“The world is made of dirt. A rock doesn’t have feelings.”
The flaccid man in the documentary glared out of the monitor at me accusingly, as if he suspected me of once being nice to a tree. He cleared his throat, and bellowed, “The earth doesn’t know it has friends.”
I stared back at the screen, rather bemusedly. The documentary was, rather improbably, on innovation in modern architecture—such is the fare of late night English TV in China. I listened as the flaccid man waxed indignant, puffing and blowing to his thesis: forget all this silly claptrap of being nice to nature, of simpering catchwords like sustainability, of wilting timidly from the grand visions of building and progress and rugged concrete materialism, and scour away sentimentality to assert “…a vision of art that imposes itself upon the world.”
I decided to risk an ad hominem and guess that this splutteringly indignant documentarian wasn’t a gardener.
He’s right, of course, that rocks aren’t self-aware, or any other kind of aware, and—with apologies to 1975—remain completely indifferent when you pet them. And yes, the world is dirt and that’s really mostly sand and clay, which don’t make ideal pets either.
The same, I suppose goes for water—has anybody tried to market pet water?—there simply is nothing particularly emotive about two hydrogen molecules joining up with an oxygen molecule assuming a liquid state and swilling about together.
Water, dirt, and rock are not, in the strictly technical sense, alive. And yet to say the earth doesn’t know it has friends simply because a rock doesn’t know it’s been petted misses the obvious and inevitable meaning of the earth.
Gardeners reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the feeling of life, of being able to look at a handful of dust and see not just what it is but what it can be—what it’s reading for. You’ll smell it, first, and feel it, feel the temperature of the dirt changing as you scrape deeper. And you’ll see things scuttle away, crawl deeper into the damp. You’ll scrape through roots, and if you dig long enough you’ll feel water under
your fingers. This is earth—what we’ve all felt when we paddled in the dirt as a children, if we were lucky.
Or hack a drop of water under a microscope and watch it for a while—you could easily be forgiven for assuming that you’re watching some primordial rush hour, with every little organism scrambling to get to the office for a busy day’s evolving.
Water, dirt, and rock might not have what we recognize as life—but they’re home to hundreds of thousands of creatures that do. This is what I mean by earth—the land and the sky and the sea and all that’s in them.
My father and grandfather are both gardeners,* and listening to them talk about the earth—about soil and mulch and magnesium, which certainly don’t have feelings—is to hear a real affection for this dull matter. My grandfather tended the same patch of earth for over 30 years, and I always knew that dirt and black and soft and vital. When the earth is cared for, it responds. Any gardener worth their spade understands this intuitively. If the soil is tended carefully, caringly—if we give into the earth—then it gives back, vigorously, with life.
That, quite simply and literally, is what happens. There’s good science behind it all—as most gardeners can tell you. But put plainly, earth can be tended, and nurtured. Earth can be wounded and desecrated. Earth can be forgotten and left formless, or it can be gathered and grown.
No less a figure than Jacob Grimm compared storytelling to gardening. It doesn’t need a lot of imagination to reclaim and reinvent the metaphor. As makers and inheritors of story—whatever medium we work in—we can choose the way of the planster, and see earth as lumps of unfeeling rock, to be bludgeoned into our vision of the future. Or we can see the earth as a gardener sees it—can listen for the stories happening and explaining and questioning the bustle of life all around us.
I’ve seen wounded earth. I’ve seen mountains gashed and battered, water vile and viscous and poisonous, fields pummeled and torn and asphalted and pummeled again, and left vacant in the end. I’ve seen trees mutilated and lopped off and infected and torn up. I smelt air reeking of chemicals, seen the toxic fug hanging like mist between the mountains and round the temple spires, and sat sobbing in my office a little because I couldn’t get breath. Of course I have. You have, too. We live in the twenty-first century, and this is how the earth is treated in our time.
I’ve also seen my grandfather’s garden. Those are the sort of stories I want to tell—stories that rise out of the earth and give back to it. Stories that don’t impose a brutal, scraping vision, but that are willing to listen, and ask, and listen again. Stories that arise not from hostility, but from hospitality to the earth and the sea and all that is in them. The earth might not know it—but yes, it has friends.
*Whereas I rebelled and took up birdwatching.