Potato Vines and Other Things that Don’t Grow in Paradise

Sometime in the middle of November, I was perched on a ladder cutting a dying potato vine off a trellis. Below me was the flower garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, or what was left of it, at least, since at that point whatever plants had not been snipped down were swiftly browning. Admittedly, it was an odd time of year to begin working for an organic gardening company, odd to learn the names of those dying perennials that I probably would not even recognize by the time they would blossom. But it was also a relief to stand atop a trellis overlooking a garden in Minneapolis.

Before moving to Minneapolis, I had passed three consecutive years in New York City, a place where Fall is not something one sees but something that is felt in the body. One does not anticipate leaves with drastic colors, such as those that line the Mississippi separating the Twin Cities, but the consistent drop in temperature recounted in weather reports and felt on the skin. Winter is another dreaded drop. The air becomes still, and as we cut through it, our steps become brisk. We can hear summer ending in them.

To complicate my seasonal handicap, the rest of my life was spent in the fractal-like town of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; its similarity to other suburban towns the result of innumerable multiplications arising out of an elusive center that could not hold. South Florida, the strip east of I-95 rising north from Miami along the coast, was developed at a time when swamps were more readily thought of as drainable land and as mosquito-filled eyesores than as ecosystems, a word that science had not yet entered into the vocabulary. Today, it is a place where Guatemalans jump off the back of trucks in order to make brief unacknowledged appearances while manicuring the lawns of subdivisions. In Florida, it is hard to imagine myself, a white woman, as a gardener. I call my home the ugliest most beautiful place in the world.

Rachel, my supervisor at Three Seeds Gardening, was a true-blooded Wisconsinite; seasoned in some original sense of the term. She was undaunted by winter, approaching it without a sliver of trepidation as if she could see its end as soon as it had begun. I was never so calm. But perhaps this was the nature of those who spend a lot of time around plants and were from Wisconsin. For myself and other Floridians living in the North, winter always seemed highly unnatural, a mistake, a bad joke that was on us.

After knowing only sprawling suburbia and condensed cityscapes, I was surprised by the progressiveness of Minneapolis – surprised by its thirteen worker-owned collectives and its co-ops, by the numerous bumper stickers dedicated to the folk hero Paul Wellstone, but mostly, by the sheer number of home gardens in this medium-sized city in the coldest state of the union. Minneapolitans of all stripes were amazed in turn when I told them that growing up, I never knew of a single house with a real garden, with vegetables, that is, that was tended by the home’s owners. They had no idea how lucky they were.

Taking our mutual surprise into account, it seems as if gardening is more than a personal hobby. It is a gesture representing a kind of collective eagerness about integrating nature into an urban environment. There are unacknowledged politics gestating in the soil.

Given its history, I am sure those subtle politics could not have developed in Florida. In the past century Florida has been the fastest growing state in the union, going from being the 34th most populated state at the turn of the century to being the fourth largest today. Most of this growth began in the late 1960s and has been relentless ever since. Nine hundred prospective residents continue to move to Palm Beach County each day.

Forty years ago, an exodus of Northerners to the Sun Belt spawned a massive draining of wetlands, ultimately reducing the size of the everglades by two thirds, and fostering the kind of hit-and-run architecture that contributes to the uneasy feeling that everything in Palm Beach County was built yesterday, literally, between the time you went to college and the time you came home for your first winter break. Arising in response to the mass suburban migration, and consequently, to the growth of tract housing, the early crusaders of the fledgling environmental movement fought to preserve wetlands, floodplains, and hillsides. Tract houses featured central cooling, as all around the country, the home unit became a main contributor to an energy consumption blitz. It was at this time that pesticides sprayed on the lawns of private homes began to account for a greater portion of ground pollution than did runoff from commercial farms. Neighborhoods were built from scratch as terrain was cleared without time to spare the trees.

It was around that time that my great aunt, who is now sixty seven, planted her first potato vine in front of their house on Hillcrest Avenue in St. Paul. Though the vine never did yield potatoes, it crawled up the front of the house in a majestic way. There is a history in what appears to be individual, spontaneous, and undocumented decisions, in what merely and unnoticeably caught on.

When I was a kid, I could see that there was something wrong with the fact that the mall was the main social hub for children and adults. I could criticize consumption, but I never once considered gardening or other kinds of alternative lifestyles — there was little in my life that would lead me to consider it. Meanwhile, I thought changing the world happened in other places. Florida was just boring. It was as if the land of Florida, like the informal economy producing immigrants that tended it, was invisible to me.

It is easier to criticize what is present than to imagine what is absent. And what was absent was not what is both largely absent and taken for granted as such in New York — the color green — but a certain attitude that relegates that color as merely decorative. People in Florida like to say, “I love the weather,” because that is what the word environment means for most of us: nice weather and sunlight year-round. We can love the weather, and even the green, but it does not stop us from draining or bulldozing or cutting it away as the population grows.

I think invisibility is a consequence of reckless suburban development — which causes most people to stay in air-conditioned cars and houses in the clement weather, and progressives like myself to give up on Florida as a wasteland rather than seeing it, as I do now, as a piece of scorched earth needing attention and care. Gardening in Minnesota, smelling dirt and fresh air and learning the names of plants, restored, perhaps for the first time, a kind of sensuous visibility in me. In all my years at an Ivy League university in New York City, with its talk of justice and other abstractions, it was that visceral feeling of gardening that caused me to look homeward, empathetically.

In spite of concerns over increasing homogenization in American culture, there is a persistent regionalism that is far more subtle, but not less real. For how do all these impressions conspire to influence, even inspire, newcomers and those that grow up in cities like Minneapolis to make conscious choices to live more environmentally conscious lifestyles? For me, that inspiration is as simple and as complicated as being joyfully surprised at the number of gardens in town. Without it, one is left with a limited imaginary space, choosing between nice or boring weather, between pesticide-filled lawns and weeds.

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