I’ve always conceived of gardening as an activity larger than life. My conviction is supported etymologically. (Please bear with me.) The Latin verb colere means many things—including to honor or worship; to protect or nurture; and to inhabit or till—and is the present active infinitive of colō. Cultus, the perfect passive participle of colō, also means to tend, and from cultus we derive the words to cultivate (cultivare) and culture (cultura). Cultivation of the soil engenders a culture, a world. To garden is to escape immediacy; gardening superimposes a self’s work onto a broader landscape of community and culture, a universality of life—or, to be a bit philosophical, gardening is the surreptitious infusion of a universality of life into the immediacy of selfhood. In this very specific sense can we understand connections and duties to others (some accounts of the rise of nations and nationalism often connect the agricultural activities of peoples to a sense of rootedness in the soil, rootedness in the soil to collective activity, collective activity to a sense of place, sense of place to connections with others, and so on and so forth). But how far those duties extend has always been a point of ethical and political contention. Indeed, that issue drives some of my research.
The immediate and the universal recently came to clash in my little piece of the world. A neighbor commented that my garden was her “eye-candy”—a compliment to be sure! If I offered texture and dimension, color and form, she offered a scarred, barren slope of hard clay, some grass, and a rectangular tract of red rock. Not a tree, not an element of interest anywhere. Apparently she read my face and construed what I was thinking, because she immediately added that though she wanted some thing, her “black thumb” impeded her. Wanting eye-candy myself, and feeling the need to reclaim some valuable real estate in my garden, I immediately offered some plants to my horticulturally challenged neighbor, and even planted them for her: a creeping juniper, Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny) and Rudbeckia. They are “low maintenance” plants to be sure (heaven knows I have neglected them in favor of more unique specimens, and they have thrived). She was thrilled! But, knowing her affliction, I donned my professorial voice (whatever that is!), went down an octave (impossible!) and warned her that despite their “low maintenance” status, the plants need water, especially in the weeks after being transplanted. And especially in this heat. She understood, and declared with certainty her resolve to water and tend.
Well, four days later it appears that the creeping juniper is the only thing that has survived (and I fear for it). Creeping Jenny is now Crispy Jenny: baked to a golden brown by the unforgiving sun. The spirits of the clumps of Rudbeckia—now Deadbeckia—must hate and curse me (though one remains). During these last four days, I resisted watering them for her, debating as it were my moral responsibilities. Yes, I have relinquished ownership of them. Yes, the plants now reside on her property. Yes, I have instructed her to water generously (especially given her poor soil). No, I did not contract with her to tend to the plants. No, I cannot liberate them from the desert to which I banished them. How far indeed do my responsibilities extend? Self-referentiality will only take community so far...
This morning, just after I wrote the above, I watered my own front garden. And lo and behold, my neighbor came outside and asked me about watering. Apparently, she had no idea how to water them. Her first watering attempt nearly ended in disaster: the plant nearly came out of the ground, propelled as it were by the force of the water. So this morning became a "teaching moment" for both of us: for her, a lesson on how to water; for me, a lesson on how to be a good liberal (not the usual sort that simply helps others without regard for what the recipient wants, or without soliciting the recipient's input, or even, worse still, disregarding the recipient's input because "we know better"). I listened, instructed, and she performed. We cultivated the immediate and the universal. And we both became better people as a result.