The edge of The Garden — Lille, 2020

During the televised debates in the final days before the general election of 2019 Boris Johnson warned voters that Jeremy Corbyn had ambitions to dismantle capitalism. Whilst most of the population are irrationally frightened of such an ambition, I’m beginning to feel that the latest and ostensibly most threatening global crisis, COVID-19, is going to go some distance to persuading the global populace that ‘living locally’, working collectively and compassionately as opposed to competitively, and equalising the living standards of all global citizens will provide us with a coherent strategy for prolonging the life of our evidently declining species.

Over the past century we have been cultured into having a greater amount of faith in ourselves as individuals, rather than the collective and have been frequently referred to examples of failed experiments of social collectivism as evidence that we should all be looking after ourselves first. The experiments we have been referred to are of course an irrelevance to the argument of contemporary socialists as having been set up to fail as a primary source of evidence to culture a fear of human unity as something doomed to culminate in a bleak landscape of food shortages and vast labour camps.

Yesterday, scrolling Twitter I came across this tweet

along with various others showing independent retailers hyper-inflating the price of hand sanitizer and loo roll, a reminder that our cultured response to a pandemic is first to stockpile and second to exploit the need of those that didn’t get there first. It seems to me — feel free to disagree — that one hundred years of aggressive consumer capitalism which has

has created the breeding ground for the existential threats we face right now; conflict, disease and increasingly hostile climate change. So where does this leave us and what can we do? Well, when this whole COVID-19 thing blows over (assuming it does) we need to start gardening.

I have been reading a lot of nature writing of late in order to try and justify for myself a love of gardening I have developed as a coping mechanism over the past few years. As a committed socialist I have found the profoundly bourgeouis hobby of cultivating plants, weeding and curating nature extremely problematic, but, the more I engage with a bit of theory, the more I see it as analogous with my belief in collaboration and ultimately, big government.

‘The wilderness ethic and laissez-faire economics, antithetical as they might first appear, are really mirror images of one another. Each proposes a quasi-divine force — Nature, the Market — that, left to its own devices somehow knows what’s best for a place.’ (Pollan, 1991)

In his book ‘Second Nature’ the writer Michael Pollan describes his response to the collapsing of a section of pine forest close to his home in Connecticut after a storm. The local community engaged in debates over what to do — some argued in favour of clearing it and replanting, others wanted to build on it, whilst a further group wanted to leave it alone and let nature do her thing. This raises the question, what exactly is nature? and why do we revere it so?

The forest itself had been planted by some of the first pilgrims some 400 years prior, so was hardly natural. In reality, nature doesn’t necessarily spring up a new forest to replace a fallen one, nature, as Pollan observes, has no plan, and is shaped by unpredictable environmental forces and the struggle for existence of its native plants and animals, the likely victors being bramble and weed — hardly a paradise. But for some reason we protect this idea of a natural force for good, the spontaneous restoration of a pre-historical past which we envisage as beautiful despite never having been able to see it. But it is hard to break our belief in this divine force.

‘to take away predictable, divinely ordered nature is to pull up one of our last remaining anchors. We are liable to float away on the trackless sea of our own subjectivity’ (Pollan, 1991)

It is understandably hard to swallow, the idea that we are not looked after by nature, that there isn't a plan. Like those moments in our life when we rumble Father Christmas, become politically discontinuous from our parents, dismiss God and finally, when, as Kurt Vonnegut said, we wake up one day and realise the country is run by our school friends. The idea that we are not looked after is quite frightening.

So shape the natural world with impunity, as we have always done. We have organised things, we have managed things, we have made decisions about how things might best work, and we should continue to do so without worrying that we are interfering because

‘human choice is un-natural only if nature is deterministic’ (Pollan, 1991)

So garden. Garden your landscapes, plan your gardens, mulch your apple tree, weed your vegetable bed and dig yourself a pond — but don’t stop there. Garden your communities too as they have much in common, and left to their own devices will have their resources depleted by the relentless drive for unfettered growth of the few better armed members of the community.

I truly hope that the global disaster of COVID-19, however this all ends up, will lead us to re-evaluate the organisation of our social and economic systems and put an end to our selfish instincts and blind faith in the astrological musings of the chancers in the stock market.

Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.

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