anti-religion sense of the word. I eschew, or attempt to eschew, any belief that is not grounded in fact. If an opinion is wrapped in passion, I try to become wary of it, because once a fact has been swaddled in emotional conviction, a person becomes protective of that fact, when instead she should be always open to challenges that might prove the basis of her conviction to be incorrect.

On various environmental and farming issues, I see people at the opposing ends of the spectrum marinating in their convictions to a degree that smells like religion. These are the native-plant enthusiasts who mourn at the sight of queen Anne's lace on a Massachusetts roadside, the horticultural industry professionals who don't want their business turned on its ear, and the kind-hearted gardeners who get testy when told that their burning bush is a threat to wild areas - so very much like the horse lovers who are unwilling to scrutinize possible institutionalized problems because to do so they would implicate themselves, too.

I try not to fall into religious thinking, but I am afraid I am human. As scientific as I would like to be, sometimes I feel that depending on what I read I emerge from one gravity well of belief just to fall into another; and then realizing I have done so, I plug my ears, stop reading, stop educating myself, and lapse into forgetfulness. My gardening resolution for the new year is to stop flailing about like this, and to find a middle way.


Anonymous said...

Well put!
You must not know about the CatBib. It stops cats from catching birds and other wildlife.


Michelle said...

Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

I have no argument with the bulk of your post, but I do question how keeping a cat indoors is abusive. Charlie, a rescue cat, has apparently never been outdoors in his life. He eats. He sleeps. He plays. He purrs. He purrs a lot. He does enjoy sitting in windows watching the outside, but we can leave the door open, and he won't go past the front porch. It's a dangerous world out there, full of cars and coyotes. Inside, he's warm, dry, fed, and loved. I think he would question that he's abused, too.


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