What is a Gardener If They Can’t Garden?

As I lay here writing this on my phone from bed, just shy of 3 months on into this deep dive away from health that my body has taken, again, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a gardener when you can’t work the garden. I’ve been asking myself, “Can I even call myself a gardener anymore? What/who am I now?”

I still have indoor plants to tend, but some have been lost these months and most of the time I don’t feel like I am really “tending” anyway. I am doing what I can, hoping to be done quickly so I can lay down again. I don’t blame myself. I am so physically unwell all the time. There is virtually nothing to give.

It’s made me consider how ableist my concept of myself as a gardener has been all of these years. There is more to being a gardener than the accumulation of specific, ongoing acts. There are no badges to collect as you put in a defined number of hours. Yet it’s only been 3 months and already I am telling myself I can’t be a gardener anymore.

Where does this come from?

(I know its origins and its hold in me. Do you know where it comes from for you?)

I have always been a doer and have defined myself in that. I have assigned and attached much of my worth to the doing. For a long time I was a very good doer. Chronic illness and it’s constraints called a halt to all doing and I took it as an opportunity to launch a deeper examination of this. To unlearn and unhook myself from it more thoroughly. However, five years in and I am still unpacking, unlearning, and trying to create new definitions. The old ways and their stories cling to me tightly. They slough off in layers like old grime that has sunk in so deeply I’ve nearly forgotten what I looked like before.

I recite Mary Oliver daily. “You don’t have to be good.* Doing is a joy and using my limbs and body to move and create is pleasure for me, but it is also how I make myself capital “G” Good, valuable, worthy. That second part is the problem.

How can we be gardeners if we can’t garden? I don’t know yet. I was one once, so maybe that’s forever. But perhaps the trouble here is that without meaning to, I’ve created an internal definition for gardener that is rooted in something I never wanted to be or conform to to begin with: An uppercase Gardener. Even worse, a Good one. Not just a gardener, but a Gardener. And not just a Gardener, but a Good Gardener. There are many layers to slough off.

“I’m not really a career person. I’m a gardener, basically.” – George Harrison

I have long declared that gardening is for everyone. How is it that all this time I was leaving myself out when I said it? Who else was I excluding without meaning to?

For me, gardening has been more than just the act itself. Dig a hole. Plant a seed. Water in. Gardening is also—if not more-so—in the relationships formed with plants and soil and place. And even that place doesn’t have to be solid or defined by narrow definitions. It’s still a garden if the soil comes out of a bag. For years I grew plants in pots on a rooftop. That was still a real garden connected to a real place in the world, even though it wasn’t on or in the ground.

And perhaps that is where I feel most lost right now because the disconnection has been so great, and the symptoms of dizziness I’ve experienced are so ungrounding, that sometimes I feel barely tethered to terra firma. I am outside, not in. This place. This earth. It’s like gravity isn’t working anymore and if I don’t hold on tight, I could float off into space.

I would prefer to stay here for the time being, thanks.

My work here, for now, is not in tending a garden or being an uppercase Gardener. Certainly not a Good one or a Good anything. It’s staying alive. It’s making it through each difficult moment and finding the small joys within. It’s guiding my body back to earth and figuring out how to keep it here. Survival may be your greatest work now, too. Perhaps there is nothing left to do but grieve the losses and let go of the uppercase ways we define ourselves.

I’m trying to remember what Davin said to me and what I wrote the first time I couldn’t garden. Things change. There will be more springs.

What’s important is we’re still here. Breathing.


* This line is from a poem called “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.