Monday, July 28, 2014

The American Dream

A couple of weekends ago, I journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, to Cultivate’14 An AmericanHort Experience! This conference is Disney World for landscapers and nursery folk. It’s part trade-show, part lecture-series, and part networking-palooza.

Highlights: I won a lethal-looking weeding tool from the Garden Writer’s Association raffle, met a handsome Swedish man peddling AIKEA-esq, industrial greenhouse lighting (I was intimidated. Think Eric from “True Blood,” but bursting with agricultural and electrical prowess), and decided that I need a zombie gnome for my garden. Oh, and I got a tattoo of a chlorophyll molecule (but that’s probably a topic for another post).

 The conference was amazing, and honestly, I wasn't expecting to learn something new about the American Dream. Charlie and Art Parkerson, a father and son team from Suffolk, Virginia gave a talk called “The New Normal.” Now see, Charlie and Art are the Michael and Kirk Douglas of the greenhouse and nursery industry. Their lecture explained one of the biggest transitions that the plant industry must accommodate: a changing American Dream.

Landscapers and garden centers had a very specific function in the American Dream for the casserole generation, the Parkerson’s explained. The American Dream meant a certain kind of suburban home, with a certain kind of family. The home of the American Dream had a sumptuous, emerald green, manicured lawn . Probably a hedge of arborvitaes marking the property, proud rose bushes around the front of the house, cheery tulips around the mailbox, and perhaps a left-over victory garden. Michael Pollan gives a good history of the American lawn in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. Read it, it's awesome.

I’ve been obsessed with the American Dream for a while. I wrote my master’s thesis on it. Specifically, globalization and the loss of the American dream through the lens of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby. The basic idea was that those two books illustrate the dissonance that results from the rapidly shifting construct of the American Dream.

According to Charlie and Art, the “New American Dream” doesn’t have that perfect lawn anymore. The new American Dream has to accommodate “greenies”; those that have a fair amount of “environmental guilt,” and social consciousness (i.e., those of us that could care less if our lawn goes brown during a drought). Their take on the New American Dream is much more urban and “unrooted.” People are much more mobile and slower to settle down in a house (if we do at all). Moreover, the jello-salad mentality has been replaced with “connoisseurs,” “gourmets and geeks,” that prefer local craft beer to an all-American Budweiser. Sounds like a fair assessment to me.

 Lawns weren’t on my radar when I wrote my MA thesis. I wrote it after wandering Europe in a very intense international relations and economics summer abroad program. I wrote all 50 pages of it, longhand, between visits to the Moet Chandon Corporate Chateau, the Prada Factory, a Parisian think-tank, the EU, UN, WTO, and other acronyms as well. I was thinking about the American Dream in terms of global politics and economics—not in terms of the literal back yard. I think that was 2007, before I cultivated a sense of good back-up hygiene. After I typed it and sent it I mostly forgot about it. Years of being in a PhD program made that stepping-stone of writing largely irrelevant. It did get turned into a 7 page conference talk, but I’ve lost all the minutiae and close-reading. Who knows where that file went. Now I’m really pissed that I can’t find a copy of it, because now I am thinking about lawns. I’m wondering if I paid attention to Thompson or Palahniuk’s lawns at all. Probably not.

Landscapers and garden centers, the Parkerson’s explained, have a responsibility to help people achieve their New American Dream. We have to “step up.” We shouldn’t even imagine an updated American Dream that doesn’t have a spot for urban gardening, rain gardens, green roofs, composting and a revamped victory garden.

Back in the day, landscapers and garden centers made certain implicit promises. We promised to provide a living, green dream. That’s a promise we should still honor. Garden centers won’t have a “buy 2.5 kids get a free chicken/tofurky for every pot” special anytime soon. But we do have a social responsibility to provide the education and resources for people to live as green as they want.

 To Learn More about Cultivate’14:

Charlie and Art Parkerson’s book, That Ain’t No Deal. A book filled with “dirt-simple wisdom and advice”:

Michael Pollan's Second Nature: A Gardener's Education:

And here's my happy puppy, on a lawn:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dirt vs. Soil

Dirt vs. Soil

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             Since the beginning of time, my stepdad, Kurt, has inserted the following question into as many conversations as possible; “what’s the difference between dirt and soil?”  He says it with a twinkle in his eyes like it’s the set up for a joke. Or maybe like it’s a riddle.  
            I’ve heard more people answer this prompt, in more different ways, than I could fling a muddy stick at;
“Dirt is dry, soil is wet.”
“Dirt is what you wash off, soil is what makes it dirty in the first place.”
             “No difference, they are the same thing,”
             “Dirt is bad, soil is good,” or the opposite “soil is bad, dirt is good.”
Sometimes the question is answered as if it is a joke, with a weak punch line; “Soil is who you take home to mom, but you call Dirt for a good time on Saturday?” Kurt nods at these answers, crosses his arms and settles back as more anemic punch lines invariably follow.
Other times, the answers get really detailed. Those answers are mostly trying to do some kind of man-dance of intellectual territory. Kurt has been mastering the ways of dirt and soil since the early 80’s, when his landscaping business started to take off. Anyway, I can’t recall any of those specific exchanges (the type of person that tends to give that kind of long answer is an annoying know-it-all that I avoid when possible. You know the type). The more complicated the answers get, the tighter he purses his lips in defiance of the grin threatening to betray the mansplaination taking place.
Then there are those that, in a fit of curiosity or honesty, say “I don’t know, what?” It’s what I remember saying. How many people really do know the difference between dirt and soil? Does it matter? Who cares?
With his arm extended, he swings his hand down at the wrist in a gesture that indicates a simple and significant explanation is about to take place. The kind of “anyone can make a pie, Honey, it just takes practice” gesture. Then, as matter of fact as the day is long, he leans forward to say, “Soil is when it’s outside. Once it’s inside, it’s dirt.”

I grew up with this mantra. I’ve heard that explanation come out of my mouth. I’ve thought it in my head so often that now when I think it, I hear it in my voice rather than his.
I hear this when I (eventually) put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, when I vacuum my dirty floor, when I wipe my dog’s dirty, slimy kisses off my cheek. I hear this when students ask questions about the origin of quote-unquote dirty words. I hear this when I watch Jack Nicholson in his role in As Good As It Gets, engaging in OCD rituals of cleanliness—or when I watch Kevin Costner in Waterworld. I still do *not* understand how that damn jar of dirt is so uniquely precious when everyone is filthy.

I hear it in my head when I read Freud, the drug-addled granddaddy of psychology and interpretation. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is the only book of his that I can stand—probably because this book marks his move away from his work on women being hysterical vehicles for wandering wombs.[1] In it, Freud explains that we find the marks of civilization  in a culture's relationship to dirt and soil. For Freud, soil is outside, too. He writes that man attains the highest level of civilization when,
 “The soil is carefully cultivated and planted with the vegetation which it is suited to support” (76).
Civilization happens when we know what to do with soil. When we have mastery over it, we are likely to have mastery over other things that matter, too. Freud then goes on to say 
“Dirtiness of any kind seems to us incompatible with civilization… Indeed, we are not surprised by the idea of setting up the use of soap as an actual yardstick civilization. (77-78). 
Dirt and soil never shall meet as long as we’re properly playing at civilization. Soil is outside, when it comes inside the soap comes out. We must keep dirt outside, where it belongs, in order to remain civilized. Freud and Kurt probably wouldn’t have much to say to each other at the dinner table, but they stand in fraternity on the soil issue.

Thirty years after Freud, Anne McClintock writes about “Dirt Fetishes,” to explain how our attitude to dirt tells us about ourselves. She isn’t the only one writing about dirt, but she was the first I found when I started my wanderings in grad-school land. For that she remains a touch-stone. In Imperial Leather McClintock explains that  
“Nothing is inherently dirty; dirt expresses a relation to social value and social disorder…. A broom in a kitchen closet is not dirty, whereas lying on a bed it is” (152-153).[2]  
We decide what is dirty in relation to where we are, and what our rules allow. We determine the rules, neither the dirt, nor the soil make such decisions. McClintock goes on to say “dirt is what is left over after exchange value has been extracted.” Once soil is no longer useful (i.e., once we have removed it, in small doses, from the outdoors where we can properly use it) it is dirty. A dirty cup can’t (or shan’t?) be used. A dirty wedding dress is probably ruined, as is a dirty library book. Dirty needles, dirty food, dirty diapers and so on.  

I hear all of this as I write in the margins of my books, implanting my own thoughts. I hear this when I brush my teeth. I hear this when I put my dirty compost scraps in the stinky, spider filled bin. I hear this when I wash up for dinner and when I clean up after it. The ways in which we make room for dirt, and for soil show us what kind of civilization we have. In considering the difference between dirt and soil we consider the difference between where we are and where we were. That’s getting our hands dirty. That’s where we find the soil in our stories.   

[1] Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and ed. By  James Strachey. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1961; 2005.
[2] McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial context. Routeledge: NY, 1995.