By Michael Mobbs
10 June 2011 – What is a garden?
Is it an idea? A mirage we walk towards, planting and harvesting, but never reaching?
These questions came to me last Sunday.
Walking back in the caressing autumn sunlight after the most recent climate change demo I wanted something more than I’d just had.
It was the bathos of the demagogy of the speakers there that set me thinking of gardening, but surely not in the way they’d intended.
Gods, they’d disappointed me. Underwhelmed. No match for the beauty of the day.
A useless public address system meant those of us at the back of the crowd heard very little of what was said anyway. I mean, can’t greenies even do a bloody sound test, and show some respect for the thousands of people they’ve invited there? They bored me.
The coppers and their beautiful mounted horses had more presence than the irrelevant, voiceless, far off talking heads on the stage.
Who can speak to us as in this long moment when we want to be spoken to with passion we can believe in?
We need a champion. Someone up front to speak to us as the passionate adults we are.
There’s no-one in Parliament, no-one in the media, no-one among the greenies – and it’s getting more than tedious.
And after Obama’s let us down so very badly, a man who defines my mum’s phrase, “All talk and no action”, or, better still, “All piss and wind”, we sure as hell need someone who can overcome the floods of doubt about those in power these days.
Like the desire for the lover who will talk to us as we would wish, like the anticipation before a concert when we hope for music that will knock our socks off, I want someone to stand up and inspire me about our power to stop the damage to Earth. But much more than that. Someone who does things, acts every day as they speak. And is “the change we wish to see”.
Where is that person?
Is it the baggage of having grown up with orators like no others, which means no one today can compare with such speakers as those we heard 20 years ago?
Martin Luther King – I watched him on the TV that day, the thousands stretched out in front of him and the cameras: “I have a dream . . . ” JFK – I listened to him that day: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country . . .” And, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. I was in the school hall when Neil Armstrong said that, up there on the moon, watching it on a black and white TV on the stage. “Men and women of Australia” … ah, Gough, you were the first I’d heard address us as the mature male and female adults we wanted to be seen as; and many more like these.
These are times, more quickly spaced now, when it feels as if Gulliver’s boat has landed in Australia, and the poor bloke can’t push it back off to sea.
He’s tied down by lots of little folk called, “Australians’, “Americans” and such like.
Little ideas and little voices are amok. The best and the worst among us have tied Gulliver flat to the ground. It’s money this and money that. Red faced, angry old men haranguing us on the radio, TV, newspaper. “I don’t have the time”. Stuff.
Which returns me to the gentle chaos of gardening, and the question, “What is a garden?”
“Only later did I realise that starting a garden is the beginning of making a series of mistakes. Books explain how and when to do things, but they do not underline that one intrinsic pitfall that you are about to encounter will never be concluded. There is no “The End” to be written, neither can you, like an architect, engrave in stone the day the garden was finished; a painter can frame his picture, a composer can notate his coda, but a garden is always on the move. “A gentle plea for chaos: reflections from an English garden, Mirabel Osler, 1989,
After he got the sack from a top political position, Machiavelli went back to his pig farm. Alone, passed by at court for others he fumed about, he wrote a long job application called, The Prince.
We know it well now. It’s in the classics.
It didn’t work for him, however, and he never sat high in the saddle of power again.
I bet he gardened some, though. And I wonder why he chose not to write about it.
When I compare Mirabel Osler’s book with Machiavelli’s, I think about what the authors thought, and I think back about that squandered Sunday – the park alive with manufactured, muted sound and passion.
This is where I end up: the image, gleaned starkly from black and white colours, of Lincoln after the colossal carnage at Gettysburg.
Speaking well down the list, after the generals, confined by bodyguards shoulder to shoulder closely around him, assassination and danger and death about of a scale never before seen in battle.
For less than seven minutes, more likely five.
The shortness of the talk itself to soon dominate public debate.
The beauty and craft and passion of the words, the faith in us, we humans, however, falling off the page like tears of a heartbroken man crying freely, crisply, clearly, through words.
So the words are alive in so many of our minds today, all these long days later. Schoolchildren learn them and many of us carry them in our minds all our life:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . government of the people, by the people,? for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Even so, it was another century before a black woman refused to give up her seat in a bus, and so many other real, on-the-ground actions by so many others, before Lincoln’s equality got off the page and came home.
Perhaps it’s fitting that as the human animal passes through what the Climate Commission called two weeks ago, “The critical decade” for Earth there is no one to give us voice, to hold the crowd.
No one to say words which would let Gulliver untie his ropes, and push his boat back to sea.
Something like, “We hold these truths self evident. All humans come from Earth, and return there. We have the power, wealth and wits sufficient to kill our lovely, torn Earth. To rip her forests so none remain. To empty her rivers. To break her climate and send her mad with heat. We stop that today. We choose to love our Earth to health. Earth lives from the same air, water, trees and soil as we do. No Earth, no us. Words are not enough. Today, every human in every place we know will buy nothing. Today we will plant a plant, harvest a seed, and make wonderful mistakes in Earth, our garden. The plants and seeds are here. Take them now and give them to Earth.”
Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au