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Shame, Blame and Guilt in the Garden
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

July 17, 2011

"There smites nothing so sharp, nor smelleth so sour as shame," wrote William Langland in Piers Plowman. Gardeners, of course, know the sharp sourness of shame at least as well as plowmen do. Guilt and shame are mighty forces at play in many gardens, and learning to handle them skillfully is as integral to the education of a gardener as learning to transplant adeptly.

We define shame as the painful emotion arising from a consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous or indecorous in one's conduct or circumstances. Or, most painfully of all, in one's garden. Consider, for example, the feelings of someone responsible for the calamitous colour clashes produced in certain rhododendron gardens.

Shame may be induced by a thing which is shockingly ugly or indecent, or of disgracefully bad quality, and that certainly covers some of the plant combinations I've attempted over time. Just this year, for example, we had an unnamed clematis for the first time burst into bloom with oversize flowers of a rather heinous vermilion. With its blooms hanging alongside the golden goblets of a 'Buff Beauty' rose, the effect created would offend almost anyone's sense of decency.

A couple of such disasters scattered around the garden, and you begin to suspect that visitors and passersby are sniggering behind your back. In no time at all the poor gardener is dragged into a debilitating shame over the loss of esteem and reputation.

Guilt in the garden is usually produced through a failure of duty. One scorching hot day you neglect to open the vents in the greenhouse, only to discover, later in the afternoon, all your precious plants roasted beyond redemption. Or you'll absentmindedly leave a hose soaking a certain plant for a few hours, which somehow elongate into a few days, and by the time you think to turn off the tap, the poor plant has drowned as woefully as a sailor lost at sea. Guilt-ridden gardeners must remain perpetually alert against their own delinquencies.

Gardening with a companion offers a whole other world of opportunity for experiencing guilt and shame, or for employing them for one's own purposes. A few years back, some smart advice-giver made a bucket of money with a book titled When I Say No I feel Guilty. Only an out-and-out rogue wouldn't feel guilty when one's dear companion is toiling in the garden, smeared with dirt and bitten by bugs, sun blazing down, while you're reclining on the chaise lounge contemplating truth and beauty.

Gardeners are nobody's fool, and they soon learn to exploit this sense of guilt in inactive companions. Wails of distress emanating from the herb garden, pathetic cries of woe from the shrubbery -- there are all sorts of clever tricks that can be employed to inspire guilt and shame in companions who aren't pulling their wagon.

A deeper and more serious sort of guilt attends the wilfull committing of a moral offence. As far as gardeners go, this mostly involves premeditated lying. You accidentally uproot or trample upon a favourite plant of your companion. Or neglect to water it when you promised you would. Or some awful disaster strikes because of your negligence, like the time I went to prune some dead wood out of a 'Kifsgate' rose we'd painstakingly trained to climb into big cedar tree and somehow succeeded in accidentally cutting most of its perfectly healthy main stems.

In such cases, one lies brazenly about what really happened, and then carries the burden of guilt and shame for the remainder of your days.

Luckily, there are avenues of escape: many gardeners are masters at offloading guilt and shame by blaming someone else. If you inadvertently order cos lettuce seeds when you intended to get buttercrunch, you don't acknowledge your error -- you blame the seedhouse for mislabelling their seeds. House guests, neighbours, kids and dogs are all excellent to blame for breakage in the garden caused by your own clumsiness or haste. If a plant dies thanks to your ministrations, you can blame the weather, the supplier, or mysterious diseases hitherto unknown to science.

The point is to avoid any public display of guilt or shame. Thus the error-prone gardener adopts the age-old ruse of the crooked politician: deny, deny, deny.

Still, in the end, one does seek absolution for one's sins, and I think this helps explain the chronic workaholism of gardeners. We redouble our efforts, work long into twilight, labour far more assiduously than necessary, in order to assuage the sour smell of shame and to quit the sharp prickles of guilt.

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