Huntington Botanical Garden, Pasadena

Huntington Botanical Garden, Pasadena

I’m teaching Environmental Literature this summer, which I’ve subtitled “Being in Place.” Since I also coordinate the campus garden at my university, the California Lutheran University SEEd Project Garden, 1 I thought it might be a good idea to use it as our “first place”—a kind of Eden to which we might compare other gardens and other places, though there is nothing particularly Edenic about our garden. Our campus garden is not the usual contemplative garden of many universities. It does not promote ataraxia, that state of peace and mindfulness philosophized by Epicurus in his Garden School on the island of Samos, that many university gardens aspire to reproduce, according to Robert Pogue Harrison in his marvelous Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. The only really Edenic qualities of our garden are perhaps the prevalence of serpents and fruit, in the form of rattlesnakes and underworld pomegranates. (Just last week I had to call up my biologist colleague to relocate a rattlesnake from our “classroom.”)

SEEd Project Garden

CLU SEEd Project Garden


Kingscote Garden, Stanford

Against those more lyrical university gardens like the Epicurean Kingscote Garden at Harrison’s Stanford, our unnamed weedy ¾-acre place—a museum of half-finished projects, misshapen carrots, and aggressive bees—is a place of perpetual worry and care. It’s a rather hardscrabble place, cooked by the sun and beset by rodents. It’s on the farthest reaches of campus, hidden behind storage containers, on the margin where manicured lawns stop and the dust and cactus and rock of our native landscape begin. My colleague and co-miserator Sam and I frequently have to reassure one another that, despite all evidence, the place will not fall into a complete wilderness if we look away for a moment or two. We also have to remind ourselves, in response to our anxiety, not to submit to the Fordist fantasies of routinization and mechanization of garden labor that are probably contrary to the point of fostering a garden at all.

SEEd Garden

SEEd Garden

Why we continue in the face of such anxiety probably says something about us as gardeners and humans: we are not Epicureans. But it also says something about the demands of gardening. A garden demands care, says Harrison. To be a gardener is to be compelled to care, to labor, in perpetuity and in the face of anxiety. It is a commitment to the endless needs of culture. The labor of gardening is the opposite of the careless ease of the garden visitor, the beneficiary of the garden’s produce who can enjoy the garden precisely because he does not have to care.

This visitor, whose every word of helpful advice or observation about the state of the garden fills the gardener with mute rage, enjoys a garden because he sees the garden in only three dimensions, in length, breadth, and width, while the gardener sees in those plus a fourth, time: the time until the current, semi-controlled state of the garden dissolves into disorder; the time it will take to address a pressing garden crisis; and the time one will have to rob from other areas of one’s life to do so.

To put such ideas into practice, my class and I have been making the rounds to area botanical gardens, supplementing our own rough “garden school” with more contemplative spaces. We recently visited the Conejo Valley Botanical Garden in Thousand Oaks, and the Huntington Botanical Garden in Pasadena. 33 and 200 acres respectively, these lovely gardens are dioramas of ataraxia—Japanese Zen gardens, Australian gardens, tropical gardens, desert gardens. Amazingly curated, they are, perhaps more importantly, largely cared for by volunteers.

Huntington, Japanese Garden

Huntington Botanical Garden, Japanese Zen Garden

Huntington Japanese

I asked my students to spend some time in these gardens thinking about Harrison and concepts like ataraxia and whether gardens like these allow visitors a chance to escape the world or (more productively) provide spaces to help visitors re-engage with worldly cares. But while they were engaged in this task, I myself could not help think about those garden volunteers whose labor and anxiety allow for the passive enjoyment of the garden consumers who visit once and leave.

Driven to her task by care and worry, the volunteer labors out of compulsion. To demonstrate this compulsion, Harrison quotes the Czech author Karel Čapek, who wonders amusingly what Adam might have been like in Eden had he had a gardener’s sensibility and not that of a passive, boobish consumer of fruits he did not tend:

I think that he would forget to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: he would rather look round to see how he could manage to take away from the Lord some barrow-load of the paradisiac soil. Or he would discover that the tree of knowledge of good and evil has not round it a nice dishlike bed, and he would begin to mess about with the soil, innocent of what is hanging over his head. ‘Where are you, Adam?’ the Lord would say. ‘In a moment,’ the gardener would shout over his shoulder; ‘I am busy now.’ And he would go on making his little bed. 2

The gardener is oblivious to produce. For him, produce is to be cultivated, not eaten. For him, produce is future soil. It’s the consumer who looks at a garden and sees only dinner. (Or, closer to my own affections, the consumer listens to me wax enthusiastic about bees and asks when we should expect honey.) Enjoyment is the role of the consumer, who wants his fruits, and who needs to be reminded by signs, even in a botanical garden, not to eat of the trees.

In this sense, there is no such thing as a volunteer gardener. The volunteer gardener is essentially a free serf. A “volunteer gardener” is merely a kind euphemism, probably invented by the consumer, for the exploitation of some poor carer’s curatorial sensibility. But volunteers volunteer, you say. Perhaps that’s true, but their care makes them susceptible to exploitation, like those educators who educate often at their own expense: They just can’t help themselves, the suckers.

Such thoughts are admittedly less Epicurus than Thoreau, whom we also have been reading. And while at the Huntington I found myself wandering more in his mental company. It’s no coincidence that Thoreau begins Walden with a chapter on economy, in which he redefines economic principles like labor, value, commodity, and property. Thoreau at his worst/best:

By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. 3

Thoreau, in such a mood, might have called our attention to the contradiction between the volunteer-carers and the consumer-spectators on whose labors consumers are parasitic.

This is what I was thinking as I tried to give my students the chance to philosophize in the garden. And I couldn’t help water our lunchtime conversation with some of this Thoreau-ian political economy. We held our garden school and contemplated ataraxia. But it was Thoreau’s labor theory of value that led us to say that consumers pay money to enjoy a garden because it’s the only currency they have: it’s a paucity of imagination that leads one to substitute money for the investment of time. It was probably Thoreau’s influence, too, that led us to note that while gardens require care, contemplative gardens hide this care from consumers, in the form of hoses stashed behind shrubs, “volunteers” camouflaged in green and beige, secret spigots, and the like. Where was the evidence of the gardener’s time? Of her worry? Of her art? Why shouldn’t the consumer be reminded that their enjoyment requires labor? That all things die?

This conversation in the garden is why I don’t think I’m a gardener—at least not by nature. I am not Čapek’s Adam, who looks at a garden and sees what needs to be done and gets to it. But neither am I a consumer, comfortable with enjoying the fruits of another. Maybe this is why our campus garden looks like it does: hard, a little dangerous, but useful for thinking about where our food comes from and who grows it, about bees and our unerring tendency to exploit them, and about landscape and our disconnection from it.

SEEd Project 2I don’t think Thoreau was a gardener, either. Thoreau grew beans to make a point, and while he “did eat of them,” he knew good from evil well before he started his grand but failed experiment. Instead, we’re both critics—a third category with which my students and I completed a triangle: carer/critic/consumer. I’ll admit that I would like to be more carer than critic, but if we’re born to one of these taxa, as I suspect we are, and you take us out of our cultivated, artificial habitats, we’re sure to revert to parent stock as surely as there are serpents in the garden.



  1. SEEd stands for Sustainable Edible Education
  2. Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (U Chicago Press) 29.
  3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or, Life in the Woods. 1854. 131.