Saturday, September 4, 2010

Suburban garden dreaming

Billy Wharton, editor of the Socialist Party USA's Socialist WebZine, has an article (reprinted at Links) about daydreaming. “A recent study featured in the Los Angeles Times suggests that daydreaming or other such unstructured mental activities might play a key role in mental well being. Unknowingly, this study promotes a prime potential of a democratic socialist society – the right to free time.”

The idea that unstructured daydreaming might be good for your health has interesting implications for the modern consumer leisure ideal: every waking non-working hour one is encouraged to consume leisure products - principally through the media: music, radio, TV, internet.

Radio is also present at many workplaces, not just outside work. It can provide some relief from boredom and a sense of company listening to the chatter and music. It also crowds out the kind of thinking (not really reducible to "daydreaming" I think) that Billy Wharton is talking about. I am no scientist but I wouldn't be surprised if there were links to many common disorders like depression and ADHD in this lack of mental quiet.

TV is a modern substitute for the ancient passtime of sitting around the fire in the evening - talking, partying or just staring into the flames. But it's mostly an inferior substitute! Passive recreation that crowds your brain with other people’s thoughts and ideas is not conducive to "unstructured mental activities" at all.

One of my hobbies is gardening. The media plug gardening in conventional marketing terms: garden makeover blitzes, oxymoronic DIY kits from home hardware superstores, gardening catalogues that promise the biggest, tastiest, no-dig, pest-free experience.

Sadly, many organic gardening specialists tend to use the same marketing method. They say their product is superior in the same terms as the other variety – bigger crops, tastier, easier to grow, etc. Many people have bought the wrong idea about organics. My father sells his organically grown apples at the local markets and says occasionally someone comes back to complain of a grub they found in their apple, or refuses to buy because of the blemishes on the outside of the apples.

Some organic produce marketing could be a little more honest, but marketing it still would be. You can't market the actual experience of gardening, which is contemplative and observational. It can't be bought: it can only be practiced and learned. And the more work required (up to a point) the more enjoyment you get. To rush out and buy a pile of stuff then frantically spend the weekend digging and planting and pruning and trying to finish your plan is not how to get into gardening.

The best way to garden is to wander around the garden watching. Soon enough you will see something that sparks off a memory or idea and you can spontaneously go from there, in the process developing a deeper sense of what is happening in your garden and your relation to it. You may not win garden design awards (or you may!) but you will have a much richer experience. Your frantic weekend plans, if you ever hatch them, will then be informed by a deeper understanding of what may work.

Connection to the environment, even the partly artificial environment of a suburban garden, is not just good for mental health. It also fosters ecological consciousness and it can bring together community when you do it in a group (as in a community garden, or a friends-of-the-local-creek/wetland/bush-type-society). Re-connecting people to nature and each other is going to be the key to surviving the climate change crisis and peak oil and to create a sustainable, participative and democratic society. That’s why gardening is a part of the social change we need, not just my private hobby.


  1. Thanks Ben for this piece, I really like it! Gardening rocks, it teaches you so much about your environment, about qualities like patience, perseverance, and that humans often can't dictate what happens in the world around them.

  2. Just the same I don't think there has been the shift garden wards that seems to be required.If you study the history of the suburban vegetable gardening movement it's real cultural potency is one that registers without pretense -- and the current crop of urban gardening is very pretentious.That's got a lot to do with marketing spin of course, but also there are certain ruling shobbeths and schemata that tend to make something self evident and straightforward, more complex than it need be.

    All we're doing is reinventing the wheel but unfortunately all the food gardens I know of around here where I live are the work of gardeners over 80 years of age And/ or migrants from Mediterranean villages.There,s a strong working class tradition of feeding one self by growing your stuff ... And running chooks....but a lot of that habit has been lost so that now, such gardening is kind of formatted as a political statement.

    I don't think that's necessary. It,s a reflection of the degree of alienation we suffer from that we need to explain the habit as some sort of exotic behavior.The fact is that if you aren't gardening ( or hunting for that matter!) you are divorced from an essential humaness.

  3. What I mean is that there 's an analogy between gardening like this and blue collar labour -- industrial work.-- creating stuff though toil and muscle, but with the added benefit that you garden rather thane forge.

  4. I thought the point of my post was that gardening is (can be) the antithesis of work, including industrial work. Granted both involve labour, muscle maybe, and hands-on work; but there the similarity ends. is that the "added benefit" you mean? I would say that is another order of magnitude than an "added benefit"... although home carpentry, or souping up your car, also are similar, minus most of the interacting with nature.

  5. I disagree. My point is that gardening is work -- human labour -- in a pure form: fulfilling uses and creating values. The advantage is that you're in charge -- inasmuch as nature allows that."As a fish is born to swim so are we to work..."

  6. I can agree with you on the pure concept of "human labour" but I was using the common meaning of "work" which is not so neutral... which is where the difference lies, but I don't see you as disagreeing with that? Just like cooking, or tinkering with your hot car, home gardening is unalienated labour. Removing alienation from industrial work is much harder, because as a social labour, the fruits are always somewhat removed from the individual's input. Not that we can do away with industrial work in creating a socialist paradise; but there must be ways devised to lessen the alienation, to put the worker basically in control of her or his own input and also his/her individual reward for the work.


Type your comment here and choose an ID to "Comment as" - choose "name/URL" or "Anonymous" if you don't want to sign in.