On Gardening Life

July 26, 2010

“Odd as it may appear, a gardener does not grow from seed, shoot, bulb, rhizome, or cutting, but from experience, surroundings, and natural conditions.”  

                                                                                                   Karel Capek

One of my summer joys is spending afternoon hammock time with the Modern Library Gardening Series. Mornings are for gardening, of course: weeding, pruning, planting, fighting with hoses, doing battle with rabbits and chipmunks, deadheading and marking the spots where planting can begin again in September.

Karel Capek was keeping me company in my old Brazilian hammock last week when the Digital Diplomacy article in the New York Times Magazine prompted a classic exchange between a practitioner and a scholar of public diplomacy.

Writing in Huffington Post, practitioner emeritus John Brown had written:

All too many academic theories about PD are incomprehensible, pompously-expressed "concepts" from persons -- among them rightfully esteemed tenured professors whose intelligence is all too often joined with a tactless inability to handle the last three feet of person-to-person contact -- who have never actually worked as diplomats in the field of "public diplomacy," which they pontificate about, often too assuredly, from their ivory towers on comfortable campuses so distant from what some call the "real world."

American University scholar, Craig Hayden, puzzled and concerned by the  criticism, responded as a guest on Mountain Runner. In a post well worth reading he asks, “what is the real problem that bothers Dr. Brown? What sort of creeping threat is posed by public diplomacy theorists?”

We have danced around this mulberry bush before.  Then, as now, I find myself sympathetic to Craig’s position. Having performed public diplomacy with some recognition and distinction, I turned in later life to teaching, much like John. I know that there is a difference between the practice and the scholarship but I do not share in his animosity. 

Any practice, gardening included, is about the particulars. We know that gardening occurs in a specific time and place and yet it is always about the future. Planting a grove of birch trees as I have done, is surely not about tomorrow’s show, it is an act of faith in future fullness. As Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, we are “cultivating our consciousness of time.” We gardeners relish the specifics and celebrate the distinctions among and between our gardens. Even within a garden, there are micro-climates and soil differences, there are variables of shade and sun. Wind conditions change. By cultivating a garden, we are changed through our very experience of it. We become grounded in the earth and carry dirt under our fingernails as  proof of our cultivation.

Public diplomacy gets under your skin in much the same way. We are changed by the practice as much as -- if not more -- than we change the global landscape within which we direct our efforts. Most of us learn humility and respect for the power of cultural and historical difference. We learn limits and patience and come to value being schooled by actual experience above all. In reading through the comments made a year ago by the mulberry bush dancers, it seems to me that similar feelings about the art and craft of public diplomacy come through.

On the part of the practitioner, there is resentment of the simplification that naturally occurs as scholarly observers climb the ladder of abstraction in order to perceive, describe and assess. Scholars are looking for patterns, causality, explanation.  They sacrifice detailed descriptions for broad observations. Each of the details they chuck  away as they climb theoretically is precious to the worker in the field. As Karel Capek wrote of gardeners seventy years ago from his Czech perch:

I will tell you how to recognize a real gardener. “You must come to see me,” he says, “I will show you my garden.” Then when you go just to please him, you will find him with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials. “I will come in a moment,” he shouts to you over his shoulder. “Just wait till I have planted this rose.” ... “Come along. I will show you Dianthus musalae, it will open your eyes. Great scott, I forgot to loosen it here” he says and begins to poke in the soil. 

Those with dirty hands from poking in the soil are happy to converse about gardens -- if you have the patience for their remembrances of all the “digging and planting, and waiting it took to bring them to this point.” For the scholar, satisfaction comes from fitting the pieces into a larger whole. It is hard to have a conversation when one participant is standing high on a ladder of abstraction and the other is bending over to focus on her individual flowers, seeing in them all the digging, watering, dividing, trimming and fertilizing she has done.

Gardening is not learned in college, neither is the practice of diplomacy. But there are many fields of study that contribute the knowledge required to be skilled in both. As a gardener, I value and learn from horticulture, botany, landscape architecture and ecology. As a diplomat, I learned from political communication, international relations, diplomatic studies as well all the interdisciplinary area studies relevant to the countries of my assignments.  One way of knowing does not “refudiate” the other.  There is no either/or. 

The only threat I see at the moment is a very chubby chipmunk who has eaten every single leaf on my Caryopteris Blue Mist.  That, you will understand, means war!

Oh, and if you have the time, you must come and see me, I will show you my garden.

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License