Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Donna Schaper is a garden hobbyist and author of The Art of Spiritual Rock Gardening. Schaper lives in Florida and was recently rejected admission to the Coral Gables Garden Club on the grounds that she is “too liberal”. She has been outspoken in opposition to the war, as well as in her support for abortion rights and racial justice and the other Coral Gables gardeners felt, apparently, that this was not the sort of element with whom they wanted to hobnob. Her gardening skills are not in question–in fact, the same club had featured Schaper as a speaker, before word of her particular political bent reached their delicate ears.

Thus we step further into the Age of Unreason. I often wonder what it must have felt like on the day that Germany took its first baby step towards the Third Reich. Such a big thing happening, and yet on that day, it must have been invisible, something far off and not especially worrisome. The same with the second step, and the third. Heck, for years even Germany’s Jews felt that things would get better, that their worst fears–which didn’t even approximate the real future in store for them–were so unrealistic as to be laughable. There’s a brilliant film, Jew Boy Levi, set in the Black Forest in 1935. Levi is a Jewish cattle dealer who makes a circuit of all the towns and hamlets in the region, buying cattle to take to market. He is well-liked by his clients and is planning to marry a young Catholic woman in one of the villages when a team of Nazi Party functionaries set up in town while working on the railroad line. Through an excruciatingly subtle series of rumours, backroom dealing, differential treatment, and eventually outright incitement, this village full of upstanding, friendly, and endearing Germans is brought to bear against Levi. The anti-Semitism that turns Levi from a beloved member of the community into an outcast Jude progresses not in one fell swoop, but by baby steps, each moment only minutely more charged than the one before it.

Or consider McCarthyism. Not just Senator McCarthy’s campaign, but the whole complex of paranoia and backstabbing that enabled McCarthy’s work and those of his successors. Taken alone, no particular act in this march towards absurdity seemed poorly intentioned or evil, but they all added up to a criminal campaign against the bedrock values of the American system.

What is insidious about these examples is not so much that the respective governments actions against their subjects–which is certainly bad, but at least they were public actions–but the actions of those subjects against each other, the rumour-mongering and petty exclusions and power-plays of scurrilous neighbors peeking over the fence at each other’s backyards. For all her gardening skills, Donna Schaper’s backyard is not in order. She writes of the steps she might take to fall in line, ironically and perhaps unintentionally repeating the ideals of the German native plant movement that fed into the racial science of Nazi eugenics:

Perhaps I should write a new book called “Politically Correct Gardening.” In it I could show the single right way to plant, hoe, seed and compost. I would focus on native plants (or ones that originated in countries among America’s coalition of the willing). I would avoid pink flowers altogether [because of the colour’s association with communist sympathizers]. Nothing French would be mentioned. All plants would have to look good in [red, white, and blue] bunting.

For all that gardening seems an innocuous enterprise with little or no greater political relevance, it is a powerful field for the cultivation of nationalism. People who grow things, who bring a harvest forth from the earth, have long been symbols of the strength and fitness of a nation, a role easily pressed into the service of the worst forms of nationalism. I have already mentioned the role of “innocuous” gardening in cultivating the ideas that would fuel the Nazi Party–consider as well the role of the kibbutz in the establishment of an Israeli national identity, the mythological status of those who “made the desert bloom”. Consider the exclusion of “aliens” from owning farmland in California under the Alien Land Laws of the early 20th century. Or the French settlers in Algeria who blamed the local population’s inferiority for allowing the land–once called the “breadbasket of Rome”–to lapse into desert, and the belief that noble Frenchmen could turn it back into the breadbasket of Greater France. Or the Dutch settlement of New Guinea, driven by an ideology seeking to redeem a degenerate land from its stewardship under a degenerate people.

Farming, gardening, ranching, logging, all tie a people, literally and figuratively, to the earth, to the land in which the nation itself is rooted. In the industrial era, we might also include mining and oil drilling as providing the fuel for nationalism–certainly they are an active part of today’s American nationalism–but these industries place us at a remove from the land itself in a way that farming and especially gardening do not. People who work the earth with their hands play a special role in the definition of a nation–their ideas about our relationship with the physical land become our ideas about our relation with the ideological land. They wield a lot of power with their hand shovels and trowels, and it is frustrating to see that power turned to a policy of exclusion, of blind loyalty to a government that is becoming increasingly oppressive. It is also frustrating to see a group–any group–turning its back on dissension and debate, to see a man or woman denied a platform for expression–on whatever topic, be it baseball, charity, poetry, literature, or gardening–out of the fear that they may speak their mind on politics. Not because it is harmful to people like Donna Schaper (or actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, or poets like Marilyn Nelson and Jay Parini, whom she mentions in her article) but because it degrades citizens like those in the Coral Gables Garden Club. It shows them up as cheap, petty, and thoughtless, unwilling to even entertain the idea of dissent, and eager to play bit parts in whatever the next baby step in the Age of Unreason might be. My admiration is reserved for people like Schaper, people who stand up and challenge such small-mindedness. Alas, history has rarely been kind to the excluded, but we shall see.

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