A Garden State of Mind

20 Sep

Though I watched my mother tend to her flower gardens, I even helped her weed, and each Spring I looked for the irises to bloom, I didn’t become a gardener. For one thing, I never owned a home with grounds for a garden, though I could certainly have planted gardens in the house I rented in Cropseyville, NY, for two years or so. But I never had any such inclinations.

Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to find myself tending plants, pruning them, a bit of weeding, and a bit of watering. I like it.

But what’s it about, this gardening thing? Here I’m thinking as an evolutionary psychologist, you know, the folks who believe that we’ve got Stone Age minds we’ve got to harness to operate the Modern World. And I agree with them, in a way.

Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t garden, nor do our primate relatives. We all forage and eat plants, and we also do a bit of hunting for animal flesh, humans more so than other primates. We’ve got ‘instincts’ for those things. But we’ve got no gardening instinct.

Nor for that matter, do we have instincts for quantum mechanics, archery, basket weaving, hopscotch, square dancing or bowling, among many other things. So how does our Stone Age mind do such things?

Obviously we’ve got to construct routines for these various purposes.

I like to use chess as a metaphor. Evolution provides the chess pieces, the board, and the basic rules. That’s all the Stone Age mind. But there’s many ways one can play chess within those rules using those implements. Those ways belong to culture. They are constructed.

Of what is gardening constructed? What are the basic pieces? I’ve got two in mind: territoriality, and nurturing. Animals do mark and maintain their territories. Gardens are delimited territories. So it makes sense to hypothesize that we use our territorial instinct in creating gardens.

And then there’s nurturing. We take care of infants and children. And, so I’m hypothesizing, gardens. We feed them, we clean them, we water them, and trim and tend them. We take care of them.

Just like we care for the young.

That’s interesting.

Given that, what’s going on in a religious tradition that posits that humankind originally lived in a garden? Were we the caretakers? Or were we the objects of care? And that we were ejected from the garden—what does that mean?


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