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January: If I Can't See, Can It Be?



After these odd last couple of years, my family decided to start this year with a bit of adventure and hopefully some moments of awe . . . we headed to the arctic to see the northern lights. They say you can’t always see them, but we got lucky; they were out each night we were there. It turns out **spoiler alert** that what you see may not be what you were expecting based on pictures. We would have missed them the first night, but we stopped and turned around after we saw some people on a path facing us looking up. We could see a grayish, slightly green streak across the sky that came, and then went, and then reappeared. I held up my phone to take a picture and what the camera saw was fantastic and not what we could see. No filter, no special settings, but very different than what we saw with our naked eye. None of us really knew how to think about that. Why was it different? Was it still cool? As cool?


So, I went back to the room, googled it, and discovered that our eyes, specifically our night vision has limitations that a camera does not; we can’t see all that is there. See, e.g., https://www.space.com/23707-only-photos-reveal-aurora-true-color.html (this article includes pictures comparing the two). I pondered this over the next few days. On our last night we went snowshoeing through the woods and saw some of the more dramatic lights of the trip. We still could only see faint colors (we thought we spied some red versus only green but couldn’t be sure), but the movement of the auroras was great; they danced all over the sky. Our guide couldn’t have shown less interest. In fact, he expressed a kind of disdain as a few of us took pictures: “It’s fake.” His comment focused my thoughts. Are the pictures “fake” or can we just not see what is real? And if the latter, why isn’t it cool or as cool if we need help to see it? I didn’t feel disappointed, I felt humbled by the example of our limitation. We had made a long journey to reach almost the top of the earth and were standing in a natural environment that the kids described as another world, and, although cool, we needed help to see nature more clearly. Like other creatures have different sight, sound, perception, and knowledge limitations, so too do we. We may be apex inhabitants of this earth, but, in relation to the whole, we are but a part and a part that has incomplete perception and knowledge.


This experience got me thinking about perspective taking in the garden. In the past hundred years or so, so much gardening and farming has been about the control and dominance of nature, either to create a view that suited our tastes or because we thought we could manipulate nature to produce superior outcomes. More recently more focus has shifted to rehabilitating nature, to being better stewards, to correcting wrongs, to engaging in activities more in harmony with and less harmful to nature. And yet, much of the language is still control oriented. The target may have changed—we may seek, for example, to encourage pollinators in some instances versus focusing on plants that we find simply beautiful, but the way we go about it often seems very similar. There are new good and bad lists. There are new dos and don’ts. But we often still seek to take control and implement a “better” way. This makes me pause. Maybe we need different approaches for different purposes.


If I want a garden that is meant to be my haven, then my perspective may be the guiding light. And since I know me, rigidity may be just fine. If I detest pink, there is no reason I can’t with singular vision make sure that not a pink flower is in sight. I can look at lists and pictures and choose what I like, what will suit me. If I like order, and, in order I find solace, I can clean the beds and keep them very tidy with fastidiousness. But what if, for example, instead of, or in addition to, this I decide to have an area meant to encourage and support pollinators. Is it enough to just look at a different list, different articles, and plant different plants? A garden to encourage pollinators is not about me (or only about me), but about nature. And here, I find the aurora helpful. Nature is bigger than me. Its totality and complexity are beyond my unaided perception and our current knowledge. We are just starting to uncover some of the unseen connections. As one example, there is growing scientific exploration of what is happening below the surface in the soil and between plants, relationships whose contours will come better into focus in the coming years. No doubt, today’s lists and must dos will not stand the test of time unscathed.


So maybe we shouldn’t just be changing our lists but also our mindset when our garden projects are nature focused versus personal focused. This is not at all to argue against personal based garden projects, only to pose that when the focus changes, maybe the approach should too. When we turn to nature stewardship, we can do the best we can do based on current knowledge, but with the awareness that that knowledge is imperfect, and that one of the best teaching sources is nature herself. When viewed as an experiment and a learning exercise, I find that some things work that aren’t supposed to, some generally maligned plants seem to have benefits, and some things that should work don’t work well depending on context and combination. Pollinators interact with the same plants differently depending on what is blooming at the same time or where the plants are planted. Sometimes they like plants that we do not. And there may be more or less of them depending on the quantity and quality of intact winter habitats that support their whole lifecycle or surrounding summer habitats. If I seek to encourage and assist pollinators, the pollinators themselves offer a lot of guidance or at least raise questions for more thought. I have learned much from my garden when I approached a new project with a lot of information but also a good dose of curiosity and experimentation: when I opened myself to garden feedback (overt and more subtle) even if that feedback seemed contrary to some prevailing thought, or when I noted some change and spent time trying to think what brought it about.


One of the seed companies that I use posts a lot of informational videos.The following is the beginning of a video on elephant garlic: “My whole life I thought here in zone 5 it’s way too cold to grow elephant garlic. That is what I have always heard, and so this last fall we decided to plant some because we are constantly pushing the envelope here at Fruition Seeds to see what is possible. And indeed sometimes general knowledge is generally correct, and sometimes it’s very incorrect, and so we just take everything with a grain of salt and want to experiment and explore . . . .” And with the aurora in mind, that is what I also seek to do.