Jennifer Atkinson on gardening in the pandemic


IAS faculty member Jennifer Atkinson published an article on the gardening boom set off by COVID-19, and why growers' motives go far beyond food. In The impulse to garden in hard times has deep roots, she notes the explosion of news commentary comparing today's rush to plant gardens with the WWII victory garden movement, where governments encouraged Americans to grow food to support the war effort and feed their families. And yet while the analogy is convenient, Atkinson argues that 

"It reveals only one piece in a much bigger story about why people garden in hard times. Americans have long turned to the soil in moments of upheaval to manage anxieties and imagine alternatives. My research has even led me to see gardening as a hidden landscape of desire for belonging and connection; for contact with nature; and for creative expression and improved health.

These motives have varied across time as growers respond to different historical circumstances. Today, what drives people to garden may not be the fear of hunger so much as hunger for physical contact, hope for nature’s resilience and a longing to engage in work that is real."

With more daily experience moving into the virtual realm, increasing complaints of "Zoom Fatigue," and the social isolation that comes with shelter-in-place, the "act of plunging our hands in the soil gains an overwhelming allure."

Atkinson also explores links between the coronavirus gardening craze and social anxieties arising from ecological decline:

"Our era is one of profound loneliness, and the proliferation of digital devices is only one of the causes. That emptiness also proceeds from the staggering retreat of nature, a process underway well before screen addiction. The people coming of age during the COVID-19 pandemic have already witnessed oceans die and glaciers disappear, watched Australia and the Amazon burn and mourned the astonishing loss of global wildlife.

Perhaps this explains why stories of nature’s “comeback” are continually popping up alongside those gardening headlines. We cheer at images of animals reclaiming abandoned spaces and birds filling skies cleared of pollution. Some of these accounts are credible, others dubious. What matters, I think, is that they offer a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be: In a time of immense suffering and climate breakdown, we are desperate for signs of life’s resilience."

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