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3. Rhetoric

This is absolutely true in talking about politics, government, and economics these days. They just want to emote. Blah blah blah. That ship has sailed. The Greeks and the Romans, however, were absolutely obsessed with civic education. Virtue of the sort that has a metaphysical foundation has been replaced with attention as a form of social capital, and squawking and bullying is an easier way to get attention than trying to persuade someone. Of course, you will never bully someone into believing something that they did not believe already.

No one in the history of mankind has been publicly shamed into a new perspective. For a not insignificant portion of society, silencing someone is as much of a victory as persuading them. The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit , the sense of being at home , as a way of knowing. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home.


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If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture. I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un- Heimatlichkeit. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now.

But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit. When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn.

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Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. Again, where is your sense of home? Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility.

As you can imagine, tears were involved.

I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult. The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds. The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow.

Fuck you having a sense of home. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity.

This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it.

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This was how we made a home and it was important. One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world. Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials.

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But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding. He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself.

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Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection.

Gardening is about management and control.

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Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. And the stakes can be high.

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The plants will do their own job and find the Sun. The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately. You are helping them build an aesthetic.

You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong. If you love hiking and conservation as I do , this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities. Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats.

Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was , talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa. But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.