Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gardening in IR Theory: Realism 101

For those of you who do not know, I teach International Relations (IR) at the University of Delaware. As I wrote in my first blog entry, I think as I garden. Some people go to the gym, others ride bikes, still others drink, to escape from the daily grind of life and be at one with the self. I garden. (Side note: That explains why I am possessed by a particular kind of insanity during those months of the year, or more specifically weather, that prevent any type of gardening work outside. And by weather I mean snow and ice; heck, the neighbors will testify that I’m out there in the rain at times!)

I started this blog more as an exercise for self development: to exercise the so-called writing muscle since I get lazy and don’t write (for professional purposes) as often as I should (that counts as public confession #2 for all those keeping track). This more informal mode of expression has already, in the eight hours of its existence, already stimulated thought.

So this morning as I pulled a few weeds and transplanted sprigs of Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) from the front garden to the shade garden stone patio that Viet and I installed last spring (and which, thanks to my father and his profusion of stone in upstate New York, we could finally complete), I began to think about the IR theorist as gardener. Today, I focus on the Realist gardener.

The Realist Gardener: This type of gardener comes in many forms.

(1) The negation gardener: this “gardener” (we are using the term quite loosely) has “no time to garden, and has more important things to do.” At best, the weak can do as they must—that is, garden and decorate their homes and engage in frilly sorts of things. The negation gardener comes along and mows it down in the name of allergies. Screw modern medicine and its mitigation of symptoms; it’s all about me and my suffering, anyway.

(2) The garden architect: “it’s all about structure.” The architect concentrates on the slow-growing boxwood hedge, the arborvitae, the stone walls, and the overall architecture of the garden—some of which requires little upkeep once installed. (Notice the stunning, formal architecture of Vita Sackville-West's famed gardens pictured above.) This permits the gardener to ignore all that happens on the margins or in the actual garden spaces thus created by the structure (though Sackville-West could NEVER be accused of ignoring the finer details). Why? Because the Realist garden architect is probably too tired after conceiving of grand schemes to be bothered with the details, or, perhaps more kindly, the garden architect is preoccupied with maintaining the integrity of the structure, or, still, might even be contemplating new design schemes. Many of the gardens produced by this sort are found in new, cookie-cutter sub-developments; these give the homeowner a sense that theirs is unique (and in fact the individual planting details are left to the homeowner, who more often than not is a negation gardener). But in the end, each garden (fence, stone patio, stone wall, grill area, perhaps even a water feature) looks the same and each becomes the subject of garden magazine articles on “how to solve your garden blight: all structure, but no style.”

(3) The intrepid gardener’s motto might be summarized as “rip out those weeds and unwanted plants; to hell with the weaklings; spindly-plants-be-gone!” The intrepid gardener is the hegemon who can make things happen, or let things die (actually, the Realist gardener would kill it first). The intrepid gardener might also be confused with the liberal gardener, for they both share in their snobbery (“Can you believe X neighbor or friend thinks planting white impatiens is actually gardening?!”).

(4) The theme-gardener is a variation on the garden architect, but deserves special mention. This gardener selects a theme (which constitutes the essence of the garden) and thus develops a plan around it. The theme acts as the structure, even if no actual garden architecture—say walls or trellises or hedges—exist. At most, the theme-gardener may purchase pots of a certain color or style to impose a uniformity on the garden. City balcony gardeners appear to be, most often and out of necessity, of this sort.

In the end, we observe serious shortcomings in the Realist gardener, but no matter our proclivities, theoretical, botanical, or otherwise, we need to be one sort of Realist or another in our gardening life. The architect creates and imposes spaces in space; the intrepid gardener forces us to recognize that the lanky lavender plant really hates the thick clay soil into which you forced its roots, and so it must be ripped out; the theme gardener helps us with both a sense of order and a sense of taste (ugh, pedestrian day lilies; oh my, you big, strong, masculine Petasites japonicus [Giant Butterbur; the picture, by the way, is not from my garden], though I do grow it). We learn from the Realist that indeed, the strong do what they can, but, importantly, contra Realism, we also learn that the weak do a hell of a lot more than they must.

Public Confession #1

I am, well, “easy.” You know, to put it indelicately, a whore (or, more technically I suppose, a giggolo). There. I admitted it—publicly, no less. Gardeners all over the world know exactly to what I refer.

You begin with a plan, a design as the experts call it. For me, it was blue: a blue themed garden that would complement the stately, semi-detached brick city row-house that my partner and I own: three stories, formal features including dentil moldings, bay windows with hexagonal hand-cut slate siding, pillars once adorned with Corinthian flourishes but now barren, yet elegant in their simplicity. Blue, I concluded, would accentuate the steel blue grey of the slate and the accompanying woodwork. And so I began my quest for blue flowers and blue and silver-hued leafed plants. Twice, the ghosts of gardens past rewarded me: one day a blue columbine emerged from the soil, the tiny seedling developing into a boisterous plant. Another day, I spied a tiny leaf that I immediately identified as hearty blue geranium. My plan, my design, was coming to fruition—both by rational design and, improbably, by divine gift.

But then my promiscuity reared its ugly head: there, in the corner of the garden shop, spring 2009, the new love of my life appeared. A dizzying array of delicious, melon and lemon diminutive flowers covering the wispy, grass-like outstretched arms of Lena Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) beckoned me (I bought two), and she found her way into my blue garden. And this year, the lithe masculinity of Kerria japonica pleniflora seduced me with his almost chartreuse stems, promising me an abundance of bright yellow flowers for my backyard shade garden in late spring and early summer. I desire him, think of him every day, and once this early spring cold snap ends, I shall go and claim him as all mine (unless some other whore got to him first).

So the best laid (um…that wasn’t intended) plans of men are, well, un-laid. Gardening is a process, never a final destination. It is properly speaking an act, a performance, a performative. Designs work, true; formal and semi-formal gardens are, necessarily, wholly reliant on them. Yet even in the most cultivated of gardens—I refer not to the elegant and staid English and French formal affairs, but yes, to the uber-austerity of the Zen-inspired Japanese garden—there remains the element of chance, the element of passion, that permits the unexpected to occur: the single cobalt Japanese iris that, perhaps by dint of squirrel, became separated from its kin and randomly appeared in an outcropping of carefully arranged rock. With all due respect to the English and French (save for those ever popular English cottage style gardens), that iris would be plucked for the cacophony and discordance that it introduces in its indiscriminateness. But the monk, the Zen, the Buddhist, and the garden whores amongst us would look upon this haphazard occurrence and smile…and most likely wonder: “is there more where this came from?”

A Spring Debut

Though I’ve resisted the temptation for quite some time to launch a blog, here I am on Day One, in Year Zero, announcing, nay, performing the birth of my cyber-life. Marking the passage of time—a concern of politicians, dictators, and ordinary folk alike—satisfies an insatiable, primordial urge: to know we have made some difference in this event we call human life, and, moreover, to have evidence of it. Technology simply permits this performance, this making of a spectacle of oneself all the easier, accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the will to maintain a website.

I make a public spectacle of myself each day. As a professor, I am expected to communicate information and ideas, to urge students to think and process, to assist them in their discovery of the world and, invariably I am convinced, their selves. But communication is not merely verbal; its physical dimension matters significantly. The mannerisms and the movements of the body, the pauses and exuberances of the hands (and in my case, my clumsy feet), and the sheer magnitude of facial expressiveness can convey more than a verbal array (or assault) of words. Thus I have resisted the blog, despite being a voracious consumer of some blogs, for in my infinite need for privacy and shelter from the world, the blog, my blog, represents yet another intrusion into myself, yet another example of the spectacle in a world full of those who, in varying degrees of desperation, need to be spectacles.

Yet the blog very well might be construed differently than the reality show, or the “real housewives” who crash high socio-political dramas such as State Dinners, or the cell phone user who unabashedly tells all those in Acme's aisle 4 that her cheating SOB of a boyfriend came back to her with both news of a tumor and his love for her and that she, having had her own steamy affair (linger a little while longer over which type of flour to buy—whole wheat or bleached?—and you, too, will learn in explicit detail of her paramour’s bodily attributes and doings to her), will take him back.

But the blog can be anonymous. The blog can be thoughtful. The blog can do, and often does, what these other forms of being a spectacle do not: they provide windows on an inner self, a soul, a thinking and feeling being, a moment to pause and distill the essences of the buzz and superficialities than often are our lives. And perhaps in their anonymity, they permit us to be more open than we otherwise may be.

Blogs may very well be analogous to the unfurling fronds of a fern in early spring, or the emerging spikes of the hosta piercing up through the soil (often, delightfully, spearing the nearly skeletal remains of a browned leaf that lay atop), or the exquisitely unfolding leaf, all of which expose, quietly as it were, their transformations to those who care to stop and observe. Blogs, like the gardeners who cultivate and celebrate these natural performances, publicize the infinite transformations, and assure us that we exist and have left, or are making, a mark, no matter how miniscule, on the inexorable march of time. And, like the life of the plant, the documentation is not for others, but for the self. No matter if you fail to stop to watch the unfurling frond, the fact remains that the plant will continue to transform, to fulfill its telos as Aristotle would remind us. The same for the blog, as I have come to realize: no matter that no one reads this. The record is for me, an assurance that I think as I garden, that I garden as I think.