Of weeds and democracyJust as a garden requires constant tending to stave off the weeds, freedom requires constant vigilance and nurturing.
May is a month of graduation in American colleges and universities; for me, it’s also the month I re-start my garden annually. Around the time I complete my university work, the weather in the American Midwest turns. But every year, my garden needs clearing. No sooner does the weather get warm, the weeds spread fast and cover the garden. Every year, I take my hoe and tiller, and painstakingly clear the garden of weeds. Gardeners everywhere know that in order to grow flowers and vegetables, much effort and care is needed in necessary activities, such as clearing the weeds, tilling, treating the soil with manure, sowing seeds, planting. But weeds just grow on their own, like autocratic tendencies taking roots in the minds of even those politicians who had once fought for freedom and democratic rights for themselves and their countrymen. Whether it’s the soil, the mind, or a democratic polity, in order to grow something good, only constant tending and vigilance can safeguard a healthy crop of vegetables and flowers—knowledge and wisdom, and freedom and rights.
I am a grower and cultivator; of vegetables, flowers and minds. Although I can’t grow freedom like I grow vegetables and flowers, I believe in defending my right to speak freely. I believe that minds or democracy, much like plants in a garden, don’t come readymade. They need watering, fertilising, aerating, defending; they need sun, rain, good soil, birds to pick out the pests and bees and butterflies to pollinate. People have to come out to the streets. Only then can they come to bloom. I have learned all this from my garden.
Wherever I have lived in the course of my years of graduate study and full-time teaching in the United States, I have cultivated a garden. In DeKalb, Illinois, I rented from the local municipality; in Durham, North Carolina, I dug the turf in the backyard of a rental apartment, treated the soil with manure, peat moss and top soil and harvested a bumper crop of vegetables. And despite many challenges, realising that South Asian education had shortchanged me, I expanded my mind.
Now, in the American Midwest, I have turned a corner of my backyard into a twenty-by-twenty feet garden of pure delight. From May to October, I see my seeds sprouting into delicate seedlings and then growing to maturity and vigour—flowering and bearing fruit in the prime of summer and early fall.
But protecting a garden from pests is hard. And pests come in myriad forms. Rabbits can have breakfast, lunch and dinner in your garden; fungi and insects can have a field day with the leaves of your plants. Two summers ago, I mistakenly injured a baby rabbit while shooing it away from my garden. For more than a week, I kept it in an open cardboard box, dressing its wound with alcohol and antibiotics, feeding it with fresh vegetables from the grocery store. But I couldn’t save it. The incident weighed heavily on my conscience.
So, I made a patch of garden beans just for the rabbits. But rabbits are rabbits; they always crossed the garden beans to eat my eggplants, okra and pole beans. Finally, I put up a wire fence around my garden. Many times, I have lost a crop to fungi and insects. For the last two years, I have planted a fence of marigold around it to prevent insect invasion. I have made potions of baking soda, vinegar, and dish soap. I have sprayed Neem oil solutions. When organic methods fail, to prevent a complete wipeout, I have resorted to pesticides at times. I can’t be a fanatic or a purist about organic gardening and still have cucumbers or okra or Italian gourds on my table. This has been a sobering realisation. If you want a crop, you can’t be self-complacent.
Gardening is hard work but its rewards come in unexpected ways. The monks in a yoga monastery with whom I share the hobby of gardening and exchange ideas tell me that gardeners seldom get depressed because plants transfer prana, life energy, to the gardener. I believe them. Like a healthy garden, democracy, too, infuses creativity and energy to its people who constantly nurture and defend and renew it.
But, then, I also see my plants die in October every year. Each year, there comes a night in mid- to late October when the frost hits hard. And the next morning, when I go out to see my garden, I find the leaves wilted and the plants dead. I think about death then as I had delighted in the life force of the summer and worried about spring seedlings—about whether they would land on rocky soil and wilt, or get choked by weeds or grow full-length as a fruit-bearing plant given the right sunshine, water and soil. This cycle of birth, maturity and death repeats every year and I become a participant in it as a gardener.
Two summers ago, my return to the United States after a month-long stay in Asia prolonged my jet lag more than ever before in my three decades of back-and-forth travels. My mind remained fuzzy and disoriented caused by the disjuncture between worlds and cultures. Ridding my garden of weeds that had grown in my absence helped, as it reminded me that the American soil is the soil of the same earth we all inhabit, no matter where we live, despite the walls and fences. To start a garden needs work; to keep it going also needs constant work and vigilance. Just as freedom may be lost without constant vigilance, without constant tending, a garden can grow more weeds than vegetables and flowers.
This year too, I will cultivate my garden and grow plants and vines. But first I need to clean up last year’s debris. I’m looking forward to it.
Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.