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Gardening, the wholesome gateway drug.

Peas in the spring garden

On this Earth Day, I am reckoning with one of the core ideas behind Orta.

Orta’s straightforward mission is to help you grow your own plants from seed, successfully and confidently. 

But there has always been a deeper mission: to make a positive contribution to humans’ relationship with the natural world. 

We support sustainability in two main ways, one of which may be problematic in a surprising way.

The first is to make the green choice wherever possible in our operations.  We package and ship products without plastic, for example.  And we spent almost a year formulating glazes to work without spraying (to keep particulates out of the air), and with a single, low temperature firing (to use less energy overall).  We demonstrate that green choices are possible, and hopefully inspire others to do the same. If your aim is to be green, rather than to simply maximize profits, it can be done.

Our other contribution is less direct. 

The idea goes like this:  If we help you start seeds successfully, you’ll connect with the magic of sprouting baby plants more often.  And like a gateway drug (but a wholesome one), once you’re starting seeds and tending plants, you'll want to keep them healthy.  And then you may become interested in pollinators and compost and soil life and all the rest.  And if you’re carefully nurturing the earth nearest to you, maybe you’ll join me in taking collective action to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change.  And together, slowly, gently, we find ourselves shifting perspectives to live greener lives.

Besides the obvious catch that seed-starting doesn’t necessarily lead to climate activism, there is another flaw in the plan.  It’s something I’ve noticed but couldn’t articulate until I read this Gen Dread piece about why eco-activism isn’t necessarily the cure for eco-anxiety. 

The more connected you are to nature, the more you feel the pain, grief, and anxiety of environmental harm.  So if Orta is helping connect you to nature, we’re also bringing you pain. (Or making you work harder to pretend that your love for seeds is not connected to the wider environment.)  And I’m very sorry for not understanding that until now.

I was making the common false assumption that becoming aware of a problem leads to action towards solving the problem.  But I was leaving out feelings.  Which are important.  Becoming aware of a problem, especially if you care deeply about it, leads to anger, grief, despair and depression.

In order to avoid those “bad” feelings, it can be common to go straight into action without processing the feelings, or to deny the problem entirely.  Both of these coping strategies leave you perhaps “happier” for now, but less emotionally resilient, and less able to move forward productively in the face of inevitable setbacks and bad news.

Climate-aware psychologist Caroline Hickman talks about “internal activism,” learning to process and live with the grief, anxiety and depression that will continue to follow us through the climate crisis.  And that’s how you become more effective at more conventional “external activism,” or just living your daily life, instead of being sidelined by dread and all the rest.

This mental shift has already helped me immensely, and builds on what I learned from Peter Kalmus’ book Being the Change.   Among more typical stories about biodiesel and vegetarian eating, he shares how meditation helped him process his debilitating climate grief and move forward productively.

Of course, understanding these emotional dynamics on a personal level is one thing, but I’m not sure how it changes Orta’s not-so-secret mission.  I still think it’s a good thing to connect more with seeds, and that the joy and hope of new green life is a balm for anxiety of any kind.  But I’m having a deep think on how we can better support gardeners through the scary emotions that seem to develop in lockstep with deeper connection to nature in this era of global heating.

On Earth Days past, I have always focused on actions.  But this year, especially as many of us (myself included) struggle with the mental health fall-out from our pandemic / election / social justice year, layered on top of the ever-simmering climate anxiety, I am looking inward.

In a conversation last summer, when police violence protests were everywhere, a white person who cares deeply about the environment but was new to social justice put it bluntly:  "How can we expect Black communities to care about recycling when their lives are in danger every day?"  

And in a less extreme form, how can anyone consumed by grief and anxiety (whether it comes from climate anxiety, or simply the common stresses of our times) do their best work, and make meaningful contributions to collective climate actions?

Counterintuitively, it seems that the most important climate action of all may be helping people feel safe. (And of course, actually making communities objectively safer.) We need to process, rather than avoid, our anger, grief and anxiety, so that we can take more effective action from a place of calm, rather than fear.

How do you process (or not) your climate anxieties?  How do you care for your mental health to allow you to do your best work?

 


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