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The Literary Gardener: Voltaire’s gardening lessons

Adapting our gardening practices to climate change offers us the same opportunity that Voltaire had in his

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin (We must cultivate our garden).”

— Voltaire, “Candide,” 1759

In “The Well-Gardened Mind” (2020), author Sue Stuart-Smith tells a story about the controversial French satirist Voltaire and his novella “Candide.” In 1753, Voltaire’s anti-religious beliefs landed him out of favor with his patron Frederick the Great. Voltaire thought it best to flee to Geneva, Switzerland, where he decided to make his exile more pleasant by creating an enclosed garden at his villa, Les Délices (the Delights).

While Voltaire was busy in his garden, in 1755 one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history completely destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal. Amidst utter devastation from the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and fires, people questioned their beliefs in a benevolent god and in the prevailing Newtonian concept of the universe as a meticulously efficient and predictable clockwork.

From his garden in Geneva, Voltaire was enraged by a lack of response to the emergency from Lisbon’s leaders, who instead focused their attention on punishing heretics who dared express their disillusionment. Voltaire’s records for that time show that he had two master gardeners and 20 workmen to take care of the garden, so he had spare time to write “Candide,” in which he satirized philosophical and religious beliefs associated with the clockwork universe model.

Following the publication of “Candide” in 1759, the book was immediately banned and then became a best seller.

At the end of the novella, the protagonist, a traveler named Candide, finds his way to a small farm where he’s taken in by the old farmer and offered food from his garden. Candide had fallen into deep despair from the atrocities he’d witnessed during his journey and by the recognition that he could no longer hide from the world’s ugliness behind blind optimism.

Yet, the simple but flourishing farm and the farmer’s hospitality leads Candide to finally understand the uselessness of “chasing an idealized version of life while turning a blind eye to the problems of this one.” Instead, he realizes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin, we must cultivate our garden.” In other words, as Stuart-Smith writes, Candide realized that “life has to be nourished and that we can do that best through shaping our own lives, our communities, and the environments we inhabit.”

Stuart-Smith likens Voltaire’s, and Candide’s, despondency to the helplessness many people today feel about the unhealthy state of our planet, which the author calls climate grief or environmental melancholy. She writes, “In response to this, we can feel caught between minimizing the problem and hoping for the best on the one hand, or succumbing to despair and paralysis on the other.”

For gardeners, this equates to either ignoring our environmental problems and gardening as usual, or giving up gardening altogether in light of what can feel like insurmountable challenges. Alternatively, we can learn to cultivate our gardens in ways that adapt to and even mitigate the effects of climate change.

I recently participated in a webinar offered through the OSU Extension Service called “Adapting Your Garden for Climate Change,” in which 65% of the attendees said they were starting to make changes in their garden to respond to climate change. Over the next several years, gardeners can expect to see continuing erratic weather patterns with rapid temperature changes, extended droughts that lead to water shortages, periods of extreme heat in the summer, more wildfires, and aberrant freezing and snow patterns, particularly early and late in the cool-weather season.

The good news is that many of the recommended strategies to adapt to climate change are simply effective gardening and land steward practices that I’ve been writing about all year:

• Plant fire-resistant and drought-hardy plants;

• Use water-wise irrigation systems;

• Store carbon in the soil by composting and mulching;

• Use a mulching blade on lawnmowers to keep grass a little taller, which encourages grass roots to extend deeper into the soil;

• Replace water-thirsty grass with eco-lawn mixtures;

• Avoid products made from fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources;

• Buy locally grown plants and seeds (or grow plants from seed and save seeds);

• Use season extenders to protect plants during weather extremes.

Adapting our gardens and our gardening practices to climate change offers us the same opportunity that Voltaire and Candide had in their gardens — a way out of a bipolar mindset in which we either feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems or live in a perpetual state of denial about them.

During the last 20 years of his life, Voltaire made good on his commitment to cultivate his garden. He planted a fruit and vegetable garden, kept bees and planted thousands of trees. He wrote, “I have only done one sensible thing in my life — cultivate the ground. He who tills a field renders a better service to mankind than all the scribblers in Europe.”

Upcoming learning opportunities

The Jackson County Master Gardener Association will offer its Winter Dreams/Summer Gardens symposium virtually this year on Nov. 5, 6 and 13. Each day will include five presentations from 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. The sessions will address growing berries, vegetables, pollinator plants and native plants in the Rogue Valley’s changing climate, regenerative gardening for improving soils, landscaping for biodiversity, and more. Cost is $20 for all three days. For more information, visit the JCMGA website at www.jacksoncountymga.org.

As part of its Growing Oregon Gardeners series, the OSU Extension Service will have the next virtual session from 3 to 4 p.m. Nov. 9. The program will focus on “Healthy Soils for Healthy People” with Gail Langellotto, urban and community horticulture specialist. The webinars are free. For more information, visit https://extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/growing-oregon-gardeners-level-series

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.