Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Student Research: Gardeners

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By Veronika Degmayr (Environmental Studies Certificate Program)

Whether you’re an academic in the environmental field, an environmental activist, or just a person concerned about the state of our environment, you might at times wonder what good all that science, research, and activism is really doing. How far do published papers actually reach? Do we get to talk about our concerns with the right people; the ones who are not already convinced something “should be done about the environment”? Or are we—the concerned members of society—just trading information amongst each other without convincing anyone else, and without creating significant change to the “outside” world?

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“It’s great to go into your garden and eat a carrot. You are proud that something has grown there. Being able to harvest something is most important to me.”– Marianne. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

For me, these questions gained increasing importance during my time as a geography student and a member of the RCC’s Environmental Studies (ES) Certificate Program. Following an internship with an environmental organization in Canada as part of the program, I started to wonder how much of an impact all my thinking and writing actually had. Was the sudden feeling of fulfillment I had during my internship, working with a community in an almost pristine environment, not proof that I had already lost my connection with nature during my time living and working in Munich? Maybe it would be more helpful to simply spend as much time as I could outdoors in order to establish a deeper connection to and passion for nature, which I could then inspire in others?

So, when it came to creating my final project for the ES Certificate Program I was immensely grateful that both the form in which it could be delivered and the topic were quite open.

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“I also learned about gardening from my wife. She always used to say that I cannot hoe properly. Hoeing potatoes is different from hoeing in a [vegetable] garden.”–Michael. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

I decided to take my own family as a starting point for my explorations. After all, I have turned out to be rather passionate about the environment and, if a love of nature can be passed on, my family must have had something to do with my sustained love for the environment and my drive to protect it. Indeed, everyone in my family spends a significant amount of time outdoors in the woods, fields, and gardens of my Bavarian hometown. My interest was also piqued by the fact that almost all of them—especially my grandpa, mum, and brother—are keen gardeners, an activity that is gaining interest in urban areas. However, whereas in (German) cities gardening seems to be a newly (re)discovered activity often practiced by “green” middle class intellectuals, gardening in my family is a tradition.

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“I noticed what my parents did. I used to have my own bed where I would plant a few things. And then I learned through trial and error.”– Marianne. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

But does a tradition like this really create a greater a connection with our surrounding environment? Does the daily, hands-on work in a garden create a better understanding of environmental processes? What role does intergenerational knowledge transfer—set in motion hundreds of years back—play in safeguarding practical and theoretical knowledge and a potential connectedness with nature, which I feel are and will be important resources for the protection of environmental systems and processes? Do gardeners value environmental resources and services, such as the provision of water, more than non-gardeners?

 

My final project revolves around these questions; given that it is in large part based on personal accounts and perceptions, definitive answers were not my goal. Through tours of my mum’s and grandpa’s gardens, interviews with them and my brother, photographs, and historical research into garden and landscapes studies, I was able to compile a photo story about tradition, family, gardening practice, and nature. By telling this story,  I hope to give the gardeners in my family a voice, and to provide outsiders and myself with a fresh view on rural backyard gardening. I’m not giving them a voice because they need or want one—they simply deserve one.

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“Through gardening I’m in better contact with nature. Soil on the hands. Watching animals.”– Marianne. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

In the end I came to the conclusion that gardening is, at its core, a rather personal endeavor, practiced and appreciated for various reasons ranging from the ability to harvest high quality fresh produce from our own land, to the creation of positive social relationships with our neighbors. Rarely does gardening—with the exception, maybe, of community gardening—explicitly seek to cause societal change. Like most things, rural backyard gardening (and gardening in general) is not a blue-print solution for our environmental problems. It does however sustain, produce, and provide a source of knowledge that has the potential to promote the solution to sustainability issues.

 

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