Hegel, Michael Pollen, and gardening with children – what it means to feel at home

The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit, the sense of being at home, as a way of knowing. Europeans had taken this concept from the Greeks, who also believed that knowledge was a sort of feeling comfortable with one’s situation. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home. To live in exile and lose one’s sense of home was worse than execution. If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture.

I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. That’s not really a story about change being difficult, so much as a falling away from the constellations of beliefs and practices that have real meaning to us. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. (It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.) But there’s no political vocabulary that offers an effective substitute for Heimatlichkeit.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un-Heimatlichkeit. They talk incessantly about being a “citizen of the world.” That’s a nonsensical phrase. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. A hipster from Los Angeles may feel like he is a “citizen” of Europe because he went backpacking and toured some art museums, but that’s not a sense of real belonging. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now. But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit.

When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I’m not sure I gleaned anything spectacular from them, mostly because I already agreed with those principles. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn. Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. (Again, where is your sense of home?) It’s a struggle for me not to point this out to my neighbors when they ask me how I achieve such massive blooms each year. The answer is simple: I respect that soil is a living thing and I don’t try to murder it. Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. I could never follow him daily because his progressive politics is eyeroll-inducing to me, and don’t even get me started on how he’s become an advocate for legalizing psychedelics. Whatever good he has done in reforming the food industry he’s cancelled out with the harm he’s helping inflict upon the social fabric of great American cities.

All that said, I have been reading his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a reminder of how much I liked Pollan’s early writings.

Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. That is, he starts with what are literally his first memories of “working” in a garden. In his case, that was climbing behind the lilac and forsythia branches in his parents’ suburban yard as a preschooler. You can appreciate how a child perceives scale from his description of his first “garden,” under those towering shoots of blooms. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility. As you can imagine, tears were involved. (I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult.)

The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds.

The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt. His wealth came from the dirt and that’s what he put his wealth back into.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend.

His memories of his grandfather’s immaculate gardens stood in sharp contrast to his own father’s refusal even to mow the lawn of their suburban plot, much to the humiliation of his wife and children. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow. Pollan says it was a “fuck you” to their neighbors, but I think it was as much a “fuck you” to his wife and kids. Fuck you having a sense of home.

In reading that, I felt like I understood Pollan’s own behavior as an adult better. Imagine the pathology of growing up with someone who doesn’t want to make things beautiful for their family. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? That’s just depressing. But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic.

The more I read about Pollan’s accounts, the more I started to think about how I garden with our daughter and the significance of the memories we are creating. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity. This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it. This was how we made a home and it was important.

From Pollan:

In both our eyes [his and his grandfather’s], this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke in human language….

One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habituation.

He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world.

Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials. But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. They were mixed together as they could fit, and were not in his grandfather’s neat rows. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding.

He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. To him, the fact that his grandson could not maintain a simple vegetable garden with any sense of order mirrored a wasted generation of young people who weren’t going to be good for anything. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Pollan got his driver’s license and spent as much time away from home as he could. You can’t work on your gardening skills if you are never at home.

Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself. Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection. Gardening is about management and control.

Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. Working with them can seem like deliberately introducing chaos into the order you’ve worked so hard to obtain. And the stakes can be high. Have you ever set a kid to work planting bulbs only to realize they’ve planted 50 tulips upside down? Trust me, it’s time to give up and fix a martini at that point. The plants will do their own job and find the Sun.

The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. You aren’t going to have much success dictating to your child how things must be. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately.

You are helping them build an aesthetic. You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong.

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