Gardening in the dark: or, on the possibility of climate careFirst published in Cline Landscape Magazine
What a time to be alive: as the Machine trumpets on and the thermometer inches up, the chances rise that in the next few decades we may effectively cannibalize ourselves and our planetary kin into extinction. Given this inspiring prognosis, I can’t help but wonder: how do I avoid falling into despair or denial? Is there still room for laughter? When the map of the known world lies in shreds, what do we use to navigate?
This essay is about the anxiety of living on a planet during a mass extinction; it’s about developing a sober understanding of the political-economic constraints to our actions; and it’s about landscape architecture as an approach to overcome these constraints and imagine new forms of being. Perhaps most of all, this essay is about the creation of meaning through a practice of care amid the rubble of the present.
The meaning of which I speak does not solve problems or offer solutions. Rather, it opens us to the world, by attuning us to complexity, paradox, and play. It looks at very common distinctions we make—utopia and dystopia, hope and fear, playfulness and seriousness—and blurs their boundaries. Like a fart in a room full of stiff people, it perturbs the situation but relaxes the room. This is not to say that dreams and fears, utopia and dystopia, are impossible, but rather to argue that we do not know what is possible; we are in the dark. Yet this does not stop us from caring: as designers, as humans, as whatever we are, critical wonder attunes us to all the possibilities of the present—utopia and dystopia.1
At its simplest, climate care humbly suggests that we can cultivate ways of caring for the climate. But we now operate within a much broader understanding of climate—one that includes the ways we speak about, act in, and feel the world. Gardening in the dark means cultivating care at a time when the earth itself seems to be falling out from under our feet.
The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.
~ William Gibson
Global cortisol levels must have peaked in October 2018, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that humanity had twelve years to keep planetary temperatures under 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Given the likelihood of radical infrastructural change within twelve years, this feels like the cockpit announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen, please brace for impact.” It remains to be seen whether the report is more motivating than depressing for collective action. What is clear, however, is that the stakes of the game have been set. We are under immense pressure (perhaps too much) to rapidly change human systems that already possess tremendous inertia. What do we call this pressure, and how do we work with it?
Regular anxiety is rooted in the individual, the product of a wandering mind struggling to remain present. Climate anxiety is collective; it stems from the feeling that there is a malicious clock ticking somewhere and that environmental conditions are unfairly distributed.
Climate anxiety is also the feeling of history: that civilizations like ours have passed away many times; that we live on borrowed time; and that even the deepest meanings eventually fade away. But at the same time, it’s the feeling of the sun on our skin, of rain and the many ways it falls, and of another’s body touching ours. Life may revolve around nothingness, but joy and laughter persist. Are we not perfectly imperfect beings in the endless chain of being?
To write about climate anxiety is to recognize the shared vulnerability of our bodies in a climate crisis that is usually described through screen-media statistics and news reports. It means seeing climate crisis not just in terms of CO2 emission levels, but in the way we look out the window in the morning, in the texture of our breathing, and in the faces and gestures of friends and strangers, including those who are unaware (or in denial) of any climate crisis. Rather than discounting these observations as signs of reverie or weakness, I see them as something that draws us together: a common wound from which emerge the intertwined struggles for racial, gender, socioeconomic, and ecological justice. But the modern cocktail of neoliberal late capitalism and new age spiritualities, along with their underlying extreme individualism, has the remarkable capacity to absorb and neutralize these kinds of feelings.2
Ultimately, climate anxiety cannot be processed or integrated; it cannot be fully grasped, comprehended, or understood by our limited human nervous system.3 But it can be experienced, felt, and reimagined. And it leaves us with an important question: how do we recognize the heat of the moment while keeping our cool? How do we move from climate anxiety to climate care?
Capitalism will not die a natural death.
~ Walter Benjamin
Whatever approach we take, whatever discipline we come from, we must face head-on the political-economic systems that benefit from climate crisis. I turn toward climate care because it offers an affective critique to the rule of capital—and suggests a path out of the ethical-economic paradoxes that all professions face in today’s capitalist system.
You see, it’s my love for the diversity of life and my concern for its destruction that brought me to the field of landscape architecture in the first place, and I know I am far from the only one to have followed this path. But it’s obvious that capitalist dynamics tend to appropriate our work, making it a tool for gentrification, greenwashing, egoistic lifestyles, and further resource consumption. Whatever practices we focus on—design, arts, sciences, humanities, or blue-collar labor—the same dynamic is present: appropriation by capital. So why don’t we talk about it?
We need to better understand capitalist dynamics if we want to put forward post-capitalist ways of relating to each other and to our environments. In a nutshell, capitalism is about profitability. Profits require growth, and capitalists introduce efficiencies (e.g., faster ways of mining a metal) in order to grow faster than others. Growth on a planet with infinite resources might be possible, but growth on a limited planet leads to climate catastrophe. This is the familiar notion of “the tragedy of the commons.” But today we have become less familiar with the economics underlying it:
In capitalism, a small class of owners and managers, in competition with itself, finds itself forced to make a set of narrow decisions about where to invest and in what, establishing prices, wages, and other fundamental determinants of the economy. Even if these owners wanted to spare us the drowned cities and billion migrants of 2070, they could not. They would be undersold and bankrupted by others. Their hands are tied, their choices constrained, by the fact that they must sell at the prevailing rate or perish. The will towards relentless growth, and with it increasing energy use, is not chosen, it is compelled, a requirement of profitability where profitability is a requirement of existence.4
As long as capitalist modes of relating remain dominant in our societies, the product of any labor (yes, that includes your incredibly well-intentioned labor!) risks become capital for further growth. Take the High Line, for example—one of landscape architecture’s pet projects. Without a doubt, the slick benches, views of the city, and Piet Oudolf plantings are creative, playful, and aesthetically spellbinding. But its success has helped transform the area into a district for mega-capitalism overnight. A few blocks away, Nelson Byrd Woltz’s park at Hudson Yards is a beautiful, thoughtful design—but in the service of what? More office buildings, more commercial centers, more Instagram-worthy installations? Whom are we designing for and what are we producing?
My point here is not to blame James Corner, Piet Oudolf, or Nelson Byrd Woltz, but rather to point out that without a wider political movement for them to connect to, they will be co-opted; they will act as gentrifying tourist attractions that turn vibrant ecosystems into tabulae rasae for corporate capital.
Look at a much larger-scale example: the Green New Deal. A radically ambitious proposal to green the American economy and heal the social divide at the same time, the Green New Deal ticks all the right boxes—ecology, social justice, and jobs. But it doesn’t address capitalism; it wants to keep capitalism, keep growth, but without the negative side effects. Impossible! All growth, even of renewable energies, has environmental externalities.5 My point is not to discredit the intentions of the Green New Deal, but rather to emphasize that unless we tackle capitalist modes of relating, we will not fundamentally address ecological matters.
One way of empowering post-capitalist, post-growth modes of relating is to understand that we are already performing them—that we have always performed them: in giving, sharing, and interacting, in countless gestures enacted daily, but simply in unrecognized ways and not at the right scales. Our ecosystems are made of such interactions—every gust of wind, every seed that sprouts, and every ray that warms our skin. A crucial role for designers is to break the spell that blinds us to the beauty of our existing actions and relations. Of course, I need to earn a living; but I also need to challenge the belief that “I” am the unit of “my” well-being, that my rewards are to be accounted separately from the rewards of others. The primary vector of this task is imagination.
Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
~ Louis Althusser
We tend to think of imagination as something intellectual or ethereal, like daydreaming. My proposition is that imagination is embodied and material. Think of a dancer as they move spontaneously to music, or of a sculptor as their fingers press wet clay. Their imagination emerges through the sensation of movement and the tactile feeling of the clay. Their imagination is embodied—their bodies are exploring new sensations. Their imagination is material—it occurs through engagement with matter and rearranges this matter: a different body position, a different sculpture.
We can also speak of collective imaginations that relate individuals to their material environment (what Althusser calls ideology). Jedediah Purdy, in his book After Nature, shows how the United States has been driven by four dominant imaginations of the environment: a frontier vision of settlement and development; a wilderness-seeking ism; a utilitarian attitude that tries to manage nature for human benefit; and a twentieth- century ecological view. Imagination, whether it is individual or collective, starts in our bodies and then expands into the designed environment: cities, borders, teakettles, cars, tables—all imagined, material means of mediating the individual, the collective, and the environmental.
Landscape architecture is uniquely positioned to work on this imagination. It creates direct bodily engagements with the ecologies within which we live—soil, water, air, wildlife, other human beings, and the built environment. It also engages with the multiple timescales within which we live: day and night, the year, the lunar calendar, the rhythms of flora and fauna, and the dynamic cycles of our planet.
I want to propose gardening as a model for an embodied, post-capitalist practice of landscape. This is a practice that works within ecosystems, not on them. It works through phenomenological intimacy with sites—observing, touching, smelling, feeling them on a daily basis (not just once a year!). It values spontaneous vegetation and human well-being. The gardener treads lightly in the awareness that their presence is temporary. But this does not prevent them from making material interventions toward increasing interactivity and complexity.6
An example of this approach to landscape can be found in the rainwater drainage basin of Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport. In this paradigmatic “third landscape,” a network of temporary paths, docks, and gathering spaces were installed to host workshops during the summer of 2019.7 Called the Floating University, the site is always changing. It floods during rain events and then dries up; spontaneous vegetation emerges, flowers, and seeds. Humans inhabit this landscape too, intervening through activities such as botanical identification blitzes, activist workshops, and parties, as well as spatial installations made from recycled materials. The Floating University, in its ephemerality, physical intimacy with the site, and life-affirming principles, resonates with the role of the gardener who cares and who cares for.8
Another example sheds light on the relation between imagination and material. Every year, in the dead of night on the summer equinox, hundreds climb a nine-thousand-foot peak that straddles the border between France and Spain to light a fire at its summit. The mountain, El Canigó, is the sacred peak of the Catalan people. As the fire is lit, the group offers songs and speeches to celebrate the bond between the mountain and the Catalans. Afterward, the fire is spread to portable lanterns, which are carried by runners who scuttle down the mountain in the dark. Around dawn, at the base, they are met by others, who spread the fire to more lanterns, which are carried and spread by car to villages and towns around Catalunya. That evening, the lanterns are used to light hundreds of village bonfires, over which children jump, under the fretful gaze of their parents. One flame arrives in a sanctuary in the French town of Perpignan, where it is kept alive to light next year’s mountain ritual. Fire, in this tradition, serves as a material and symbolic way of tying a community to its landscape. The sacred intimacy between people and landscape is thus renewed, annually reimagined through wood, flame, and the joyful movement of human bodies.
Many more examples could be mentioned, from planting designs and agricultures that welcome spontaneous vegetation, to landscape designers who build and maintain their own sites. These practices work in physical intimacy with complex environments. Like gardening, they demonstrate what climate care looks like. In the sacred fire of the Catalans, in the Berlin activists making friends with algal pools, in all those who care for the anxiety of a damaged planet, I see the endlessly deep bonds between humans and their environments, an affinity much, much older than words themselves.
And so, amused, confused, and without words, I kneel in the garden, spying on the aphids, rubbing soil in between my fingers, feeling the warmth of the sun setting on my face.
- I draw from a few strands of thought here: Michel Foucault’s notion of problematization (historically deconstructing a belief or practice in order to demonstrate its contingency); Gilles Deleuze’s view that philosophy provides tools, not answers; Donna Haraway’s notion of “staying with the trouble”; and Kim Stanley Robinson’s discussion of the dialectic between utopia and dystopia.
- Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? demonstrates the inextricability of mental and physical health from socioeconomic systems.
- The framing of climate crisis and climate anxiety as massive and ungraspable except through discrete encounters with traces such as raindrops, datasets, moods, and so on, echoes Timothy Morton’s conceptualization of climate change as a Hyperobject, as well Rob Nixon’s notion of “slow violence.”
- Jasper Bernes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal,” Commune Magazine, no. 3 (Summer 2019).
- Although the Green New Deal would involve a massive shift toward government employment and therefore a partial move away from capitalist practices, it still fails to address an underlying capitalist structure that pursues a narrow, economic vision of growth instead of an expansive, ecological understanding of human welfare.
- For more on the relationship between gardening and landscape architecture, see Julian Raxworthy’s Overgrown.
- “Third landscape” is a term coined by French gardener/landscape architect Gilles Clément to encompass all the spaces that are neither humanized (“first landscape”) nor preserved wilderness (“second landscape”), but instead exist somewhere in between.
- Thanks to the Floating University for introducing me to the notion of “climate care.”