The devil’s bargain: on gardening and violence

I spent last weekend at the ranch planning a new garden—or, rather, watching our dear friend Glee Ingram, an Austin landscape designer; Steve Diver, a horticulturist with Sustainable Growth Texas; and Robert Selement, Madroño’s redoubtable manager, plan a new garden as I poked at bugs, stared at the sky, and occasionally said, “Huh?”

Despite me, we made good progress. Using Glee’s initial design, we flagged the perimeter of a beautiful labyrinth-inspired shape. We thought about armadillo-, feral hog-, bison-, and raccoon-proof fencing (ha!); permaculture; gates and traffic patterns; rainwater collection; hoop-house placement; compost systems and leaf corrals; how to integrate the activities of the residents of the adjacent Chicken Palace; planting fruit trees as wind barriers; and soil and amendment ratios. We (well, some of us) got really sunburned. We felt that we’d really earned that cold beer on the porch as we watched the afternoon light turn golden while scores of swallows dove and swooped around us.

If this makes Madroño sound like Paradise and us like laborers in Eden, well, that’s what it felt like. At the same time, however, these things also happened: I watched a hungry red-tailed hawk flying low over the Chicken Palace, hoping for yet another carry-out chicken dinner. I awoke at dawn’s first glimmering to operatic squawking from the Chicken Palace but, unable to find a flashlight, had to wait until it was light to investigate. (Robert has killed more rattlers this spring than in his seven previous years at the ranch combined.) In fact, there was a dead hen, but we’re not sure what killed her; she may have been egg-bound. During my morning perambulation on the road above the lake, a dozen buzzards wheeled just overhead. I couldn’t smell anything dead, nor could I see the focus of their activity, but I remembered the shrieking white-tailed doe I’d heard at this same spot last spring. It was a heart-stopping noise. I glimpsed her thrashing through the underbrush on the cliff below me but was unable to find her again when I returned with reinforcements. Paradise it may be, but Madroño’s beauty is woven with the warp of nature’s potential and actual violence.

A good friend emailed me after my last post, saying, “I have read that if all the ants were eliminated from the planet it would cease to exist. My thought is that if all the humans somehow disappeared the earth would flourish.” I’ve had that thought as well, but I also think that, with or without us, earth’s flourishing has always involved violence and suffering. Predation, disease, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornadoes, and drought preceded human enviro-tinkering and will continue once we’re gone.

Given that humans are part of the natural order, it’s also a given that we will engage in violence. My definition of violence is idiosyncratic and personal: I define it as existing on a spectrum involving the imposition of one being’s (or group’s) will on another being (or group). So when you order your lollygagging child to stop staring at the ceiling and put on her school clothes, you are, according to my definition, moving into the realm of violence, albeit at the lowest possible vibration. If, as in this case, the imposition of said will is done to enable or assist the flourishing of the one imposed upon, maybe you get a free pass. I’m not sure about this. Nor am I sure how to word my definition to include violence against self, surely as invidious and terrible as violence against another. And of course violence is not restricted to the physical realm, nor is it directed only against humans. Our species’ casual, thoughtless violence against the natural world is relentless.

Unique to humans in this violent world, however, is the capacity to restrict the reach of our violence. Christians and Jews have been commanded to do so in no uncertain terms (as have the followers of virtually every faith tradition; it’s just that I’m most familiar with those two). Repeated several times in the Pentateuch is the phrase “an eye for an eye,” often misunderstood as an incitement to violent retribution. In fact, the point of the phrase was to minimize violence, not incite it; the loss of an eye could not be redeemed by murder. Leviticus 19:18 is even more to the point: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself….” Jesus thought this a good enough line to use in the Sermon on the Mount, and reinforced it by instructing his followers to rein in their violent tendencies even more tightly: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Human violence against nature is less of an issue in the Bible, as the capacity to inflict permanent damage on our world wasn’t ours at that point. But scripture does specifically address the correct treatment of animals; they were considered part of the community and were to enjoy a Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10).

Restricting the reach of violence requires recognizing its ubiquitous footprint. I see its size 7 1/2 tracks all around me: in my sarcasm, in my imperious demands that things be done my way, in my constant consideration of my own comfort, in my need to have reality ordered in a particular way. Having spent the last couple of weeks in my garden at home, I’ve become aware of the arbitrary nature of life and death: what have those cute little flowering clovers ever done to me that they should be so unceremoniously yanked up? And don’t get me started on pill bugs.

Gardens are great places for contemplating unsolvable mysteries. How else are you going to keep your mind occupied when pulling weeds? But I think there’s a deep and distinctive link between restricting our carbon footprints and our violence footprints. When we accept that our flourishing always comes at the expense of someone or something else’s flourishing, it’s hard not to be humbled. What better place than a beautiful, infuriating garden to watch such a serious drama play itself out?

What we’re reading
Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
Martin: Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

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2 Responses to The devil’s bargain: on gardening and violence

  1. isa Catto Shaw says:

    Heo. OK. I read this after one of our chipmunks neatly ate through our pea patch seeds. Which I thought was a tad hostile. I am entertaining hostile thoughts in return. Protecting the garden is an ongoing frontier war and hitherto, a righteous war, until so you have made me shift my perspective once again. Dagnumit.

  2. Joybells says:

    I can't believe how lucky I am to know you. I've probably written that before in a comment, but every time I read you, that's all I can think to say. Hugs to you and your size 7 1/2 feet!

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