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The Dark Side of the Garden

by Lead Gardener, Jane Gleeson

It’s easy to fall out of love with nature – it’s a short lived condition mostly since it’s thankfully easy to fall back in love again. Let me explain.

I have just come back from London from the International Permaculture Conference (IPCUK) – it was a great event; giving me much to reflect on. I was struck as I cycled round London’s busy roads by the level of pollution irritating the back of my throat. I have spent over 20 years cycling London streets and it’s never been so evident to me just what we are breathing in whilst in our cities. Needless to say getting back to Devon and Schumacher with its clean air and peacefulness I felt very in love with the place. As I cycled up to college alongside our new agroforestry field I was greeted by the vision of the apprentices sowing green manures and weeding - My heart expanded in delight and appreciation. Sowing green manures is all about looking after the soil – protecting it; building its organic matter and allowing it to self-fertilise; important aspects in soil care when one is growing annual vegetables. Doing good things for the soil lets one feel one is working with not against nature. Of course we are nature; Constitutive of nature, not separate from (and thankfully not its totality).

A few days earlier I had been tending one of our chickens who was unwell and at that point seemingly on the mend. I had waxed lyrical about despite the notoriety of hens to bully the sick among them – ours had been lying next to her keeping her company in her weakened state. Not so this day – she was a good bit brighter but still suffering and was being bullied (and fighting back despite considerable weakness) by another hen. I felt less in tune and in love with nature now! I felt admiring of the spirit of the ill hen and irritated by the ‘nature ‘of the other……but of course nature can well be ‘red in tooth and claw’; fierce, wild, unforgiving. One only has to look into the eye of a hen to see their ferocious raptor ancestry evident within.

Being a grower one has to get used to killing – we kill all the time – harvesting; feeding slugs to the ducks; weeding; every time we put a fork or trowel into the soil we are likely killing numerous soil microorganisms; the dark side of life is we cannot do it; we cannot live; without causing death. The food chain and cycling of nutrients within it relies on predation – on killing; I am a committed vegetarian and don’t eat meat since I am not prepared to kill it (amongst other reasons); but I have to accept the dark side of interactions I have with the world around me; and the, at times, darker side of interactions I have with the gardens and its myriad life forms; the challenge is to face up to these; gain wisdom enough to discern how to minimise them and keep the profound sense of connection and oneness with the nature I am part of, without denying the pain and death involved.

 At the Permaculture conference I talked a little of the college pedagogy and about different ways of knowing aside from the current dominant western mode of analysis and logic; about a more engaged and contemplative style of knowing and being; to hold that light up to the killing we all do requires what Arthur Zajonc describes when he says

 “To see is to suffer sorrow as well as to experience joy, and the more fully we see the greater must be our peace of heart in order to carry what is lived”

Jonathan Code in his workshop at the IPCUK invited us to regard seeing the world as an active encounter, when we see a plant we are not passively receiving it – we are in a sense seeing it into becoming. To have such vision and to garden well requires strength of heart. To nourish the necessary connection, meeting engagement and intimacy with the world that allows us to care and motivates us to practice good horticulture we need a clarity of vision that eschews overly romantic notions of the ‘goodness’ of nature and allows an honesty of interaction.

Thankfully the joy far outweighs the sorrow.

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