In "Why Bother?" Michael Pollan's newest Sunday New York Times Magazine essay, the Berkeley writer urges us all to start vegetable gardens in our backyards as a way not just to combat climate change, but to break the stranglehold of consumerist society and actually do something real.
It's a good read, especially if you're a Berkeleyan with a backyard who is constantly worrying about how to live and eat properly in a world beset with incalculably huge challenges. I swear, Michael Pollan (author, most recently, of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto") simply owns that beat. His point about his "evil" Chinese doppelganger who will eat whatever meat and burn whatever gas that the virtuous Pollan eschews is well-taken. If everyone in Berkeley drove a Prius, but everyone in Shanghai buys an SUV, what good, quantitatively speaking, has been done?
But that's a separate thread, and Pollan does a nice job, in the end, of justifying why we should bother. And yet I'm uncertain about his call for everyone to plant their own climate change Victory Garden.
(For simplicity's sake, I'm going to sidestep the whole what-if-you-don't-have-a-back-yard class warfare morass. In this blog post, everyone is landed gentry, or at the very least, can plant basil in a windowbox.)
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, opposed to vegetable gardens in principle. On the contrary, I have, in the past, taken great pleasure in my own micro-farming. A well-tended garden is both aesthetically satisfying and productive. I agree with Pollan, a late-summer tomato plucked by your hand from the vine is fantastically delicious. I have been known to take perverse pleasure in weeding -- don't get me started on the awesome summer I spent eradicating my running bamboo with nothing more than a mattock and the sweat from my brow. But for two years now, I have stood back and watched the weeds grow.
There are two reasons.
The first reason is sunlight, or rather, the lack of it due to three large redwoods in my backyard, planted in 1980 by a previous owner of my house, named, no lie, Sequoia Lundy. Redwoods grow fast -- a sapling can grow as much as six feet in a year, and in the ten years I've lived in my house, the three redwoods have gradually created their own private canopy. I've considered having one or two of the mighty trees removed, but the irony of clearcutting my own backyard forest for the purposes of agricultural production does not escape me, and my daughter is dead-set against it. She speaks for the trees.
The second reason is more important: leisure time, or rather the lack of it. Because there are patches of sunlight where I could still plant lettuce and tomatoes and beans, and yes I know, gardening can give you a good workout. Perhaps I even agree with Pollan that such a workout is morally superior to running in place on a treadmill at the gym. But I also like to spend my weekends going for long bike rides, and I have found it difficult to balance the time requirements of serious gardening with biking, not to mention a couple of other nagging time-wasters, like parenting and working.
Sometimes, it is possible to take great pleasure in weeding oxalis. Sometimes, it just feels like more work in a life that is already full to the brim. And make no mistake: growing your own food is work -- ask any peasant. To be able to enjoy it as play, or as an almost spiritual exercise that connects you more deeply to the earth and all living things (some of which you must kill: Die, all aphids and snails!) can be a tough call after a long day or week at the office. It can also be an affectation that is only accessible to those who spend their Sunday mornings working their way through the New York Times, before deciding where to put their snap pea trellis.
Pollan concedes that without the specialization facilitated by the division of labor that makes modern economies so rich and diverse, he would not be paid to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. That, for better or worse, is the story of civilization. I'm happy to have other people grow my food for me, and I'll do my best to pay the price premium that ensures it is sustainably produced. But sometimes I'd just rather go for a bike ride, than weed or hoe or water.