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What The Garden Gives Us

Food, and a cornucopia of useful symbols
by John Hershey
by John Hershey



John Hershey is a dad, gardener, writer, and lawyer (in that order). He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and two young sons.

John's humorous essays on gardening appear in many newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, GreenPrints, and Warm Earth (Australia).


November 15, 2009

Whenever I'm in a group of people talking about Denver Urban Gardens, everyone naturally and subconsciously peppers their speech with garden metaphors. We believe, for example, that instead of trying to start many more gardens quickly in a top-down approach, the DUG network should grow organically, from the grass roots. DUG does not try to transplant the community garden model into neighborhoods from outside. Rather, when the desire to create a garden germinates among committed people in the neighborhood, DUG supports them in nurturing the project. We all want community gardens to be successful and benefit neighborhoods for many years, so DUG's mission is to help when neighbors join together to cultivate new gardens, because experience shows that urban gardens tend to thrive and be, um, perennial when they are deeply rooted in the community.

Wow, that was at least nine garden metaphors (ten if you're willing to count "peppers") in one little paragraph about our organization. I suppose it's natural that horticultural allusions would sprout up (eleven!) in discussions about a gardening network. But that's just the low-hanging fruit! Look around: gardening imagery is constantly invoked to explain and teach lessons about all areas of life. The garden is fertile ground that yields a bounty of metaphors you can organize your whole life around.

Can you dig it?

The abundance of garden images in our language shows that a garden is not just a place to grow food. As a microcosm of the natural world and the cycle of life, the garden produces excellent models of how we and our communities can grow and thrive in ways that are more organic, sustainable, and in harmony with the natural order.

For example, I am a person of very strong values and deeply held convictions. I don't live in accordance with them, but I have them. So I know that all of these principles that lead to success and personal satisfaction -- cooperation, discipline, delayed gratification, self-sufficiency, and so on -- can be unearthed by working in a garden. A garden is, well, a garden where good values take root and flourish as examples for us in other areas of our lives. And if we wanted to summarize them all, we would pick a garden metaphor: You reap what you sow.

The garden metaphor is adaptable to all fields of human endeavor, including even business and government. The city of Littleton, Colorado, actually adopted the garden as its official symbol of economic development. The garden model was seen as an alternative to the common practice of offering costly tax breaks and other incentives to lure big existing companies from outside, a top-down approach akin to planting GMO corn and drenching it with Roundup to obliterate whatever life remained in the local soil. Under Littleton's garden model, the city saved money by spending a much smaller amount (seed capital?) to create a favorable environment (fertile ground!) for local entrepreneurs to grow businesses in a culture of diversity, innovation, and creativity. I don't know all the details -- when it comes to economics, I'm much more comfortable on the metaphorical level. But from what I've read, thousands of successful, homegrown small businesses are flourishing as a result of this garden strategy.

On the national level, the garden is the go-to symbol of hope and renewed economic growth. In recent interviews, both current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan claimed to see "green shoots" sprouting in various sectors, reflecting their cyclical view that an economic springtime is coming.

We talk about so many fundamental things in gardening terms because growing food is among the most basic human acts. So thinking like a gardener keeps us grounded when we venture out into the complex modern world. Perhaps in some ways it is good that the economic crisis is undermining what used to be generally accepted ways of living -- for example, insisting that our food be cheap, even if that means it's unhealthy and gross, so we can spend our money consuming more important things like plasma TVs. Ideas like that have to be weeded out eventually -- they don't give us what we really need. Gardening leads us back to more natural ways of thinking about food, the relative value of time and money, and other very basic things. So it's no surprise that more people are turning to the garden as a model for a life that makes more sense and as a tangible place to start living it. For the community gardening movement, in other words, these are the salad days.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must hurry out to the garden. It's autumn, there's not much left to harvest out there, and I have to go and take a leek.

____________________ To read more garden-variety humor and commentary, visit John's website: www.rakishwit.com.

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