Authoritarianism and My Garden
It has been a terrible couple of weeks in national news – a terrible couple of years, actually. When I feel despair, I restore a sense of balance and hope by taking effective action where I can. And I work in my garden.
A few weeks ago, after days of rain, the rich soil in our parking strip was easy to weed. I spent several hours pulling out quackgrass and thinking about authoritarianism.
Quackgrass spreads by seeds and rhizomes, or roots. Its roots are tough, round, white, aggressive, persistent. Their ends are sharp, like little swords. They pierce through soil. I first met this adversary while working on an organic carrot farm in the Nooksack Valley in the 1970s. It was easy to find carrots deformed, or even pierced, by quackgrass roots.
Several of our garden beds, including the parking strip, are infested with quackgrass. We have tried many remedies; the ones that seem to work, given that I’m not willing to use chemical herbicides, are heavy groundcovers and dogged weeding that pulls the roots out as much as 6-12” below the soil surface. I have pulled out roots that are several feet long. Every shred left behind gives birth to a new plant. The roots live in cracks in the concrete surrounding the parking strip.
As I dug and pulled, I asked myself, “Do I hate quackgrass?” And the answer is no. I have a healthy respect for the plant. It’s part of nature, and it does what it needs to survive and thrive. But I don’t want it to have a place in my garden. So I track it and work hard to eliminate it.
A desire for power and dominance is one of many natural human traits. At its unnatural extreme, it becomes exaggerated to a desire for absolute power. In some ways, the human desire for dominance resembles quackgrass. Some humans want to take over, to eliminate all who don’t look or act like them, the way quackgrass would in my parking strip if I let it. This human urge must also be tracked and persistently rooted out – in ourselves, particularly those of us with racial and other privilege, and in our society. We may not be able to get rid of it, but we can keep it in check.
In the ancient Irish Celtic way of understanding sovereignty, the exercise of power needed to be inextricably woven with the good of all. Each person and the land itself had sovereignty that must be respected. Anyone, even a king, who wielded power in a way that did not honor that lost their power. Those of us of white European ancestry, who have, individually and as a group, used power and dominance to do so much harm, can learn from studying the more collaborative ways of our long-ago ancestors.
Growing up in the shadow of World War II, the daughter of a doctor who treated soldiers wounded in battle, many of whom could not be saved, I felt second-hand the impact of Nazism. It never occurred to me that anyone who knew what the Nazis did would have any desire to repeat their atrocities. I was wrong.
Do I hate people who desire power over others, even absolute power, the way Donald Trump seems to, Hitler did, and present-day authoritarian rulers do?
Sometimes I do. Especially now.
But hate is the fertilizer they use to spread their roots insidiously through the population. If I hate them, aren’t I feeding them? Or becoming them?
I’d rather focus on clearing up my own internal quackgrass, placing clear, firm, inviolable limits on the behavior of those who wish to dominate, and trying to prevent the circumstances that lead people to be unbalanced and cruel in the first place.
Rooting out the impulse toward power, authoritarianism, and cruelty toward those who are different – in ourselves and in our society – is a constant effort. It means digging deep and working hard. The work can be exhausting, and it’s easy to get discouraged. And it can help create a beautiful, nourishing garden.
Right now, in the mean world we are living in, that beauty might seem like an illusion. But it’s just as real as the blueberry bushes, kinnikinnick and coral bells that I liberate from being strangled and dominated by quackgrass.
Beauty and love are tough and persistent too. Their roots go deep. We humans are hard-wired to connect to and care for others. In our connection lies a different kind of power – one that feeds instead of destroys.