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On Gardening and Writing | Levi Rogers

On Gardening and Writing | Levi Rogers

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to hear Michael Pollan give a short reading at Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City at a fundraiser for the Internal Rescue Committee, an organization whose mission is to assist refugees, asylum seekers, and victims of human trafficking. The tickets cost $150 and I, a poor writer, was only able to attend because my company, a coffee roastery, had donated coffee for the event. As Pollan noted in his opening statements, the evening felt particularly appropriate as June 30th marked the start date of the revised refugee travel ban put forth by the White House.

I knew some of Pollan’s work, but as he started talking I was surprised to learn that before Pollan found his groove, or as he put it, his “audience,” in books like In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and Cooked (which is now a Netflix show), his first two books were wholly different. His second book covered his experience learning to build a cabin in the woods called A Place of my Own. His first book, Second Nature: A Gardeners Handbook, about moving from Manhattan to rural Connecticut to start a garden. This first book leapt out at me because for the last five years I have been trying, and failing, to keep my own garden. So, I bought Second Nature and after the drinks, hors d’oeurves and silent auction, promptly went home to start reading.

I’m not a particularly good gardener. For the five or so years I’ve been gardening the process has mostly involved me throwing some seeds and starters into the dry dirt in April, seeing what pops up come June and what doesn’t. Sure, I till the soil in the spring, mix in some good potting soil, water, etc., but I do not measure PH levels in the soil or spend hours in the day weeding. In fact, the weeds in my garden have a tendency to outnumber the vegetables at a rate of 100:1. Not to mention the nightly assault of whatever the cats, birds, and dog perform on the garden each night when I go to sleep. Ever Since my wife and I moved into our Salt Lake City, Utah house and found five garden boxes in the backyard, I quickly began an annual April-October ritual of planting, watering, and harvesting those five boxes. Utah itself, not exactly the most hospitable climate for gardening.

As if it needed to be said, gardening is no easy task. As Pollan says in Second Nature, you are quite literally at odds with nature to do so, working on a type of compromise between wildness and civilization. Of course, many writers have famously explored this relationship between humanity and nature in the past—from Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, to more contemporary writers like Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Michael Pollan. In fact, Pollan says he learned how to garden and write from Wendell Berry.[1] But unlike the theories of wildness as espoused by Emerson and Thoreau, a garden cannot survive amongst weeds; a garden needs cultivation. “To weed is to bring culture to nature—which is why we say, when we are weeding, that we are cultivating the soil,[2]” says Pollan in Second Nature. “Weeds, contrary to what the romantics assumed, are not wild. They are as much of a product of cultivation as the hybrid tea rose, or Thoreau’s bean plants…weeds have evolved with just one end in view: the ability to thrive in ground man has disturbed.[3]” Thus, if humans didn’t exist, weeds wouldn’t either. The same could be said of writing: If we never started writing, we would never have to deal with all those pesky weeds of revision, submission, and editing.

The metaphors between writing and gardening, unlike my annual harvest, are plentiful. Tilling could be like research, the groundwork of writing. Planting like the first draft. Weeding could be editing and revision. Water, the outside influences of peers. The sun equivalent to the force of time. The soil could be the years of decomposed books, essays, short stories, or lectures on craft that have influenced a writer throughout their career. And unfortunately, no matter what, gardening and writing are both going to cost some money.

Growing a garden requires sun, water, soil, labor and, annoyingly, time. It’s hard to cram the amount of maintenance a garden requires in between work, school, kids, and taking the dog out. If we’re being completely honest, by the time you add up the cost of buying the plants, soil, and the cost of your water bill, it doesn’t really save you any money. There are, of course, some benefits—those of taste and nutrition first—and though I wouldn’t say I’m a paranoid person, I do think it’s a good idea we all know how to grow our own food, whether or not a Mad Max or Children of Men type of world descends upon us.

Gardening also gives us a sense of connection to the natural world. I believe the minute we started comparing our lives to the mechanical and the technological world—instead of the natural—humanity, especially us Westerners, began to suffer. Because not everything in life can be microwaved and digitally compressed, made to look as picture perfect as Instagram. Some things take time. Like growing plants and vegetables for instance. Or writing and art.

The idea or metaphor I am most drawn to between writing and gardening is one of time and patience. I am a young gardener and a young writer. I have been gardening for the last five years, writing for almost ten, and I am frustrated by both my lack of both gardening prowess and literary publication credits. I have spent entire weeks on certain garden boxes that, like a short story or essay, may yield one dead green pepper and three small orange carrots. The entire six months of tilling, planting, watering, and harvesting, amounting to one decent summer evening meal. I’m working on a book that, like my garden, may turn out to be a complete waste of time, five years worth.

While I was obtaining my MFA from Antioch University, I worked on the blog of our school’s literary journal called Lunch Ticket. I’m sure everyone there tired of my constant writing about how frustrating the art of writing could be, how much time and patience it took. “Self-Impressed with how well I could put myself down,” about the whole thing, as singer Aaron Weiss of the band Mewithoutyou sings in one of his songs. But that was pretty much all I could write about when I wasn’t working on my own material. In fact, sometimes I think I like the idea of gardening more than I like gardening itself. The same is true for writing, I like the idea of publishing a book or essay, but do I really want to put the time, effort, and patience into a project that could ultimately amount to nothing? I don’t know. If I get frustrated with how long the whole thing is taking, I have to ask myself this question. Why are you doing it? Because no one spends hours each summer gardening if they don’t, at least somewhat, enjoy it.

The results of gardening or writing should not be expected. They are a bonus, and to some degree, up to the gods. The products of faith, hard work, and chance. Drought, plague, deer, or birds could strike your garden overnight, and it doesn’t matter how much you water or weed. But this is the ultimate lesson of nature and art. It does not bow to our industrial/technological demands of efficiency no matter how much we may try and force it to do so. Both the writer and the gardener must sow into their lives, the virtues of patience and time. Or as Wendell Berry says in his poem “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

 

“Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.[4]

 

This summer, I have harvested approximately one bowl of lettuce, eight onions, three carrots, six beets, a handful of mint, some kale, and way too much zucchini. I harvested maybe a week’s worth of vegetables from the entire summer of cultivation. So, this year was not the most fruitful year of harvest. I would often find myself holding a hose at night, watering the lawn and the garden once the scorching summer sun had disappeared, thinking about my writing and my gardening, frustrated at how pointless the time and effort you put into the process appeared. But I am still a young gardener and a young writer, and of course, there’s always next year. As one of my workshop leaders, Scott Wolven, said at a recent conference in New York, the goal should not be about becoming a good writer, the goal should always be to simply write better. Or as Pollan said when I asked him for writerly advice during the book signing, “It’s the best of times and the worst of times … keep at it.”

[1] http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/conversation-michael-pollan

[2] Pollan, Michael. Second Nature. New York: Grove Press, 1991. Pg. 115

[3] Pollan, Michael. Second Nature. New York: Grove Press, 1991. Pg. 109

[4] Berry, Wendell. “The Mad Farmers Liberation Front.” In Context: Reclaiming Politics. Summer/Fall 1991.

 

Levi Rogers has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a Bachelors of English from the University of Utah. He’s published essays, poetry, and reviews in Hoot!, Lunch Ticket, Drunk Monkeys, Akashic Books, Revolv Magazine, Sojourners, A Deeper Story, The Burnside Writers Collective, Medium, and Devour Magazine. He works on the blog team at the soon-to-be-unleashed literary journal, Meow Meow Pow Pow, and also served on Antioch University’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket, as an associate editor. He runs a coffee roasting company by day and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Cat, his dog Amelie, and his socks, all of which have holes.

Five Questions with Levi Rogers:

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?

LR: Really this idea came out of failure, In my ability to garden and in the frustration of writing in general. Everything with writing takes so long! There’s the initial act of getting the prose down. Then you have to let it age. Then go back and revisit, tinker. Again and again. And often times it doesn’t go anywhere. I think writing has to be the least efficient art-form ever. But more directly the piece was influenced in a talk given by Michael Pollan I went to, coupled with some late nights/early morning of watering my garden and thinking about life and writing.

TD: Who is your greatest writing influence? 

LR: The three writers that really started me down the path were Anne Lamott, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace. But some great influences lately have been Wendell Berry, Lydia Yuknavitch, James Baldwin, and George Saunders. My favorite/greatest influence for the last few years however, has been the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love his prose and voice. The way he writes about daily, banal events—cleaning toilets and changing diapers and making sandwiches—alongside death, marriage, and observations on art, writing, and so on.

TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?

LR: I don’t really have a favorite place. I write wherever I can. At a coffee shop, at my dining room table, on my couch, in an airplane. Wherever I can find the time/happen to be. Ideally it would be a quiet coffee shop with a sort of modern and yet cozy library type feel. I like writing while traveling because I feel like it shakes me out of my normal routine and enables me to think about my words differently.

TD: Favorite word? 

LR: Tinker

TD: Do you have a reading ritual?

LR: I pretty much read at night before I go to bed unless I’m travelling. I try to read two books a month at the very least. Usually one fiction, one nonfiction or craft-related.


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