Poems and gardens each offer us chances for tending, for attention, for care. We love what we care for.
Tess Taylor is the editor of Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens and the Hands That Tend Them(Storey Publishing, 2023), a beautiful poetry anthology offering a warm, inviting selection of poems from a wide range of voices that speak to the collective urge to grow, tend, and heal—an evocative celebration of our connection to the green world.
A year into the pandemic, when everything was grim, Hannah, a friend who I knew from my time working at a farm in the Berkshires, called to ask if I would like to build an anthology of contemporary gardening poems. “People are taking such solace in gardening now,” she told me. My heart leapt. On the day she called, I’d been in our front yard plot myself, clearing out peas and putting in zinnias and talking (still at a distance) to people wandering by who seemed curious about gardening.
Hannah’s call came at the right time. I’ve been a gardener since my parents took me as a baby to their community plot in Madison in the late 70s. I’ve gardened in Boston and Brooklyn and taught gardening to youth in a community garden in West Berkeley. I’d written a book (Work & Days) about that year on the three-acre farm in the Berkshires. Now, I was home, circling the postage-stamp lot in front of our little bungalow. Gardening was once again a sustaining passion. I kept finding new ways to wedge plants in. I couldn’t change the hard fact of the lockdown months, but I could create a new planter box for winter favas. It turned out we had a whole unused patch of sun to tap in the driveway. Who needs parking? What if our driveway could be food and flowers instead? Within months I’d filled the cement slab with blueberry bushes, tomatoes in pots. The plants could be my friends even if the people I so longed for in the world seemed desperately far away. Frankly, I loved imagining a world where we’d someday use fewer cars and bicycle more and everyone could grow untold amounts of produce in their driveways, or reclaim unused commercial lots to become small but mighty urban farms.
“I dwell in possibility, a fairer world than prose,” Emily Dickinson once said. I’ve found that my inner gardener often dwells in possibility, too. Gardeners know that you can find broken or unused places, tend to them steadily, and then uncover radical abundance. Gardeners look at fruit trees and flowers and see food for people and habitat for pollinators and jam for the winter and plums for the neighbors. Gardeners have an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, and by “they” we really mean a wilder, more generous world. They live in a kind of faithfulness in our ability to reach through ourselves towards a blooming future. In this they are not unlike other kinds of artists, imagining up their great work. As the poet CK Williams once said, “In order to write a poem you have to invent a poet to write it. You also… have to invent a whole literature to receive it, and a whole community of poets who will have produced that literature.”
I accepted the challenge to create a new anthology of gardening poems. I was soon teasing out the veins of a literature—one that bears witness to our closeness to plants, our tenderness for them, our need to be near them, what we learn when we lean towards relatedness. I was noticing poems where people talk to plants, as if it is the nature of our relationship with plants to summon us into the strange beauty of lyric address. I was tapping a current in contemporary poetry, exploring why, in a world when we can theoretically get many things at a store, and in which the planet seems so fragile, we return to the garden, the work of hand and soil. For many months, I’d sneak out from pandemic home schooling for a few hours each day to edit the anthology out in a neighbor’s shed, and I thought about how poems and gardens are kind companions.
Kind companions. By this I don’t just mean that it’s pleasant to write and read poems about gardening, though it is. I don’t just mean that there’s a wonderful and rich tradition of writing garden poems, though there’s that, too. I thought instead about how poems and gardens share congruence: they each provide spaces in which we can excavate our attention, widen our imaginations, enter deeper community with the human and nonhuman world. I thought about how poems and gardens offer a density of encounter: you go in and through them can witness and participate some in of the life of a language, or, of the life of the earth, both being systems bigger than we are, which we move through and yet can only ever glimpse in miniature.
What if our cities were full of community gardens with arts programming in them? What if these places were abundant, well-funded oases of growth? How might these spaces help us all as we face down the climate crisis, the empathy crisis, the loneliness crisis?
Poems and gardens also offer nourishment, what Andrew Marvell called green shade. These spaces reroute our attention and remind us how to admire, tend, and steward this planet it seems like we’ve irrevocably damaged. In this hottest year on record, in what seems a perennially politically hot season, poems and gardens help cool us off, both practically and emotionally. As we try to imagine how to bring the temperature of the world to some safer margin, and as we try to imagine how to bring our own conversations toward the tenor of repair, the green space we find in the refugia of gardens—or the rich forests of words in good poems—do absorb, reflect, and nourish, so that we come back to the wider world cooled down. These oases allow us to reroute ourselves towards what is hopeful or empathic in our interactions with one another and the nonhuman world.
If it seems like this is just all metaphor, it is not. Gardens sustain greater diversity of life than non-gardens: microbes of healthy soil absorb more carbon than unhealthy soil. Making the compost to feed that healthy soil reduces methane emissions through aerobic decomposition. And our gardens invite in diverse webs: in a study a few years back, my community garden on the site of two fallen brownstones in Brooklyn supported 42 species of bee, while other blocks only had two or three. We too are supported: time in green spaces—even five minutes with a tree, or a flower—helps people regulate stress and emerge rested and curious and compassionate about the world around them.
It turns out we can make this argument about poem spaces as well: that being in the presence of poems, that having poetry oases in our days, can help build healthier ecosystems of attention, of kindness, of regard. Neuroscientists have found that engaging literature lights up the parts of the brain that help us feel more compassionate, more empathetic, more attuned to nuance in ourselves and others. Engaging poems (or arts more generally) has practical benefit at a community level as well: the NEA recently found that people with longitudinal engagement with the arts were more likely to vote, more likely to be leaders in their community, more likely to graduate high school, and more likely to have friends across racial lines. Which is to say: artists become good citizens. They foster diverse community. They become pollinators, as well.
“No poem ever stopped a tank,” said Seamus Heaney, writing during the Irish violence known as the Troubles. Instead he argued that the poem gives us a pause, a place to reroute our attention. The poem lets us, carefully, excavate our complex human selves. I think of this now, as we imagine what we need to do next to work towards repair.
What if our cities were full of community gardens with arts programming in them? What if these places were abundant, well-funded oases of growth? How might these spaces help us all as we face down the climate crisis, the empathy crisis, the loneliness crisis? In some ways, a few city blocks full of tomato plants and poetry readings might not make a difference, unless you counted the tremendous imaginative possibility of helping people to feel connected to each another, to their food, to their bees, to their soil.
The fact is we’ve been through a terrible pandemic. We need repair on every level. We need spaces of re-imagination and regeneration now. We need to light up the empathetic and curious and hopeful parts of our brain, and engage spaces that help us practice loving the imperiled world around us. The wonderful scientist Allison Gopnik, who studies behavior, once wrote that we don’t care for things because we love them. Rather, we come to deeply love the things we care for. Poems and gardens each offer us chances for tending, for attention, for care. We love what we care for. The time we spend tending a plant or admiring the world through the green shade of a poem allows us to learn to excavate and explore that love.