“A garden, you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician.” — Alexander Hamilton, 1802 (qtd. in NY Times, 9/15/11)
As a society, we’ve got a reality problem. A know-nothing right-wing anarchism designed to starve government to death while enriching the anarchists’ own careers is being accorded a respectability and freedom of movement that would stagger William F. Buckley, Jr. and Eisenhower-era voters (like my grandparents) who, rightly, saw no contradiction between “conservatism” and support for unions, education, and the right of citizens’ private lives to remain private, and who would laugh in disbelief at the blatant and cynical anti-intellectualism on display. (See here and particularly here.) More and more of us retreat from the natural world behind things with screens, to the detriment of our bodies and brains. Pious cliches pass for thought and even for religion. Corporations can be legally classified as “people.” And “reality TV” is anything but. But there are still places to encounter, even wrestle with, realities beyond yourself, and emerge energized and humbled, ready to carry on the major struggle of our time: separating the life-sustaining reality from the soul-killing (and, frequently, corporation-enriching) illusion, and hunting for the mystery and divinity still to be found, on its own terms, in this world. For me, one is my writing room. One is the classroom. One is the gravel road under my bike tires on a fall afternoon. And one is my garden.
This week I’m teaching Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” from The Republic. In ancient Athens, Plato and his teacher Socrates moved in a web of philosophical and political cynics, doubters, and more earnest thinkers circling around one idea: if there’s no such thing as reality, then the world asks nothing of us as people and can give us no meaning beyond that which we experience through our senses every day. The Sophists believed education was only about learning to manipulate language to get your own way (famously, a Sophist student who’d killed his parents argued that the court should grant him mercy because he was an orphan.) The Empiricists believed all knowledge comes from sense experience: “reality” is only what we can taste, touch, see, smell, or hear. The Materialists believed the only things that exist are physical things that exist in space and time. “Why does this matter, y’all?” I ask students. “Because, as Mary Oliver says, we have one wild and precious life, and we want to use it right. We are meaning-seeking beings, and if we can’t find meaning, we will make it. But the challenge is to tell whether what we’ve fastened on as being ‘meaningful’ and ‘real’ actually is. Because the stakes are pretty high.” What is a man, asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. What is reality? How can we judge, and act on, what is good and real and true, healthy for us and for others? The answers we seek determine the kinds of human beings we’re going to be, and what we’ll keep making of our world.
The great Southern writer Harry Crews remarked that sports can feel more satisfying than art because sports “do not admit of bullshit — you can run a mile in 4 minutes or you can’t, the clock doesn’t lie.” Similarly, growing your food and eating it brings you in direct contact with what even a non-Empiricist might agree to call reality. The soil is too warm, or it’s not. Plants will grow, or they won’t. You did put the right amount of citric acid in with your tomatoes while canning, or you didn’t. The beans are dry and safe to store, or they’re still too damp and will mold. You have raised these chickens, these hogs and cattle, and for you to eat them, they have to die. You should choose ethically. But you are choosing their deaths. You are part of the network of life and death and physical being, and either you choose to avoid it or you choose to sink deeper in, participating, acknowledging, being grateful and aware.
It might seem ironic at first that I dig myself deeper into reality not only by gardening but by making up stories about people who don’t exist. But art is not mere “illusion” either. The best art asks something of its viewers and even more of its creators, shakes us and moves us and stirs us to visions of more than we thought we could see. It implicates us, weaves us in deeper. Anne Lamott tells the story in Bird by Bird about going shopping with her friend Pammy, who was dying of cancer, and worrying aloud about whether a dress she liked made her hips look big. “Annie, honey?” Pammy said slowly. “I really don’t think you have that kind of time.” Great art helps us admit it. We just don’t have that kind of time. And so we have to live — right now — the fullest and richest lives we can. I see great art as a reflection of Plato’s idea that the world we live in here can be a reflection of the higher “goods” just beyond its physical surfaces — that those surfaces, or those works of art, can act like mirrors or magnifying glasses, refracting our vision toward something more ultimately good, real, complex, true, life-sustaining.
This past weekend I led a tour of my garden as part of a “green expo” weekend in our town. The first visitor came a half-hour early and the last one left a half-hour late; in between, a steady stream of people asked questions, investigated the rain barrel and clothesline, and enjoyed the fitful early-fall sun. How did you get into gardening? they asked. Well, I said, it was a bean. When I first moved here and went to the Seed Savers Exchange, I saw a display of heirloom beans, one of which was called “Cherokee Trail of Tears.” I stood there, just looking, feeling it turn in my head: I grew up in Alabama, from which Cherokees and Creeks were removed, finding arrowheads and grinding stones in our fields every time we turned over the soil, anywhere. Those people grew and carried those beans on westward, to keep themselves alive, into Oklahoma, growing and eating and planting and growing again. Generations later one of their descendants gave that same bean stock to Seed Savers. And I, a woman from that same home ground, am growing those beans, eleven hundred miles away. I got it, in that moment. Why heirlooms are important. Why growing your own heirlooms, and saving them, are important. How time is not a distant abstraction but the river in which we all swim. How history itself is alive, teasing up through the years from the ancestors to you, just exactly like the green tip of a growing vine twines up from its root. Here is something enduring, something of real meaning and value. I got it. And I’ve been a gardener ever since.
Among the last visitors were a mom with a chestnut-haired boy about seven years old, grave and intrigued as he looked at the plants. Here, I said, breaking off a dry pod of Mississippi Silver cowpeas, hear this rattle? You can scare your brothers and sisters like this if you sneak up behind them and pretend you’re a rattlesnake. He grinned, rattling. And you know what, I said, if you take those peas home and plant them next spring, a plant will come up out of every single pea. And then you’ll have pea pods of your own, to eat and plant again. I found him a jar and we shelled out the peas and poured them in. He left, eyes wide, holding the jar to his chest, his voice drifting back from the street: “…plant them next spring!” His mother smiled at me over his head and mouthed, thank you. I felt what I felt when I dug potatoes with another little boy, my neighbor, this summer: humbled, touched, grateful. You can see children get it, right in front of your eyes. You see them plug in to the cycle: grow, eat, save, and grow again. And I can do this with my very own hands. It is a small thing. But it can grow into something very big.
Everyone needs refuges. As TS Eliot remarked, human beings cannot bear too much reality. But as Sandra Steingraber notes in Orion, there are some false kinds of refuge, illusions we can’t afford: chief among them, that we can safely stop at making small, individual lifestyle changes rather than pushing for paradigm shifts. Yes, we need refuge. But there are ways to seek refuge well. There are ways to dream about, to create from, to instigate, and to create alternatives to reality that do not involve merely escaping from it but standing back from it, looking it over, and then plunging deeper in — puncturing the glossy distracting surface of all our society’s competing illusions to see, and marvel at, all the wonder that lies beyond, and all that we can make of it if we only will.