What Gardening Has Taught Me About Civic Responsibility

A tropical garden in Trinidad and Tobago; photo used with permission.

A tropical garden in Trinidad and Tobago; photo used with permission.

When I garden, I think. Surrounded by the stillness of nature, my mind can either be attuned to the present moment, completely engrossed in my task, or it can wander – and these days, it's been taking long, meandering strolls as I consider the state of my country.

Spending time in my garden this past weekend, I felt elated to be outside, digging in the dirt, marveling at the elemental feel of the earth on my hands – at first. Not even the rain could chase me indoors. Mixed with the aroma of the ripening mangoes and cocoa pods on the nearby trees, it smelled like home. But as the weeding grew more monotonous, I started to think about other things: escalating crime, systemic corruption, a parallel economy allegedly built on the illicit drug and arms trade.

As my bare hands struggled to free the grass from the insidious weeds that were slowly strangling it, the metaphor could not be more clear. I've learned a lot of things by puttering about in my garden, but I never thought how to be a good citizen would be one of them. Here are a few of the seeds that germinated in my civic consciousness.

You have to take ownership. In the same way that it's my garden, it's my country. I used to walk around my yard, see work that needed to be done, and make excuses for why I couldn't actually do it: I didn't have time, I was too tired, it wasn't my top priority. The unsurprising result was that the weeds spread – I lost nearly my entire back lawn to crabgrass and was miserable about it. But had I not initially taken the position that my garden was everyone else's responsibility – the unreliable gardener, the busy husband – it would not have got so out of hand.

The grass isn't always greener. There's a lot that's wrong with Trinidad and Tobago, but there's also a lot that's right and beautiful and uplifting. Sometimes, the decision to move to another patch of lawn is the right thing, and sometimes, you just need to stay and battle the weeds, because after all, they're yours. You had something to do with them taking root; you should have something to do with getting them out.

You've got to do the work. No way around it, you must tackle the backbreaking, finger-cramping, skin-itching, uncomfortable work. It's going to be frustrating, feel never-ending, and you're going to be convinced that you're getting nowhere. But the body pain is eventually going to feel like you laboured well for something important, like the first bloom of a rare flower.

Change isn't going to happen overnight. Despite the jaw-dropping transformations that take place in thirty minute time slots on the home and garden networks, these kind of transitions will probably move at the pace of molasses through a sieve – in winter. In the same way that it takes time to rid a garden of weeds or pests, bringing good governance to a corruption-riddled system will be a long, hard path to walk. That rare blossom is going to seem a long way off, but when it finally appears, it will be all the more captivating.

You may not see the fruits of your labour. There's a Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I'm fine with that. I think most people want their children to inherit a better country than we live in now.

You don't let anything slide. Trinidadians have a saying: “Give them an inch and they take a yard.” Tenacious weeds, like law breaking members of society, are just looking for a loophole to get themselves established. As an electorate, we must pay attention: be vigilant about attacks on our democracy, make our voices heard on matters of policy and good governance and have systems in place to hold our public officials to account should they ever forget that they are there to serve the common good and not a personal one.

You must keep the big picture in mind. Gardening can be very detail oriented, but it's also about overall effect – and that can't be achieved without a strong community. Diversity living in harmony is the stuff beautiful gardens – and strong societies – are made of.

Everyone's got to pitch in. I once read an article about a small circle of gardeners who pooled their resources in the absence of reliable labour and took turns tending each other's yards every weekend. Their gardens and their friendships thrived, all because they created a strong and functional community. In the same way, we must all do what we can, no matter how small. Can we write a blog post or a letter to the editor? Can we refuse to rationalise bribe-paying as the cost of doing business? Can we attend a march, sign a petition, be an activist? As Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai said in her poignant piece I will be a hummingbird, we can all do something. And each small effort will add up to something much bigger, something that can really make a difference.

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