Dreading Those Pearly Gates

Here’s a worst case scenario: You’ve just passed on to your greater glory and are now standing face to face with St Peter. He smiles at you magnificently and starts reading your chart. “Looks pretty good…no murders, no major thefts,” (thank God, he’s a liberal!) “nice to your parents, gave a little to charity, generally tried to live like a mensch….BUT WAIT! What’s this? Forty-three million aphids killed, tens of thousands of snails crushed, mountains of weeds pulled! Report to the descending elevator to my left, immediately!”

The angels weep. How could you do it? You seemed like such a nice person. Your plea that in recent years you drastically reduced the number of “kills,” that you were doing it for the sake of art, or to satisfy your clients, or that you sought out the latest biological controls—all count for naught. The elevator car plunges.

2000_OND-BERNHARDT-001

How Green Are Gardeners’ Thumbs?

Not very. Bloody might be a more accurate description. In the quest to achieve our vision of paradise, we are ruthless. No creature is too large or too small to escape our murderous rages, from soil microorganisms to large and highly evolved mammals. Yet, the situation is even more sinister, since any garden, by definition, begins by manipulating, if not totally destroying, the natural ecology of its site: eliminating habitats, fooling around with microclimates, the soil, the drainage, and so on.

All this is done to protect a few introduced plants that we find desirable and worthy, at least until they fade out of fashion along with the garden style of which they are a part. Currently, landscaping in the West seems more and more to regard plants as artists’ pigments, elements to be punched, squeezed, crammed, and otherwise tortured into the scene for the sake of the total garden picture. Is this art or folly? It’s art of course, high art, “the slowest moving of the fine arts.” We all know that. But isn’t it sad to require such devastation of life and degradation of the environment? Can a decent person create and maintain a beautiful garden without playing God? Looking beyond our predominantly Eurocentric culture may provide some guidance.

How Do the Buddhists Do It?

They do it gently and suavely, with great ingenuity, with great reverence for life, and with the calm acceptance that some violence is unavoidable in the process of gardening. The very act of turning over soil, after all, destroys countless numbers of microorganisms. Many monastics are thus not allowed to garden, yet they do not starve, and Buddhist farmers throughout Asia have long managed to feed their countrymen.

Although all life is considered sacred to Buddhists, a distinction is made between sentient and lower life forms. Much consideration is given to the laws of karma and reincarnation, but plants and lower animal forms fall outside these laws. All sentient beings are spiritually related; each may have been, and may again be, reincarnated as a lesser sentient being. One needs to be careful about whom one kills. Still, Buddhist philosophy is forgiving, and killing done with love, respect, and tremendous gratitude is a lesser transgression with fewer karmic ramifications.

Jainism, an ancient religion that arose about 3500–3000 BC, takes this approach even further. Its highest principle is Ahimsa—non-violence to all living creatures. Every living thing, from the greatest to the tiniest, is considered a jiva, an independent, eternal living soul. To minimize violence, Jainists restrict their diets to creatures with only one sense: plants, whose one sense is touch. (Curious how this corresponds to our knowledge of plant tropisms, eg to the “touch” of the sun, gravity, soil, and water.) Even root vegetables are not eaten as they may hold microscopic (two-sensed) life forms in the particles of soil that cling to them. Jainism also holds that necessary killing is to be done with a deep feeling of sorrow and regret.

Doing What We Can

Ultimately each gardener has to decide how much of a Jainist she or he is. Where do you draw the line? Yes, human life is primary—even sacrosanct—but aphids? Microbes? “Get a grip!” snickers the modern sensibility. Gophers are cute, but at the expense of a lawn? An old alchemist’s belief states that “nature unaided always fails,” that is, man’s intervention was necessary to complete the Great Work. But today, aghast at the horrors wrought by progress and technology in the past century, I think most of us (gardeners, at least) feel just the opposite. The law of unanticipated consequences makes the wisdom of nature’s millions of years of trial and error look good. Surely, man is a part of nature too, but the real question—the one this humble essay tries to raise—is whether our tinkering is also part of it, and can it be sustained.

Since a garden is identified as a work of art, it is by definition contrived and unnatural. Thus the problem becomes one of fooling Mother Nature without totally mucking things up. So much of horticulture is about knowing what you can get away with. To paraphrase, “Advice to Those About to Garden: Don’t!” No, wait… do—but with minimal harm to nature and the environment. Suggestions for gardening in harmony with nature, many of them familiar to us by now, might include:

  • “Go with the flow.” Keep changes to the existing landscape (topography, vegetation, hydrology, soils) as minimal as possible.
  • Follow sound horticultural practices, such as choosing site-appropriate plants, mulching, spacing properly, and avoiding excessive fertilizing and over-watering. Plants in a healthy garden are much better able to withstand attacks by pests and diseases.
  • Share the wealth with some of God’s little critters.
  • Tolerate as much imperfection as you can; turn a cheek when minor blemishes occur.
  • Employ mechanical or other non-chemical approaches as your first response to pest problems that exceed acceptable limits.
  • Use deterrents and repellents before resorting to pesticides.
  • If you feel it neccessary to resort to chemical pesticides, and are willing to expose yourself (and your children, neighbors, and pets) to spraying or dusting, always use the mildest (ie, least toxic) product first.