Understanding the environment through gardening

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 10:45am

Monarch butterfly perched on finger amid a grove of coneflowers

Monarch butterfly perched on finger amid a grove of coneflowers Buy this photo
Courtesy of Lindsay Wilkinson

Climate change as an issue is abstract — we know it’s coming, but how many of those issues detailed in the climate report can we actually see, in Ann Arbor, right now? Sure, point to trends, rising temperatures and the melting ice caps (Iceland recently held a funeral for one of their melted glaciers), but has anything changed in our day-to-day life here that reflects any sign of climate change? Barely. VSCO girls may be touting their reusable straws and campus might have hosted a climate march, but how many red solo cups littered the ground the following game day? People still use single-use plastics, many are reluctant to even reduce their meat consumption and others still deny the fact that climate change even exists. But we know it’s coming and you’d be hard-pressed to find a scientist who disagrees with that fact. 

Beyond the statistics, social media has made it increasingly easy to feel like you care about climate change without actually doing anything of substance. Being able to like or reshare a story about the effects of climate change has made it dangerously easy to passively watch the world fall to flames, especially as we sit in a sheltered university town in Michigan. Let’s also keep in mind that our state, with its access to the lakes we know and love, has been deemed one of the better places to reside as our climate becomes more and more unpredictable. Pure Michigan is sounding pretty great right about now. None of this is to say that it’s entirely up to the individual to tackle climate crisis — we know it’s a systemic issue stemming from the roots of capitalism, but surely there is something we can do. 

Aside from calling your representatives and other forms of political climate activism, one of the first steps, and something we should all come back to from time to time, is to put ourselves in a situation where we can understand what we have to lose. Ignoring the imminent societal collapse that will come hand in hand with climate change is dangerous. And what is happening to the actual Earth? The coral is dying in Australia and the Amazon is burning in Brazil (though that was less climate change and more poor leadership), and those are both incredibly important, but when people don’t ever plan on visiting either of those places anytime soon, this removed feeling has the potential to manifest as apathy. Michigan has some gorgeous places to visit to combat this phenomenon, but if you don’t feel like driving the four hours to get to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the University’s botanical gardens are a one-stop shop for all your climate-apathy assuaging needs. 

Located right off of Dixboro road, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens are an Ann Arbor staple. This hidden University gem boasts gorgeous scenery and houses an absolutely adorable collection of Bonsai trees. But what sets the gardens apart and helps connect their patrons to the realities of climate change around them is the art exhibits that decorate the halls of the visitor’s center and continue throughout the gardens. According to the garden’s mission statement and the Public Events Coordinator, Alexis Ford, the art exhibits at the gardens are meant to “develop a strong connection with the audience in a means to foster enjoyment, stewardship, and sustainability.” Impressive words, but what does that actually look like? 

As you walk through the gardens, the art becomes apparent. The entrance of the Gateway Garden was commissioned to commemorate the Ann Arbor Garden Club’s 75th anniversary in 2005 and, walking deeper into the complex, you stumble upon gorgeous fountains surrounded by insane bursts of colorful flowers. Trees loom in the distance, and if you visit in October like I did, the leaves have turned from summer greens to vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Seeing the art, surrounded by various plants, evokes a calming feeling. In a phone interview with The Daily, Ford spoke to how these pieces are chosen and their purpose within the gardens. 

Ford explained that artists can be commissioned to create something for the gardens, or come up with and pitch their own ideas. Once approved, the art is put up in the gardens and its visitor center, which Ford described as a “non-traditional gallery space,” — a fitting arena for an organization dealing with the non-traditional problem of emotionally connecting people to climate change. In thinking about the role of the gardens in combating an indifference toward climate change, Ford pointed out that, when selecting the art, she’s not looking for “a pretty picture on the wall.” She emphasized the importance of instilling a feeling of “why” — why is the garden important to visitors? Why are these pieces of art specifically here, at the gardens? Eventually, she wants the art to prompt people to consider what their role is in this precarious environment. 

The fountains, the gates and the other permanent exhibits, however, aren’t all that Matthaei has to offer. Ford talked about the importance of working with people in and around the community to create opportunities in which visitors can experience art in different ways through the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Take, for example, Metthaei’s collaboration with the Center for World Performance Studies this past March. Composer Raven Chacon brought “The Living Earth Show” to the gardens and performed an engaging piece exploring “the urgent but approaching crisis of water shortage burdening the region from California to the Navajo deserts.”

“(Art is) not a two-dimensional painting on a wall — it is an immersive experience. So, art can often involve video aspects of dance or theatrical aspects,” Ford said. 

Ford also mentioned that in the future, Matthaei is trying to further the experience of developing art that has a strong connection with nature but also “exploring what that means for the particular artist.” Matthaei is currently accepting submissions for their latest community exhibit surrounding our micro environment and challenging our existing views of nature from the human perspective. It’s an exhibit meant to explore nature as if we were the small things living in it — the bees and the birds and everything in between. 

After visiting Matthaei, I started wondering what goes behind creating a garden itself. Once you’ve come to terms with the overwhelming “eco-anxiety” that seems to plague our generation, it becomes increasingly clear that there are ways to give back to your environment in meaningful ways. This past summer, I spent an absurd amount of my time scrolling through gardens on Instagram, watching as people built the gardens of my dreams. As someone whose green thumb is a little more on the brown side, I decided it would be beneficial to talk to someone about it.  

In a phone interview with The Daily, Lindsay Wilkinson, a 2002 alum of the University’s School of Social Work and an avid gardener, talked about getting her garden started and the nuances behind creating a mini botanical garden at her home. Aside from how beautiful the flowers were, the most intriguing thing about the garden was the large amount of wildlife that seemed to always be present. From her Instagram, it would seem that this was because she had decided to make it a butterfly garden, planting specific plants meant to attract certain butterflies, like milkweed, the preferred snack of monarch butterflies. 

“When (my family) first moved into (the) house, the former owners were really into trying to establish more native species onto the property. And, honestly, that was a concept that I had not really looked at. Why would you plant plants that were meant to be in your area versus plants that were ornamental and were considered pretty by your big box stores?” 

Wilkinson’s family has always had a vegetable garden in their backyard, but this new garden was a product of observing the nature around her. “Living the first summer in our garden and just having this huge bank of native coneflower growing on the back side of our house, all I had to do was step back into our backyard to be witness to the fact that … these echinacea are covered with butterflies,” Wilkinson said.

The concept of growing native plants isn’t necessarily a revolutionary thing to do — once you really think about it, it’s just common sense. But that doesn’t make it any less intriguing. 

“Planting native is a neat idea because it’s just going to enhance and perpetuate and support what’s meant to be there,” Wilkinson said. As a result, her garden and lawn has remained pesticide free. She has to contend with certain bugs, like aphids, invading her garden, but she advises that if you’re planting things that attract ladybugs (a natural aphid predator), then nature, not pesticides, does the work for you.

Not only does the garden provide a summer haven, but as Wilkinson prepares to get ready for Michigan’s winter, it also creates a home for the bugs to stay when the cold hits. While her vegetables go into the house, her coneflowers to stay outside and become hollow — the perfect home for caterpillars and other bugs to spend the colder months. 

The garden has proven to be a community staple. She voiced her concerns about having such a prominent garden (Wilkinson counted nine neighboring homes that could see straight into the garden). But she needn’t have worried. The garden prompted her to have more conversations with her neighbors in one summer than in the other three summers that she lived in the house. 

Art is just as much of a dynamic concept as climate change, though a little less threatening, and the different ways we interact with it can affect how we choose to cope with things as scary as a climate crisis. For some, gardening is just as much an art as creating a sculpture or writing an opera. Creating a diverse, sustainable garden offers insight into what it means to be a part of this world. We should move towards ways of artistic expression that allow us to understand the environment and our local ecosystems better as a whole. While our long-term goal of overthrowing capitalism looms in the distance, we can find ways to subvert the system and give back to the environment by actively questioning our relationship with the world around us.