I have written a lot about travel. I have only briefly touched on gardening. See Dead landscapes - Allagash. And what I haven’t done at all is to talk about some attributes which these two activities share. Perhaps looking at these similarities could lead us to do one or the other differently. Or maybe not. But as you make summer travel plans or lay out your strategies for this year’s lawn or garden, consider whether these really are such different pursuits. If you garden one way but travel another, I am asking whether that dissonance is really for you.
Lets start with where I am coming from. A reader here will have already started to figure out my travel style, my agendas and methods. I am slowing my pace, seeing more of fewer things. With the hope of engaging with the locations in a greater way than I did in the past. And, while I know I can’t fully “fit in” wherever I go, those still are the experiences I am aiming for. To look at peoples’ complex and messy lives in their own natural settings and make connections. From all those elements, a good trip will probably materialize.
But what about gardening?
I've mentioned before that I practice permaculture, or more accurately I have been learning, through successes and failures, to make it work in my own gardens. It’s a way of approaching gardening not as a set of prescriptions or by following a recipe (so much XYZ and not too much ABC).
Rather, permaculture looks at nature comprehensively, as a system in place, and asks how sound results are achieved in that real, natural world. Usually, success comes from diversity, from a messy environment. Then the aim is to work towards creating a garden or farm having those same or similar underlying conditions. The focus is not on this year’s list of crops as much as on the complex natural system above and below ground, from which it is hoped that we get healthy results. I usually summarize my philosophy by saying that my job as gardener is to grow good soils, not crops; but the good crops usually follow.
Stated in this way it is perhaps easy to start seeing parallels between my garden and my travels. But, to avoid the obvious, let’s drill down into the weeds a bit more. Literally, the weeds.
Now talking about weeds in a permaculture garden is a little besides the point. Over time a permaculture garden won’t have that many weeds, the conditions for their encouragement are generally absent and after a few years they will tend to not be an issue. Because weeds are nature’s shock troops, they are dystopian heroes. They aggressively move in where we have disturbed, laid waste an area by removing the existing ground cover. Why? Because nature “wants” to cover the soils back up as soon as possible to prevent further damage, and to start rebuilding soil health with new organic material, giving fungi a chance to rebuild, all while securing and aerating the soils with new roots. If people provide the conditions which they favor, i.e., turned over and bare ground, weeds stand ready to perform their task, they will come when called forth.
A permaculture gardener won’t till the soils and lay it bare in the first place. They won’t because bare soil is not a condition usually found in nature.
Still, I think it is fair to say that any casual observer of my gardens will see beds that are, by all traditional gardening standards, somewhat unkept and not wholly discouraging of a weed here and there. We are apt to let nature have greater reign over our beds, encouraging a lot of diversity. We even grow plants that don’t produce any crops at all. By many definitions, those are weeds. My garden beds may look like they are overgrown with things that aren’t really supposed to be there and they aren’t always neat and pretty. So be it.
Tobermory Pier; Rainy Day
The photograph above was taken from the end of the fisherman’s pier at Tobermory, a pretty, little port on the Isle of Mull in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. My inn, the excellent Tobermory Hotel, was the pink building at the far left, where my front facing room gave a great harbor view. I stayed there for a few days this past November, an unlikely time of year to visit. The mistiming is emphasized by the fact that the time stamp on this photo is only 430pm, yet lamps are already needed to illuminate the streets and wharf. Even though the photo captures some dramatic light in the sky to the southwest, it was actually pretty dark, and also drizzling.
But I loved the place. And... WAIT A MINUTE, what are those garbage bins doing in that picture? Ugh, why didn’t I move just a little forward before taking this shot and so eliminate that eyesore? Rookie mistake!
Well truth is I hadn’t noticed them at the time or I might have (it was dark after all). It otherwise was a nice shot of a neat line of brightly colored buildings, almost like a row of flowers. I was simply going for the pretty sort of atmosphere we like to see in the photos we bring home. It’s a shame it got cluttered by unsightly bins of garbage. In fact on closer inspection, there is a battered ladder, an old discarded tire, and other miscellaneous rubbish laying about in some shadows. Clearly, some “weeds” got missed here.
Maybe I will have better luck at the other end of the pier, looking back out into the harbor, with the picturesque village at my back.
Well, not really. Now instead of a wide panoramic shot of a pretty little seaside village with a few working boats put to bed, nice and orderly, we zoom in to the working heart of the place.
There are fishermens’ plastic bins stacked about, with modern blue tarps covering who knows what. A life ring stands at the ready to help save lives. (Save lives? Are people dying out there?) A panel van just finished loading up gear from a fishing boat. An aptly named seafood truck, who can’t possibly be making a living serving tourists at this time of year, is prepared to sell anyone passing by some freshly caught fish. (Delicious by the way.) A water bowl is set out to give a dog a drink. A couple holding hands are taking a walk in the light rain. He is open jacketed, but her attire indicates the chill in the air. On the periphery a woman in bright pink rain boots is wrestling her kid into a stroller. Puddles between flagstones will wet your boots. Old street lamps are ready to ignite. The weather is just plain damp.
This is all pretty ordinary, messy, diverse and disorganized stuff. Figuratively, and literally as well, it is full of weeds and clutter popping into what might otherwise have been a well tended, manicured scene.
And of course, I like this picture so much more. Indeed, of all the photographs from the Scotland trip which I have shared on this blog already, I have been looking forward to posting this one the most. It isn’t a big vista, it isn’t grand, it doesn’t make you stop or sputter. (It was taken just by my iPhone, no fancy camera.) It simply shows what I wanted to come here to see, to be a part of. It is a normal human landscape, not one that has been suppressed, prettified and cleaned up.
By this point in the trip, I had flown all the way to Scotland, ridden on two trams, three ferries, four trains and five busses; all in order to see some overgrown, disheveled garden full of a lot of crap, and even some weeds.
That is what a permaculture traveler is looking for.
I was only dimly aware of this connection at the time I think; I am not that good at photography, or Art History. The shot presented itself in seconds. I grabbed my iPhone, moved back and forth quickly to compose it on the fly and was lucky. There was no chance to consciously reconsider the composition, much less recall that I maybe had seen something like this before. A few moments later and that van, with its warm headlamps reflecting off the wet flagstones, was gone, as well as the people shown here.
Still, I think I was going for something specific; when I saw the shot it seemed right, even perhaps familiar, and I rushed to get it.
For a similar depiction of “real life,” I have always liked Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte which can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It is much more sanitized by today’s standards or in comparison to my photograph here, yet it was scandalous in its time for its reflection of everyday life on the streets. I used to take my kids to the Art Institute for some sketching in the galleries and this painting was a favorite of ours. I think these things just hang around in our heads, ready to teach us something that we aren’t even aware of.
©️ 2019 D Abbott