Everything Gardens

My essay, "Extrapolations: Voltaire in the Garden," can be found at St John's College's new digital-only magazine, 'Rational Animal,'


After a repeatedly absurd and arguably tedious odyssey teeming with mystical, horrific, and ridiculous adventures, Voltaire’s Candide arrives at a serious and unequivocal maxim: “We must cultivate our garden.” With this surprising contrast to Candide’s globetrotting adult life, we are admonished to become efficient and productive at a local level. Voltaire also makes clear that “gardening” should not happen in a vacuum. It seems essential for Voltaire to keep a core group of useful and cooperative friends at his side. Candide’s best-of-all-possible worlds, in the end, is a self-reliant social network of gardeners like himself, as well as a pastry chef, a reasonably honest carpenter, a grandmother to care for the linen, and folks who can embroider and philosophize.

Today, we face a wide variety of environmental and resourceoriented challenges that Voltaire could not have predicted. The topsoil that sustains our food supply is eroding at an alarming rate. Much of the water needed for Earth’s growing human populations is polluted or drying up. Worse yet, we are addicted to an unjust socio-economic system based on unsustainable resource requirements. Everyday, we make it harder, not easier, for future generations. We don’t want this to be happening, but it is.
Sometimes, all we can do is weep and move on—just like Candide does during his penultimate stop in South America. He and his faithful friend Cacambo stumble upon a slave who has had one foot and one hand severed as a result of his labor at a sugar mill. Overwhelmed with pity, Candide is bluntly told by the amputee, “That’s the price you pay in Europe for your sweets.”

Other times, our only way out of this mess seems tethered to Candide’s gardening maxim, but given rising sea levels and shrinking glaciers, solutions seem much more urgent today. We must garden, but now gardening is more than an obvious and sensible métier. Generating local self-reliance seems like a moral obligation for everyone.
Deep in the throes of the Digital Age, most people in the overdeveloped world know little about gardening—not to mention community building. But that’s okay. All we really need is an enticing philosophy that improves our quality of life, a practical system of design that increases our efficiency and productivity, and an ethical code with practical directives that allows us to make a living and fulfill our moral obligations. Fortunately, we need look no further, fellow rational animals, than a worldwide movement known as permaculture.

Coined in 1972 by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the word permaculture is a portmanteau of permanent, culture, and agriculture. At its roots, the concept aims to create a permanent or sustainable society by means of local food and energy production. On its surface, permaculture is synonymous with the term sustainability (coined by Princeton economist Thomas Sowell, also in 1972). What makes permaculture particularly powerful—and what makes it less easy to co-opt than sustainability—is that permaculture comes with a built-in plan for success. Permaculture provides an enticing combination of ethical philosophy, systemic pragmatism, political science, and— if you don’t blink—the approach even comes with a motivational spiritual component. (But beware. Mollison openly teases any and all “fairy worshippers.”)
Embedded in the philosophy are flexible principles, natural patterns, and various methods of design that lead to efficient strategies and productive techniques—not only for garden design but for systems thinking in general. Although permaculture often focuses on the built environment (landscapes, architecture, and real estate development), as an applied science it can create efficiencies at every type of organization, from fast-paced business ventures and complex marketing campaigns to slow-moving bureaucracies and small nonprofits.

Permaculture’s principles are almost as numerous as Candide’s escapades. They are all based on the idea that our productivity increases when we understand how nature cultivates its gardens. What’s nice about each principle in the following set (in bold, known as the “Mollisonisms”) is that each contains an element of surprise—just like the adventures of Candide.

  1.  Work with nature, not against her. Do not waste energy controlling nature. Observe her, mimic her, and cooperate with her, but never try to make nature do anything that she isn’t comfortable doing. Instead of struggling to bully nature around, look for opportunities wherever cyclic forces flow.
  2. The problem is the solution. Change your perspective, and challenges evolve into gifts, difficulties blossom into opportunities, and losses can be seen as second chances. For example, don’t stress about flood-induced soil-erosion problems. See them as excellent chances to collect and distribute valuable stormwater runoff.
  3. Work is pollution. Make the least change for the greatest possible effect. Allow nature to do work for you, and she will. This is why animals are so important in the permaculture garden. They eat weeds, provide fertilizer, and give us delicious forms of locally grown protein. Many animal species, like chickens, rabbits, and bees, require few inputs, so they are excellent examples of this principle.
  4. The yield of the system is theoretically unlimited. In most cases, the greatest limiting factor in a design is the creativity of its designers. There is no perfect permaculture site, but authentic sites are always evolving through a process of improvement.
  5. Everything gardens. Everything has an effect on its environment. If you know this, you can ensure that your effect is a positive one. Whether you stay on a trail in the desert to prevent soil erosion or you run around compacting the soil and trashing the brittle land, you are gardening. Whether you send your food scraps to a compost pile or a landfill, you are gardening.

Permaculture is best taught using the Socratic method because most people already know what permaculture is—but initially they don’t always realize it. Permaculture is common sense. It’s a lot of intuition and a goodly portion of counterintuition. Deep down, people know that permaculture is our duty, our destiny, the basis of all wealth and human survival. In addition to being fun to apply, permaculture is the embodiment of progress in the context of any flailing civilization, and when we think of the upcoming struggles of our grandchildren, permaculture is an act of love. Choose your fire, but in some real way it is in our nature to practice a philosophy that is in tune with nature herself.
In 1759 when Candide was published, the Industrial Age had just begun and Voltaire was one of the Enlightenment’s most popular intellectuals. The book both anticipated and bolstered the American agrarian movement and the 150-plus years of homesteading that followed. The victory gardens of World War II and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s were essentially Voltairean ideals being expressed in slightly new ways.

Will Candide’s enlightened message finally take root before society implodes? Who knows, but it’s clearly up to you and your friends.

09/26/2014 | (1) Comments

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