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.

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