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Cultivating perfection Utopian scholar finds meaning in the process by Beth Staples, Sam Hess (photographs)


We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden”
— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
Dreaming of Lupines and Buttercups, Somesville, Maine 2013

Dreaming of Lupines and Buttercups, Somesville, Maine 2013

When Naomi Jacobs seeks serenity, she tends her ever-expanding flower beds and kitchen garden at her Bangor home. Weeding and planting nourish the University of Maine English professor’s soul.

“For me, it’s a very meditative place. Definitely a stress reliever and just beautiful,” says Jacobs, whose research focuses on utopian and women’s literature.

When Jacobs chaired UMaine’s Department of English, her responsibilities dug into her time to till, as well as to develop a paper for the 2009 annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies. As the conference deadline loomed, Jacobs opted to propose an essay on gardens in utopian literature. Writing and gardening are similar, she says, in that they both involve seeing the larger plot, paying attention to individual details and weeding out what doesn’t fit. Gardening addresses the ubiquitous utopian impulse to create a perfect place and make the world better.

Pink Flower, Stillwater, Maine 2012

Pink Flower, Stillwater, Maine 2012

At the conference, Jacobs and Annette Giesecke, an expert on Ancient Greek and Roman gardens, professor of classics and chair of the Classics program at the University of Delaware, decided to continue to explore the intersect between nature, utopia and the garden.

They invited other gardeners and scholars to do the same. The result is the 305-page, 18-essay, Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden, which was put forth in 2012 from Black Dog Publishing in London.

The volume was the inspiration for a June 6–9 interdisciplinary symposium at the University of Delaware showcasing the garden as an emblem of the ideal human relation with nature. Giesecke and Jacobs co-chaired the symposium, which included tours of important public gardens in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

“For many of us, the creation of a garden is a small candle lit in the darkness of impending ecological collapse,” write Jacobs and Giesecke in the book’s introduction. “Since the garden and gardening practices define humanity’s relation to the natural environment, it’s important to retrace and re-examine the garden’s symbolism, history and life-sustaining potency.”

And that’s what the essayists do. From Biblical passages to city planning and from royal gardens to plots tended by

Before the Concert, Orono, Maine 2012

Before the Concert, Orono, Maine 2012

homeless people, the scholars explore gardens and utopia, and disconnections and dystopia.

Every garden, Jacobs writes, is a utopian text “expressing the desire for a more perfect world,

as well as an implicit critique of the less-lovely world in which it is located.”

In much of suburban America, less-lovely land exists because appearance, neatness and order trump food webs, plant diversity and ecological health, says Douglas Tallamy, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware.

In his essay, “Achieving Ecological Utopia in the Garden,” Tallamy writes that while species’ diversity is imperative for long-term sustainability of ecosystems, “we have reduced the organisms that keep us and all other animals on earth alive to mere ornaments.”

Spring Is Here, Orono, Maine, 2012

Spring Is Here, Orono, Maine, 2012

Pavement and row after row of chemically treated, manicured lawns are ways that humans signal

victories in

the fight with encroaching vegetation and predators, says Tallamy. “In neat landscapes, we, rather than nature, are in control; we feel safe and secure,” he writes.

But it’s false security. The approach is ecologically dangerous and puts the planet in peril. Cornerstones of utopias, Tallamy says, are balance, diversity and harmony. Ecological utopias can be created by returning native plants to the barren landscape.

“It is not an esoteric experiment. It is an imperative for us all if we want to be sustained by our planet. We have become so accustomed to our lifeless landscapes that we are not alarmed by the absence of what is no longer there,” he writes. “In fact if we see life in our gardens — an insect, a rabbit, a groundhog — we usually do our best to exterminate it. We have removed 90 percent of the trees from our living spaces, not because we had to in order to live comfortably but because we did not think we needed to share our yard with other species.”

Zoos are examples of creations of sanitized worlds “subordinate to the controlling vision of the spectator.” People pay to see endangered animals behind gates — oftentimes the very animals whose natural habitats they’ve destroyed, says Irus Braverman, associate professor of law at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

“The zoogoer moves through species, landscapes and temporalities in whatever pattern and pace she chooses,” Braverman writes in her essay “Zootopia: Utopia and Dystopia in the Zoological Garden.” “It is like switching television channels at random.”

Visitors don’t see animals preying on each other as they do in nature and they don’t make the connection “between a piece of hamburger on a Styrofoam plate and a cow,” says Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo.

21 Grape Hyacinth_s
Grape Hyacinth, Orono, Maine, 2010

People have been taught that the transition from a hunting/gathering lifestyle in which humans were connected with and a part of nature to a lifestyle in which humans are removed from and elevated above nature “is the tale of progress that created civilization,” writes Lynda Schneekloth in her essay “Paradise Lost.”

But results of that transition are food insecurity, hierarchal society and loss of community life, says Schneekloth, professor emerita of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Schneekloth cites author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, who says humans were given Eden and have been running Genesis backward by ruining the world in which we live.

Society, she says, has “pushed and exploited the natural world, destroying life-support systems that sustain us and other creatures, the air, the land, the water and living things.” The human race is committing suicide, Schneekloth says, and choices it makes in the very near future will determine its ultimate fate.

She quotes Tallamy: “Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to our survival. Every time we force a species to extinction we promote our own demise. Biodiversity is not optional.”

Susan Willis, associate professor in the literature program at Duke University, strives to live sustainably and in harmony with the world around her at Bitta-Blue Farm, where she grows organic vegetables for the 25 subscribers to her Community Supported Agriculture association. But, in “Bitta-Blue Farm and the Summer of BP,” Willis worries whether her efforts matter in the big picture. In an essay drawn from her 2010 journal, Willis compares and contrasts her daily life on the organic farm with the BP oil spill, when, for 87 days, more than 170 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

When well and thoughtfully done, the gardener’s practice of care extends to the soil and insects, the birds, the mice and the groundhogs, and beyond that to the self, the family, the neighbor hood, the community, and the planet.” Naomi Jacobs

While such environmental destruction can seem insurmountable, Jacobs says that Willis’ efforts, and the efforts of all gardeners, are relevant.

Sitting Pretty, Bangor City Forest, Maine, 2011

Sitting Pretty, Bangor City Forest, Maine, 2011

“Perhaps our ecological situation demands that we think of the garden not as a utopia in the sense of a vision of perfection, but as what Tom Moylan named the ‘critical utopia,’ which ‘reject(s) utopia as a blueprint while ‘preserving it as a dream,’” says Jacobs, now the interim dean of UMaine’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Urban gardeners, she says, can find strength in regarding their gardens “as part of a much larger, decentered and dispersed utopian project — one that has no grand plan, no coherent vision, but finds its meaning in process rather than product.”

Gradually increasing the size of her flowerbeds and replacing lawn with native plants is both soothing and addictive, Jacobs says.

“For the longer one gardens, the better one understands that a gardener’s work is not limited to care of the plants themselves,” she writes in her essay “Consuming Beauty: The Urban Garden as Ambiguous Utopia.”

“When well and thoughtfully done, the gardener’s practice of care extends to the soil and insects, the birds, the mice and the groundhogs, and beyond that to the self, the family, the neighborhood, the community, and the planet.”

All gardeners, she says, are utopianists, including neighbors she’s never met who plant sunflowers every spring on the parking strip in front of their house.

“For by entering into an intimate relation of care with the natural world — however fallen — in their own backyards, they cultivate a larger space of perfection,” Jacobs writes.

Northern Lights, Old Town, Maine 2012

Northern Lights, Old Town, Maine 2012

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Fall 2013

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