How Gardening Can Help With Climate Change Anxiety

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Editor’s note, April 22, 2022: This commentary originally ran in April 2020. We’re rerunning it today in honor of Earth Day. Original story follows.


A beet shoot nuzzles free of the earth in much the same way a chick presses through its soft shell, dislodging near-weightless debris with all the gentle might it can muster. Beet shoots don’t emerge face first, though, as do chicks. Neither do pea shoots or arugula sprouts, for that matter. Instead, there extends from the soil a pink loop, a tiny flamingo’s neck, before the head lifts gingerly and finds its bearings.

They back into the world.

I discovered this fact last week, at first with uncertainty. I watched a single shoot expose its stem in my garden and wondered if it was disoriented or deformed. But a day later, a dozen more peeked from the soil in rows like loose stitches, as it seems all beets do. Then I felt more certain of what I was observing, of its design.

We humans are slow to acclimate to new revelations. As early cases of the  emerged, it spread until undeniable consequences jarred us into action. The same progression exists for , though fear and denial still have hold of us.

There is an alternative; something beyond death can move us to act. And when it comes to facing the threat of climate change — a threat more dire even than the pandemic sweeping the world — , but only a part. The rest will be up to us. And a simple garden and a hopeful imagination, I have found, are good places to start.

Close-up of soilClose-up of soil

David Priest/CNET

The previous resident in our house maintained a garden in the backyard, but removed all his materials, leaving a handful of gaping holes in the dirt where posts had stood. We filled in a few of these holes, but one of them we simply covered with a brick-red stepping stone. Each day, I lift the stone to find a tiny glittering cavern of slugs, worms, roly polies, centipedes and spiders.

My children press forward, holding twigs and gently prodding around the hole to inspire motion — the retraction of a worm into the mud or the panicked scuttle of an uncovered pillbug.

Such wondrous encounters with the natural world set my imagination on course as a child, and similar ones have shaped American imaginations for centuries, from Thoreau and Whitman through Rachel Carson and Loren Eiseley, to Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. In fact, our science writers and lyricists have cross-pollinated for generations. There’s a breathlessness, for instance, to how the aging ecological journalist to exclaim, “I must tell you about this flower, Selenicereus plerantus.”

Naturalists such as these fostered an intimacy with nature that we in 2020 have largely lost. Indeed, they often wrote of its erosion in their own times. Eiseley, for instance, : “The modern world does not lend itself to contemplation … We are used to being hurled headlong by plane and motor from one natural marvel to another, upon commercialized vacations.” Sixty-three years later, his passing anxiety is our unyielding reality. Even more than our landscapes, our imaginations have been deforested.

I don’t mean an indeterminable or mystical something when I use the term imagination: No, imagination is the tool we use to envision our future, individual and collective. When we think of nature primarily as a resource to be consumed, we leave little space for its flourishing in our imagined futures. And humans are frighteningly talented at making what we envision into reality.

Two children looking at grassTwo children looking at grass

David Priest/CNET

Traipsing through forests and rock-hopping across Broad River after dry seasons are my two most vivid memories of growing up in South Carolina. They take place in general time — the six years I spent in the Palmetto State feel to me like one long summer — and they are the center of a larger mosaic of memory fragments: coaxing lizards’ mouths open and clamping them on our ears like earrings, jumping to catch swatches of Spanish moss draped like gray-lavender snow from great tree limbs.

Guilt occasionally creeps up on me when I consider my childrens’ largely suburban upbringing. Sure, we’ve lived in the Ozarks and Kentucky, visited caves and state parks, but it’s always been an event — never the wandering in a backyard that unfolds into forest. Crawdads will likely never snap at my childrens’ curious fingers; pet garter snakes or squirrels will never share their rooms. 

But simply encountering nature isn’t the point. As marine biologist and famed environmentalist , “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Through our encounters, we develop a relationship with our environment, and relationship inspires care and protection.

I cannot replicate my childhood for my children, but I can encourage a healthy relationship with nature. On a practical level, for instance, it’s hard to watch tiny sprouts fight for survival and not cheer them on. On a larger scale, it’s hard to stay idle when we see the .

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My wife and I rehearse our relationship with our garden aloud: a 19-cent banana can feed one of our children, its peel can infuse water with potassium and other minerals, which help fertilize our vegetables, and after a week of soaking, the peel can feed worms that create fertilizer for next season’s garden. We hope for the future, when we own our home instead of renting: a modest yard of grass can be converted into wild space, creating more shelter and food for animals and increasing conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Our relationship with nature shouldn’t be limited to our private lives, either. I saw a cartoon circulating online a few weeks ago, in which a man sits staring horrified at a computer screen, saying, “.”

It’s a funny joke, but it belies the darker reality that all of our face-to-face time is facilitated by carbon-spewing machines and buildings.

It’s time to look forward, to ask seriously to what extent our economy writ large can be maintained without contributing quite so enthusiastically to our planet’s destruction. Though because of the pandemic, many companies have seen little change in their profits when shifting their workforce home. Perhaps for such companies, work-from-home structures could, should, become a new norm. Perhaps families could, should, change their travel expectations for vacations. Perhaps individuals could, should, think differently about their day-to-day gasoline and food consumption.

Such changes seemed unrealistic six months ago — and adopting them long-term will certainly reshape our economic structures — but this crisis has at least demonstrated our capacity for change, given the proper motivation.

Small plants in a gardenSmall plants in a garden

David Priest/CNET

Perhaps the most difficult part of is weed good for you its dailiness. I’m trying and still failing to instill in myself the habit of getting up early while the soil is damp and rooting out weeds that seem to lay fresh claim to my vulnerable sprouts during the short hours I sleep.

The weeding makes me nervous, despite its necessity. Weed and sprout root systems commingle, and more than one promising turnip has been lost to the errant spade. I find myself feeling inordinately protective of the young things, in part because their recent debuts came after weeks of my disbelief that they would gestate at all.

I remind myself: Weeding catches what threatens to choke the future before it can bud.

The three worst enemies of hopeful imagination are denial, nihilism and romanticism. The first is perhaps the hardest to beat back in others — sound models have yet to convince many people that climate change is real — but it’s easy enough to uproot in ourselves.

Even those of us who acknowledge the science behind climate change often act in ways incongruous with that knowledge. It’s not surprising: Our desire, not our cognition, drives most of our behavior in life. We consumers, as much as complex industries or faceless governments, have landed humanity in its current predicament — not by pragmatism, but by dreams. My dreams, for instance — of children, food and a comfortable house — have resulted in a minivan, a large canister of waste every week and an energy- and water-inefficient home. Those dreams cannot be disentangled from their environmental externalities. The question is whether we will continue to deny reality so we can maintain more pleasant dreams, or whether we will wake.

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