My Ethical Garden

Michael Pollan\'s Vegetable Garden

Michael Pollan's Vegetable Garden

A couple of months ago I decided to plant a vegetable garden with my 11-year old daughter. The Sunday we were to get started, I got a nice motivational boost from “the green issue” of the New York Times Magazine. Michael Pollan was asking an awfully good question about making an effort to reduce your CO2 emissions:

What would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Pollan goes on to explain why planting a vegetable garden is a very good solution to this problem, for all sorts of reasons you can read about in the article. By the final paragraph, he’s swelled to an extremely inspiring conclusion:

At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.... The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

Cool. Off we went to the garden center to buy all the stuff needed to plant a 10’ by 10’ vegetable garden.

After my daughter did the hard work of getting 12 bags of compost to the back of the house in a wheelbarrow that kept tipping over, we started pulling weeds and digging … and soon we were headed back to the garden center. According to my husband, you don’t need a motorized rototiller to prepare a 10' by 10' bed, but I beg to differ. A couple of hours later, we had a garden bed ready for planting. We buried eight kinds of seeds with trepidation, watered, and crossed our fingers. And then of course drove back to the garden center to return the rototiller.

Now, some months later, I have come to see that it is actually necessary to pay attention to a garden, or it becomes a wild, overgrown mess. And yet...the four cucumbers that have emerged from the mess were actually very tasty. The 10 green beans weren’t bad, and I do see one or two tomatoes as a distinct possibility. But considering the ratio of inputs to outputs, my Chinese doppelganger is probably doing better than me where CO2 is concerned.

Sadly, I don’t think this enterprise has done much to “heal the split between what I think and what I do.” In fact, it’s reminded me that some of us like to think, and some of us like to do. Still, I swear on a stack of Michael Pollan’s books that next time I will not under or over water, and I will thin and weed. Maybe I will even skip the rototiller. I want to have an ethical garden, I really do


The Veil (my 100th post!)

I’ve been scratching my head about French secularism, which is several shades more secular than American secularism. A woman in France was recently denied citizenship because she was veiled from head to toe during her application interview, and for no other reason. She lives in France, speaks French fluently, and is married to a French citizen, with whom she has four little citoyens. France takes this sort of approach not just to outsiders, but to citizens as well. A 2004 law banned the wearing of religious symbols, including Islamic veils, yarmulkes, and large Christian crosses, in government-funded schools.

This degree of intrusion into people’s lives makes me very uneasy. I certainly want the right to live my life in accordance with my own thinking…at least as long as I am harming no one. I want to be able to speak out (in words and symbols), instead of keeping my ideas in the dark recesses of my own mind.

The best argument I’ve heard to defend French extreme secularism (“laicite,” as they call it) is that the government is saving women from being coerced by brothers, fathers, and clerics who think they know what’s best for them. But that argument makes me nervous. When someone wants to speak out in an unorthodox way, or live in an unusual way, it’s very often possible to question how free they really are. You can often wonder whether there’s coercion coming from family and friends, whether their choices are really free.

Then there’s the argument that Muslim veiling is divisive and the ban in schools is necessary to avoid violence, but this just doesn’t really compute. If I were a Muslim living in a society where I was told what to wear, it would make me furious. If I were the husband, or brother, or friend of the woman denied citizenship just because of her veil, my feelings for French society and its aggressive secularism would not be warm.

In the US we don’t seem to have the same tensions between Muslims and others, which certainly is surprising, given the way US policy has stirred up anti-American sentiment around the world. But we don’t, and I imagine that does have to do with our First Amendment-driven live-and-let-live approach. Once in a while I see a woman in Dallas wearing a head-to-toe veil, and I certainly do wonder why this woman wants to erase herself, imprison herself, not to mention get very, very hot. To my eyes, the image of a completely veiled woman is creepy. (My reaction to the simple head-covering called “hijab” is quite a bit different.)

But I also tell myself to get a grip and recognize that this is her choice. Yes, yes, it may not be a pure expression of “free will” but it’s very hard to say which choices are and which aren’t. It may even be at the most iffy end of the spectrum. I’d be happy to see people persuade her out of it (Muslim women especially—because they are bound to have much more “cred” with her) but I’m proud of the American civil liberties tradition that keeps government at bay.