or Us and Them
Until the last few years, I spent my professional life in the academic side of the arts, where the difference between "high" and "low" art is traditionally quite important for reasons that have a great deal to do with status and power and very little to do with honesty or generosity. As a music historian at a well-endowed private liberal arts college in New England (which in American parlance shouts "Snobbery!" from the rooftops, even though the reality was much more down to earth), I often felt as if what I was primarily doing was teaching the music of previous oppressor classes to the future oppressor class in the hopes that at least they would be able to oppress people more tastefully. (No one wants to be oppressed by someone who says "Mose-art"; it's almost as bad as being oppressed by someone who says "nucular"...)
Every field, perhaps every human endeavor, has its own set of signs that divide the in-crowd from the outsiders, those in the know from the Philistines. In music the signs that you're an outsider might include tapping your feet to a symphony, enjoying Pachelbel's Canon, or calling a piano piece a "song." These actions do no harm to anyone, but they distinguish between Us and Them, always elevating Us and diminishing Them.
It's a lot like high school.
What we call Classical music has always been the realm of the ruling classes, and, no matter what its genuine beauties and virtues, it retains that taint today. Gardening, like Classical music, has its roots (ahaha) in the world of the European aristocracy. Few are the gardening books that do not refer at least once to Sissinghurst and Villandry, possibly Chatsworth and Versailles, with a tip of the (top) hat somewhere along the line to Capability Brown, 18th-century landscape architect to the British gentry. Most capital-G Gardeners, somewhere in their heart of hearts, have indelibly stamped as a Platonic ideal toward which they strive, The British Garden à la Capability Brown. (A tip of my own hat, if I had one, to novelist Terry Pratchett for inventing Bloody Stupid Johnson, Brown's incompetent alter ego.) Lower-case gardeners have their own snobberies, and the distinctions grow ever finer—those who preach The Organic Way vs. those who swear by Roundup; those who grow only native plants vs. those who must have the latest cultivars; those who adore hothouse annuals vs. those who decry them; those who lawn vs. those who ground-cover; those who ground-cover vs. those who gravel; those who like garden gnomes and those who Do Not.
It's not about gardening; it's about Us and Them, even if we have to go out of our way to create a Them. Gardening is (yet another) place where we stake our claim for self-hood; it is all too often a tool that allows us to elevate ourselves by diminishing others (who are, for the record, doing us no harm).
I sometimes wish that Edvard Munch, in addition to The Scream, had given us a painting called The Sneer.
A friend who had been employed for years in a more than ordinarily cutthroat music department once asked the dean of his institution why it was so vicious and judgmental. The dean replied, "Because the stakes are so low."
Because the stakes are so low. Yes. I do believe that in some aspects of gardening the stakes are quite large. Some methods foster biodiversity while others destroy it; some build the soil while others strip it; some hoard water while others waste it. But when it comes to the placement (or not) of garden gnomes, I hope we can all agree that the long-term consequences are few. I recently read a garden essay—by an author whose work I enjoy—that sneered at people who grow orange marigolds. Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in and think about the stakes here...
Full disclosure: I grow orange marigolds. I love orange marigolds. Apparently, people like me are a type—and rather a vulgar, déclassé type at that. I'm not actually offended at the discovery, and please don't feel the need to reassure me that I'm still an OK Person. The comment actually made me laugh out loud. It also made me think about the degree to which our snobberies extend, and I'm afraid it set the reverse snob in me into high gear. So the next couple of blog posts will celebrate the vulgar plants, the gauche plants—the ones that laugh a little too loudly, that wear a little too much makeup, that talk with a little too much twang, that belch a little too often in public. (Well, not that. That would be rude.) And why not?
The stakes, after all, are so low.