How Gardens Talk Back

Unexpected lessons from gardening research, meditative weeding, and other urban multispecies collaborations.

Drawing on the experiences and expertise of our members, Culture & Agriculture introduces its “Notes from the Field” series. It is intended as a space for creative, thoughtful reflections on the process of fieldwork that, while not always included in traditional peer-reviewed publications, are nonetheless important, unsettling, and compelling for deeper understandings of people and land. Topics include the non-visual sensorium of fieldwork (i.e., the sounds, smells, and tastes of research); creative, field-site-specific research methods; ethical dilemmas; the joys of fieldwork; and ethnography as a unique mode of knowledge production.

A gardener weeding “Creeping Charlie.”  Megan Maurer

Weeding is often considered one of the more onerous gardening tasks. Bending or kneeling in the dirt, the gardener must carefully and methodically remove all unwanted plants while leaving the desired cultivars intact. It is a delicate job that requires attentiveness and precision, but presents few challenges: a repetitive form of drudge work imposed upon a passive garden patch. In a word, mindless.

Or so goes traditional wisdom. Yet in our conversations, gardeners maintained that weeding was anything but mindless. When interviewing residents of Elmwood, Michigan, in 2013–2014 for my dissertation project on vegetable gardening as a practice of urban citizenship, gardener after gardener—whether cultivating vegetables in their backyard or a community garden plot, tending ornamental flower beds or native-plant gardens—described weeding as a form of meditation. “It is very meditative and peaceful,” said Diana, a middle-aged Latina woman with a permaculture-style home garden. “It is a time for me to relax and meditate,” said Dolores, an African-American grandmother and community gardener. “I think of it as a kind of yoga,” said Bill, a white, middle-aged vegetable and ornamental gardener. I could go on.

These descriptions of weeding as a form of meditation jived with my own experiences as a horticultural hobbyist: I had been weeding flower and vegetable beds since my childhood and seldom felt as serene and present as I did when performing this task. Yet, as an anthropologist I needed to interrogate the phenomenon, to better understand how and why gardening, especially tasks like weeding, cultivated a deeply relaxed—almost yogic—experience for many people.

I began to suspect that in the case of weeding the experience had something to do with the garden itself. That the garden was not passive. That, in fact, the garden was acting back.

Certainly, repetitive physical tasks can induce a meditative state. I think of Buddhist walking meditation, for example, wherein practitioners repetitively walk a fixed pattern to induce a state of embodied mindfulness. But I began to suspect that in the case of weeding the experience had something to do with the garden itself. That the garden was not passive. That, in fact, the garden was acting back.

My suspicions were grounded in all the other sensual, embodied language gardeners used to describe their activities. When I asked research participants to tell me about the benefits of gardening, they talked about weeding as meditation alongside a host of other sensory experiences. Tomatoes, for instance, figured highly. Over and over gardeners would wax rhapsodic about the taste of a ripe tomato, fresh from the vine, still warm from the sun. Nothing like it, they would say. If you’ve ever had the simple pleasure of tasting such a fruit, you know it to be true.

Soil. Dirt. Earth. These words all came up frequently. Granted, many of my interviewees practiced organic or permaculture-style methods that prioritized soil health, so they were already a biased and preoccupied bunch. But, for many, tending soil was not merely a technical practice; it was also a sensual one. They described the smell of the earth, the feeling of sinking their hands into the soil, the joy of bare toes wriggling in the dirt

Like a good participant-observer, I was gardening herbs and vegetables at a community garden plot throughout my fieldwork. Being a gardener meant I could corroborate first-hand what other gardeners in Elmwood were telling me. In this case, that the sensory experience of gardening was both a source of stimulation and necessary information. While the feel of soil is pleasurable, how one determines what cultivars to plant and what amendments to use also depends on being able to sense the garden bed’s characteristics, to receive what the earth is communicating, to listen to the soil. Sandy soil, for example, favors brassicas and probably needs some added humus to increase fertility. Meanwhile, clay soil signals potential drainage problems and the need for increased attention to garden design, soil composition and crop selection. In other words, as gardeners we took what the garden was “telling” us seriously; we assumed that the garden and its inhabitants were indeed communicating with us about their own needs and necessities. And from there came the thought that if I and the research participants were, as gardeners, taking seriously the agency of nonhuman beings, then perhaps I ought to be doing the same as an anthropologist..

As gardeners we took what the garden was “telling” us seriously.

Once I had decided to do so, I had to work through how that decision would impact my ethnographic fieldwork and what it would mean for my analysis. While my research process changed little—I wanted to continue letting participants take me wherever their reflections on gardening and gardens led them—I did change the way I observed. I shifted some of my focus to other species, paying closer attention to all the assorted beings that participate in the gardens under scrutiny.

Analytically, this move to seriously consider the agency of nonhuman beings prompted new questions. If gardens are active participants in multispecies relationships, just what kind of relationships are these? What are their qualities and purpose? What entities are involved, and who gets to make decisions about this involvement? These questions shifted my initial orientation away from concerns of urban citizenship and space, and towards frameworks that engaged ideas about an ethics of care and the multispecies production of urban environments. IOnce they captured my attention, my field sites’ non-human inhabitants effectively collaborated in shaping my research.

“All gardening is a kind of collaboration with nature,” one community gardener mused as we took a break from weeding herbs. To collaborate, one must have a sense of one’s partner, a way to communicate and define shared goals. As gardeners sought to care for their households, communities, and ecosystems, and to create the kinds of environments and city they wanted to inhabit, they collaborated with their gardens as ecosystems composed of nonhuman beings like insects, fungi, and plants.

Such a process can be messy. The garden hosts a “mortal companionship” that can sometimes lead to unpleasant or unintended consequences. Here, the figure of the woodchuck is exemplary. These large rodents were a ubiquitous pest in Elmwood. Frustrated gardeners tried all manner of strategies to deal with them, from various do-it-yourself repellents to live traps. While most live-trapped woodchucks were peacefully relocated to wooded areas outside of town, I know of at least one that ended up in a stew, and another that was dispatched with a spade (by one of the most gentle and peaceful men I know).

A potential “mortal companion” visits a garden. Megan Maurer

This is to say nothing of the human costs of these horticultural collaborations. Throughout Elmwood, gardens became enrolled in the production of racial inequalities and processes of class formation, as particular styles, locations, and discourses of gardening were incorporated into existing forms of racial differentiation and class distinction.

For better or ill, though—for me as a researcher and for the gardeners themselves—the garden was indeed an active participant, an agent taken seriously, an entity that acted back, creating classed differences and mortal companionships alongside peace, pleasure, and abundance.

Megan Maurer  is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Kentucky.

Ioulia Chuvileva and Megan Maurer are contributing editors for Culture & Agriculture’s section news content. They can be reached on [email protected] and [email protected].

Cite as: Maurer, Megan. 2018. “How Gardens Talk Back.” Anthropology News website, March 5, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.777

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