Gardener conduct and ethics

A few years back, whiles teaching in person classes, we had a couple of fights break out between students. This happened while working outdoors in the garden. Gus and myself were a little bit surprised. Gus had the puzzled knit brow expression, almost confused face. I cannot say that I expected such things in a landscaping class, but tried my best to bring the tension down a notch and avoid folks getting injured. If you must know, the fights revolved around males who did not want to be told what to do by each other… And that sort of thing escalates real quick when you have metal tools in your hands, some blood and hormones running in the vessels, and any latent boredom or frustration that needs to be vented.

Gus, in his forty-five years plus teaching here at CCSF, had not encountered such things before. Hey! This is a college class! This is gardening! No fighting allowed! You would think that would be obvious, that working together and respecting each other was a given. But somewhere along the line, that was not part of the curriculum anymore, or perhaps students did not get that lesson growing up. Gus would say, “They don’t teach common sense anymore” and I would agree.

As as result of the incidents, we made a basic set of rules for our classes that we passed around. We also tacked in the rules some other trends we noticed that needed a bit of correction. It was a time when smart phones became popular. The document was a bare bones basic document that looked like this:

Well things changed a little bit after that, and at least we had no more fighting. In the end, I think Gus and myself tend towards the inspire-from-within school rather than the enforce externally school of training. Gardening best learned by example founded in good will, rather than lessons based on fear and punishment.

It did get me thinking about our conduct and ethics in the garden, as well as any guiding philosophy that may bear upon the topic. As Gus says, sometimes, as a gardener for residential clients, you almost become a member of the family. After all, you often have keys to the yard if not the house. You occupy a position of trust. You are a professional. As a gardener for the city, you are an essential worker for parks and public spaces where anybody can ‘be’. In these places lies the health of the community and society, and you are its guardian and caretaker. You can behave honorably because you have a GPS tracker on your truck, a supervisor watching you with binoculars from across the street, and hidden cameras strapped to the trees. Or you can behave honorably because there is something inside that keeps you motivated and happy to serve.

A professional gardeners group used to meet here at City College. It was made up of landscapers who wanted to network, and pass on knowledge. Many established contractors would all come to attend the once a month Thursday night meetings. We encourage you all to join and to pass on the tradition. This here is their mission and code of ethics to adhere to:

There are a few other professions that are closely linked to our jobs as gardeners and horticulturists. Ranchers, hunters, loggers and farmers all come to mind. Jobs that require us to extract something from the earth. Work that entails working outdoors, a certain amount of risk, and the honoring of a reciprocal relationship. They must all surely have a code or rules to live by…

Maybe it was the reading of Empire of the Summer Moon about the Comanche chief Quanah Parker, or reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, or perhaps watching Quigley down under starring Tom Selleck on Netflix. Anyhow, got on a cowboy journey. Ranchers and cowboys have got to know the plants too, plants that the livestock feed on; this is called range management. So I googled up the cowboy code. Its kinda sparse on the details with regards to cattle roping and braiding lariats, but sure does summarize well the basics and the lifestyle. Some of these codes are the same ones that gardeners live by:

Something that you will overcome as you engage in gardening, or maybe not overcome but at least tolerate and get used to, is death. Death in nature to be specific. Its happening all the time and you are a part of it. You kill weeds, kill bugs, kill gophers and mice, and accidentally cull or kill plants you meant to cultivate. It is all a part of the job. Perhaps you cultivated the soil and exposed all the worms and beetles, then in comes the robin and sparrow to feast. So you inadvertently caused the death of all those creatures as well, by opening the way for opportunistic little birds. You can feel really bad about it and try to find another line of work that does not have such an intimate connection to nature. Or you can reconcile yourself to being a part of the natural world and make up for it in some way. By sharing the harvest, by making a flower bouquet for a friend, or by making some kinda offering to the earth – say a fish head chunk of fertilizer or a bucket of manure. Thinking and meditating about death, that is something hunters do. What is a hunter’s code? I wondered… Found this one online, seems I cant get away from Texas:

Down by my friend’s cattle ranch south, he hosts hunters who come to hunt pigs and deer and squirrels and quails and turkeys and rabbits. This is his sign in the trailer with regards to hunting rules. I much like it because it is honest, emphasizes safety and personal responsibility, and lists real actions, not ambiguous philosophical type words:

As gardeners, farmers are similar to us. While we deal in smaller plots of land that may be strictly ornamental, or that require more intensive attention, farmers usually deal with land on a larger scale. And production is the main thing, not so much access and cleanliness, as it is in town. Farming is one of those activities that needs many people to work together; it forms the foundation of all cultures. The farmer’s code I found belonged to a club based out of Australia, in Molong New South Wales, attributed to Robert Stephens:

I was introduced to another farmer while going to dojo in San Diego. He was a rice farmer whose name was Morihei Ueshiba aka O’sensei. He was also a Japanese martial artist post World War II who modified jiu jitsu, merged it with the nature spirits of Shinto religion, and made it a path to arrive at peace. The dojo was filled with Navy folks from Coronado. I asked, “ Don’t y’all get this training in the military?” They said, “Nope, thats why we are here.” Heard that situation is changed now, but back in the day there was a whole lot of sweaty gi outfits and kiai kiai kiai sounding off of Ocean Beach. On the tatami mats mopping up afterwards is where you learn catchy phrases like ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘when we help each other, we all move up together’. For sure have to thank Sensei Tom and Senpai Ben. The code I found was for samurais, the warrior code. In Japanese it is bushido:

Do you know what DO in juDO, hapkiDO, aikiDO mean? Or TAO or DAO? It means the way, the road, the path. Judo is the gentle path, hapkido and aikido are the paths to become one with the energy and forces of our universe. We are talking about a relationship with nature, the nature outside as well as the nature and turmoil within.

How did this essay become about the way and martial arts?! Sigh. Must be from watching the sequels of Karate Kid called Cobra Kai with kids of this generation. Distracting tangents! Well let’s go back to gardening, and try to provide some worthwhile structure and discipline for this next cohort. Heres a basic set of rules for the semester. Keepin’ it short and sweet:

This all goes back a long ways. Hunters horticulturists gatherers farmers. These are the original old time professions that stretch back to the beginning of humanity and extend into the future infinity. You, as a gardener, is a living link and it is a great community to be a part of. For me, to be a gardener is the best thing in all the world! Welcome to landscape horticulture, maintenance & care, class OH 53. Now, enough chit chat and blah blah blah, to work!