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Gardening as a Moral Conundrum



Who's the dimwit who promulgated the idea of gardening as some kind of idyllic activity that will connect us to our loving, nurturing, higher selves? Surely, this person never put spade to earth, nor hand to weed. The truth is, gardening is fraught with moral ambiguity. With no more training in ethics than their own desires, the gardener is constantly called upon to make life or death decisions.

Beginning with spring, a self-reflective gardener should be filled with unease as they play God, forcing their vision of fecundity on a piece of earth that is already getting along quite nicely without their help. The little piece of ground in my backyard already has its own complete ecosystem, very nicely balanced without my intrusions. Who am I to demand it grow flowers and veggies?

As if my discomfiture about playing God is not enough, I am forced to take up the moral dilemma of tilling. My nifty little Rototiller will likely disturb the tiny ground-nesting bees, when we need every bee we can get. Worse yet, my machine and I will wreak havoc on all the carefully and closely knit microbial communities in the topsoil, literally turning them upside down. I know I could solve this particular moral conundrum with permaculture. But my husband grew up in the Central Valley where everyone "turned the soil," and you don't buck the traditions of your ancestors. Plus it's labor intensive and I'm a busy woman who caves for the sake of matrimonial harmony.

Once the soil is turned, you might think the hard choices are over. But, guess what? You are wrong. The heart-twisting ethical choices are only just beginning. The careful gardener plants extra seeds. The seed packets call the next step "thinning." I consider it murder. Why should I get to decide which of these tender, hopeful broccolis gets to live and which will wither, discarded in the pathway? Feeding the extras to the chickens provides a small moral salve; at least the veggies' tiny lives weren't completely wasted. But, it's hardly the fulfillment of a broccoli's life purpose to be pecked by rabid chickens before it's out of infancy.

And what of weeds? Here is where the gardener really gets to show their grim-reaper side. Straight-up God decisions. This one is good. That one is bad. Really, who gave me the authority to decide the cauliflower lives and the pigweed dies? Was I born with the right to make that decision just by virtue of being the Homo sapien in the garden? Does my desire to eat only certain vegetables trump the weeds' desire to seed? I don't see how, or why. Shamefaced and unworthy, I weed anyway because it's what a gardener does.

Thinned and weeded, the garden is looking good. Perhaps now that softer, right-brained vision of the gardener can prevail? Hardly. Summer is when it gets really nasty. Even the most benevolent and tranquil of gardeners feels rage rise in their throat when their pastoral idyll is shattered by half a row of wilted potatoes, roots gnawed off by cute fuzzy rodents. Now, there is a moral dilemma. No trap or gimmick is as effective as the stunningly cruel, old-fashioned Macabee trap. Even the most caring of gardeners will have to admit to a glimmer of satisfaction when the lacerated little beast is hoisted out of the dirt, impaled through the gut and dead, dead, dead. I'm the woman who took down her hummingbird feeder because it filled me with angst to watch the sharp-beaked little bastards fighting each other over prime territory. I feel like crap knowing I'm capable of such a pure, crystalline joy at the death of another sentient being — a horribly painful death I caused with a great deal of intention (not to mention foul language). Gardening as soft and nurturing? I don't think so.

Can I at least find untainted joy in harvesting? My friends accuse me of overthinking but at harvest time, I am overwhelmed by guilt. I have this overblown sense of responsibility and to waste even the tiniest fragment of the garden's great gifts feels like sin — deep, dark, Catholic, hell-and-damnation sin. Don't I have an obligation to my vegetable relatives to use the gift of their life with wisdom and gratitude? Unfortunately, there is so much abundance (thank you, Macabees) that even with late nights at the canner, I can't keep up. When I visit my friends, they eye me warily before saying, "I hope you're just happy to see me and that isn't a zucchini in your pocket." Even the food bank closes its doors when they see my Prius. I urge the chickens to take just one more bite, then I stand, head in hand, weeping over the compost pile and its mounds of still edible greens.

So cut the sugar-coated crap. From beginning to end, gardening is anything but a loving therapeutic activity. It's about deciding who gets to live and who has to die because people want fresh corn. Gardening is a guilt-tripping moral trap, and I'm pretty sure I don't have the strength or moral turpitude for it.

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