I grew up not knowing the names of trees and flowers. Nature was an optional knowledge and visual background within the environment where I was raised. Decorative at most, they were treated more like inanimate objects than living breathing things.
Like most, I grew up with a disconnected view of food and growing plants and animals. My idea of quality food was an expensive branded pre-packed item in the supermarket, or a fancy menu item in a restaurant.
Provincial life where nature has a more visible presence was a nice-to-see. Postcard pictures for display. It was a setting for a scene, not a story in itself. I had no idea of the relationships of mountains to rivers to trees. A nature-rich landscape was vacation space, somewhere to stay for a while but not to live in. After all, there was so much to explore in the city, always so many new things to discover and experience. Nothing exciting happened in nature.
Insects and stray animals of any form were gross things that were eradicated the moment they intruded in our homes or in any place that we have claimed as our own. (In a beach resort many years ago, a gecko that startled us as much as we startled it was smashed to death by one of the resort staff.) Nature was unnatural in our ever-multiplying man-made spaces that encroach upon the natural homes of these creatures.
Trees were generally invisible towers, offering a shade when convenient, but otherwise mere props along the streets of affluent gated communities. I knew the names of trees and flowers from street names in said communities, but I had no idea what they looked like or how they contributed to the grand ecological design.
When I worked in advertising, nature became even more distant as metaphor and symbol, even while I had no idea how they became to be such, and what inner truths powered those symbolisms. The glory was in the man-made brand, nature was support material, twisted and distorted in favour of profits and market shares.
But in the past eight years I have been re-orientating myself in relation to nature. It started with the art. For I could not stop from painting flowers, and all of them were imaginary with faint echoes of inspiration from the real ones that I could not name.
This year I started a tiny garden. And so many regrets came upon me, of how I knew nothing of what plants and trees were called, and could not identify any green thing that grew. Of how I started so late, as with most of the things that mattered. Of how so little time is left to learn and do what I need.
But I persist and persevere anyway. The garden, tiny as it is, teaches me new things about patience, growth, simplicity. All the old perceptions fall away. I begin to see behind the metaphor and the symbol. The scent of well-turned earth brings me to a memory I did not know I have, a memory older than my human life. The quiet strength of a seed becoming a tiny cluster of leaves lend me encouragement in my own daily tasks.
I started with vegetables because I want to have some level of food sufficiency in the future. I want to be less dependent in however way I can on the economic system I want to inspire to change. Later on I will have flowers too, not in neat carefully cultivated categories and rows but in a mixed profusion of an attempt to create a wild-ish patch for insects.
I can feel that I am moving farther away from a life that has been patterned after old rules, standards, and expectations with its glamorous promises of brilliant success and material wealth. I am moving closer instead to a life that I once thought to be utterly uneventful, boring, and even to a certain extent lazy, closed-minded, stagnant. Only of course I have realized that such a life is not any of those things but the opposite.
Nature should be the main story, a main character actually. If only there are more who listen to what she has to say. If only I can speak her language better so I can understand.
How we fit into the natural world, what sort of beings we wish to be, and the role we might play in shaping the future of the planet are all questions we'll be forced to consider one day. We will need to consider them because Earth's resources are rapidly dwindling at precisely the same time that our power over other life-forms is growing dangerous. We may be compassionate beasts, but we're also bullying and destructive."
Diane Ackerman, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of my Garden