The other day I was working in the garden thinking about ethics, as you do. I wandered in for a cup of Yorkshire tea and a digestive and had a little Google to find out whether anyone out there was considering the ethics of gardening and of course they were. I found this and learnt a new word “ Anthropocene” You can look it up, I had to.
This is what the abstract for an academic chapter written by Marcello Di Paola said:
“This chapter argues that working in gardens can disclose and enable the exploration of important sources of meaning in and for our lives in the Anthropocene. This will happen in the process of developing and exercising attitudinal and behavioural dispositions that are enabled and required by the correct performance of the practice of gardening. Such process moulds character and is in turn reinforced by the character that it moulds – by the behavioral and attitudinal dispositions that it enables and requires individuals to develop and exercise.”
Now this is what I had been thinking exactly as I worked. How is the garden shaping my attitudes? As I put down the cardboard for my “No Dig” beds, I was wondering if the printing ink on the box would damage my soil in some way. I carefully peeled off all the sellotape , so it wouldn’t remain in the soil. I left patches of nettles and borage for the beneficial insects. I didn’t till the soil, in order to help the earthworms and garden biome.
Food from the garden
There is no doubt that our gardening practices are shaped by our beliefs, but does our gardening actually change our beliefs too? If you work close to nature every day, you observe the flora and fauna and you begin to know what makes it happy and what makes it sad, what makes it healthy and what makes it ill. But you too are part of that process, you are fundamental in your interference, because you are directly intervening in the natural process.
Lately I have been thinking hard about life and death. I am acutely aware that my life is coming to an end. My mother died when she was six years older than I am now, my father lived until he was twelve years older than me, about the length of time it takes a fruit tree to grow to full maturity then. Maybe that is all I have left, who knows? Hopefully, I will go suddenly, whilst pruning the roses, the same way a dear gardening friend of mine died. But one thing is sure, I won’t live forever. When you work in a garden on a daily basis, the full cycle of life and death is apparent to you. However, the ethical question is, how far are you a part of that as far as the flora and fauna or even the birds and animals in your garden is concerned? I am a life enabler on this little patch. I sow seeds and nurture them to maturity, but then I favour them over other plants, which I mercilessly pull up to give my vegetable seedling an advantage. However, I also feed the unwanted plants to the chickens to give them nourishment or I put them back into the soil to support the earthworms. But then sometimes I feed the earthworms to the chickens. I am both a life giver and a life destroyer.
I personally am not afraid of death. But that is because of my beliefs that life is a circle and death is just a recycling process. Everywhere in the garden, you see this process, plants, insects and animals come to this earth, live, fulfil their purpose and die, that is the process. A mouse does not live its life fearing death. It exists for now, until it dies, often in the jaws of a totally unremorseful cat, after a period of prolonged torture. Or maybe the cat is remorseful, who knows?
But then, what of murder? And what is murder? If I squish a cabbage white caterpillar between my fingers and bring about its instant death, am I a murderer, or just a predator trying to protect its food? Most of us nowadays have not suffered potential starvation or come even close. I search my conscience on this often and realise I don’t feel any remorse when I squish a cabbage white caterpillar, eating my cabbages, not a jot. I can reason why this is. I could say that it is preferable for me to do this than spray with an insecticide. I could say that I would prefer to grow my own cabbages rather than buy them from the supermarkets where they have been sprayed to death and probably picked by someone subjected to conditions of modern day slavery in the greenhouses of Spain. But the simple fact is, I feel nothing when I squish a caterpillar. I am happy for the cabbage whites to go whither they like, just not on my cabbages or I will squish them. Yet I go to great lengths to encourage the butterflies of the Swallowtail or Painted Lady into my garden, encouraging their host plants to grow. I have to live with my feeling little about being a cabbage white serial killer, but I know not everyone feels like me.
The other vexed question is the type of plants it is ethical to grow. Why shouldn’t we have whatever we like in our own garden? What does it matter if we plant a water hungry avocado or a lawn? We pay the water bill, why should it be anyone else’s business? Just like our behaviour over Covid19, the problem is increasingly how our behaviour impinges on others and that is the issue. I have to confess here that I have been trying to grow an avocado for six years and wasted a lot of water on it. This is water which I could have used to grow something more suited to the climate. It takes seventy litres of water in average to grow one avocado fruit. Even if you have a bore hole, that water is coming from a finite resource, the aquifer. Really, we shouldn’t be eating avocados, as it is damaging to the environment and neither should we grow them in a drought threatened environment. It’s an ethical decision. Likewise, should I ignore Government advice and grow species of plants which I know to be invasive? Surely it won’t do any harm to have a pampas grass in my garden, if I kept it under control? All these questions raise discussion, personal decisions and often a great deal of judgement. Did you know nasturtiums are in the banned list in Portugal? No, thought not. But nasturtiums are great for preventing cabbage white caterpillar infestation. Tricky decisions have to be taken! Are cabbage whites even native butterflies? Should we destroy an invading species of ladybird that is killing another native species? Is killing always wrong?
One thing I know I do believe in is the quality of life of any living thing. I strive for a good quality of life for all the things in the garden I am tending. I try to understand the right balance, the needs of a plant. I do not kill garden creatures unless they are killing or damaging greatly the plants I am caring for, plants that I am going to eat mostly. And if I do kill them, I care about how and the way it will affect other creatures or the soil, or the air. The garden itself is teaching me this.
Gardening and food production all have their methods and means and they move and change with the ages. I am personally very upset at the thought of aquaculture and aquaponics and growing food indoors for example. I think it’s cruel to plants to grow them indoors, in similar conditions to battery hens, their roots in water, fed by captive fish. I hate bonsai and topiary, it reminds me of foot binding and neck rings and lip plates. I don’t even really like clipping my hedges or pruning my trees, although I do it as others convince me it helps them. And the thought of trying to grow fruits to specific shapes on the tree horrifies me. I think we can be as cruel to plants as we are to animals, without a second thought. I don’t even like passing some of the plant factories, aka nurseries, around here in the Algarve, with their serried rows of plants all fed by chemicals and water and grown for the point of sale to perfection. Very often, when you get these pampered plants home and plant them in real soil, in real garden conditions, they pop their clogs, sulking as they have been molly coddled to the point of being unable to cope in a real garden. I would rather grow plants from seed myself, so I can raise them properly.
The advent of social media allows discussion about these gardening issues, which is very important, I feel. I used to have these kinds of discussions in a hut on our London allotment during our monthly allotment committee meetings. Bonfires were often on the agenda and caused huge argument, as did the use of glyphosate, no dig gardening and the keeping of bees. I have learned a great deal about the environment, the beliefs and the practices of other gardeners both from real and virtual chats with others. But, finally our gardening decisions are ours alone to have.
I once had a huge row with Shirley, my Jamaican allotment neighbour, because she was using a non return valve on her garden hose, something which the committee had asked us not to do as it could have polluted the water supply. It got very personal and I had to smile to myself when her husband, a hot blooded Sicilian told me, whilst defending his wife, that “ her vegetables were better than mine anyway” which in fact, was very true. We made it up later and I told myself to mind my own business in future, these things are never worth losing good gardening friends over. And that is what I was pondering on, as I planted my snail nibbled kales today. Perhaps I should stop thinking so much and just be one with my kale.