I am an Imperfect, Impure Gardener

Our culture is well steeped in the pursuit of perfect. I was once unaware of perfectionism happening all around me but today I can’t stop seeing the influence of perfect on myself and my fellow humans.

Less than three short years into my gardening journey I learned of this alternative way of gardening and living called permaculture. Soon thereafter my curious, longing eyes started opening to the way perfectionism has influenced our western homes and gardens.

Houses and gardens are all designed with square shapes and straight lines. A perfect bed of vegetables is represented by a straight planting line with perfect, exact spacing between plants. Ideally there are no weeds between the garden plants. Fruit trees are perfectly pruned for ideal shape and production.

Imagine the trepidation of a gardener, pruning shears in hand, fearing making the “wrong” cut on their beloved fruit tree and thus letting down their tree (and their own heart) because it would not be able to shape up to a perfect form.

During my initial immersion into permaculture I learned to notice that nature has no straight lines, and naturally built homes convey all sorts of shapes and textures inspired by local materials and passive energy. Wild plants may have repetition or dense stands but are never found in straight lines. Wild trees are each uniquely shaped by myriad animals, stress, weather and other environmental factors.

One thread ever present in my homesteading journey has been learning to peel back the layers of perfection that my culture has imprinted onto me, so that I could begin to see the world anew. I want to see how I have been influenced by the perfect value system so that I can decide if these ways of living still serve me.

To me perfect walks hand in hand with pure, they are lovers of sorts. While perfection has lead to linear measurements and straight lines in our wildless human world, purity has lead to monocultures like lawns without weeds and millions upon millions of acres of one genetically identical plant (such as corn, soy or wheat) feeding the majority of the world’s population.

A result of living in a culture like this is the ever decreasing diversity of life, thought and diet.

Our populations are still becoming more diseased and weak. We are ever more cut off from nature, from our Earth mother.

I have the serendipity and privilege of living in rural Southern Oregon, where I can rather easily drive into mountain forests to visit the more wild and less tended, less populated land for inspiration, beauty and appreciation.

Unfortunately I cannot avoid witnessing firsthand the aftermath of clearcut forests so close to home. The ongoing clearcutting practice is perhaps not as prevalent here as it once was in this land’s recent past, but it is alive and well.

Photo Credit: Francis Eatherington, Flickr

I learn that the forest management style involving clearcutting also replants only one type of tree (to be harvested later), moving once natural forests into monocultures of one species of timber. The same pattern repeats: diversity is minimized as a result of harvesting a perfect profit. Clear-cutting has happened for decades here, a raping of the land.

To me, a clear-cut forest represents a desire for the perfect profit. To consider the environment, the ecology and life as a whole when managing a forest for timber would mean a financial profit would no longer be perfect. To consider sustainability for our planet, for future generations, for clean water and air, for other forms of life, would lead toward embracing diversity of life. The forest would no longer need to be pure in terms of measurement, efficiency and profit.

It turns out that the word perfect means finished or complete or to go through the form. So that perfect means you’ve gone all the way through and that makes perfection perhaps flawless, but also ultimately lifeless.

Michael Meade, Living Myth Podcast, Episode 339 – On Not Being Perfect

As I spend time in our homestead gardens I start to see perfectionism and purity play out in my own way of thinking and living. As I peel back the layers of cultural influence I see more subtle layers of perfect and pure living in my body.

I walk around and see untidiness in the gardens. I see plants and trees dying that I hoped would thrive. I see my body aging and slowly becoming less able to tend a garden.

How does it feel to witness weeds and grass thriving in the garden knowing I probably won’t get to weeding them all this season? How does it feel to see how many seedlings I started and realize I may not be able to plant and nurture them all? How does it feel to see a tree die that I planted and hoped would thrive?

Sometimes these thoughts lead to self doubt or stress. I may find myself in a whirlwind of frustration over what I haven’t accomplished yet, how much is left to do or why I am not a good enough gardener (read human).

Eventually I remember that I chose not to garden in perfect straight lines. I chose not to simply till the whole garden every year to start with a perfect blank slate. I chose not to give a perfect amount of water to every tree so that I might learn which ones have a chance to thrive in an ever harshening environment and climate. I chose to challenge myself to learn how to garden and live more in tune with nature.

I chose to risk a perfect harvest for the chance to learn how to be less controlling and dominating over life in my little corner of the world.

When I can be present with my emotions I discover these moments of reflection are opportunities to practice letting go of the desire to control. Yes!!! I’ll openly admit that there is a part of me that wants to control every blade of grass and every thorny, spiny, sticky seeded, grabby, viney or otherwise bothersome or pernicious weed in and around our garden.

When I can see those blades of grass and their creeping rhizomatous roots as friends instead of foe my heart opens to new possibilities. I start to see, or feel rather, how those grass plants and their roots grow into me and find a place in my heart.

Even as I pull out some grass from around my beloved garden plants, the grass and I become friends. When the grass is my friend I see its beauty. I see how it is building soil and nourishing worms. I see how it can live where other plants do not. I see the elegance of its roots as my fingers gently follow their path growing through the soil we both want to improve. Those roots I once cursed for breaking too easily, I now marvel over curiously for their graceful elasticity.

Just moments before, I was looking at the grass and seeing something I needed to control for my own happiness, my sanity, my peace of mind, so that I could enjoy the garden feel accomplishment and satisfaction.

Ironically I could sit on some other grass at a park or somewhere outside the garden and enjoy the comfort it offers. I could enjoy the beauty of dew drops on the dark green blades in the morning sunlight.

Pulling my friend out of the soil feels so different than pulling out some thing that is in my way. The experience is more intimate and gentle. I am more grateful for this opportunity to co-create together. I have more respect for the green living being.

In my garden opportunity lies for building close relationships. Who am I excluding or banishing from the garden? Who do I believe has no right to be here? Am I a tourist in my own garden playing favorites (perhaps I am racist against some races of weeds) or am I really participating with life?

I continue to practice letting go of my notions of a perfect garden or a perfect plant. I practice letting go of the desire for some perfect outcome.

When I have less desire for perfection my cup is a little less full. I have a little more room to notice and become enthralled by natural beauty. I have a little more room to accept wisdom from nature.

Of course as a human gardener I still desire abundant harvests and delicious blooms. As a modern human I still work with straight lines when they are practical. I still want to be a better, more skilled gardener.

You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

If I strive for perfection, if I try to live in a world without flaws, if I push away every bad thought, every inconvenient truth, or every “bad” plant, or otherwise try to cover up or patch the crack, I will miss the beauty of the light shining through. I’ll miss noticing the beauty of the garden and its ever present magic in that very moment.

The ancient Egyptians had a saying that a beautiful thing is never perfect. In other words the pursuit of perfection diminishes the amount of beauty in the world. Ancient artists who seemingly understood this idea that the perfect is the enemy of the beautiful would often place a defect in their creative work to honor the necessary imperfections of life on earth. In making earthenware they would often leave one area un-glazed or allow a small crack to be seen. This imperfection in the vessel made each piece unique, one of a kind, a piece of creation never to be repeated in all of time. . . . Since each soul born is unique itself it makes sense that each person would have a characteristic flaw or simply be a little cracked. Another way to see this is that each person is also a vessel where time and eternity meet. And so each must be cracked at least enough for the eternal to find a way in and for the inner dream of life and the energy of creativity to find a way out.

Michael Meade, Living Myth Podcast, Episode 339 – On Not Being Perfect

I recognize that there are cracks in every philosophy the one I’ve shared with you today. Striving to embrace imperfection can unwittingly become its own sort of pursuit of perfection. I can become evangelical about avoiding purity, which in itself is ironically a form of purity.

So here I am — an imperfect gardener in an impure garden — learning to see, accept and even love my flaws so that I can more fully dance with nature and participate in the beauty of life.

I recognize the voice in me that continues to insist on wanting to achieve a perfect garden. My inner circle of elders no longer let him run the show like he used to, at times. But instead of banishing him from the garden, shaming him or otherwise suppressing him, his voice is welcome and he is heard. Just like the rest of me, he wants joy in his own way and he is ready to open his heart and love.

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