The Garden Of Failure

Leaffooted bugs on an unripe orange picnic pepper

When I built out my garden last fall, failure terrified me. Any wilting leaf, any pest, any problem filled me with such dread. When you have a garden, you’re suddenly responsible for living creatures and the delicate, utterly mysterious balance between them. There’s also that old human bias that rears up in your gut: the anxiety around anything disorderly or on the downward slope of a life cycle. It all felt so intensely personal.

The motion of the seasons strips away that personalized garden anxiety, simply because there is so much going on, you cannot possibly be responsible for everything. And isn’t that an immense relief? Any attempt to overly control, any attempt at perfection ruins relationships, between the soil and the plants, the plants and the creatures, between yourself and the garden.

Right now, hornworms and leaffooted bugs are munching on the tomatoes and peppers in the garden. They aren’t in huge numbers, so it’s mostly manageable. Picking off the leaffooted bugs is a slapstick crime caper: they’re just a fingernail faster than the end of my fingers, scrambling to the other side of a leaf in their clever disguise (they’ll write songs about these Bonnies & Clydes). I’ve figured out a pincer technique—using two sticks or sharp pieces of mulch—to trap and kill them. I’ve become a General Patton of the garden, yet a loving one. I’m a general who sets about his murderous task not with enjoyment but with curiosity.

Tomato hornworms, though, are aliens from some hellish caterpillar galaxy. Because of their pale green color and bulbous shape, my eyes move past them quickly before my brain catches up: “hey, those aren’t cucumbers, those are bugs. Bugs that can crawl. Bugs that can crawl on my skin and infect my nightmares.” They have a single horn protruding from their forehead, an H.R. Giger-esque adaptation that allows them to easily pierce the skin of an unripe tomato, as well as the skin of my own deepest fears. They disgust me. My “technique” for getting rid of tomato hornworms is decidedly the opposite of what General Patton would do: I clip off the tomato branch they’re clinging to and fling the entire scene over the fence into the parking lot next door. I’m not proud of this. But putting as much distance between me and the hornworm seems to work on some primal level. Plus, they’re leaving the tomatoes alone now, perhaps frightened by the lunatic that would catapult them into the hornworm-equivalent of the stratosphere.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned pesticides until now. There’s a reason for this, deeper than my commitment to all-organic gardening (though that’s an important reason on its own). A pesticide changes your relationship with a garden, sometimes irrevocably. It prizes unthinking, uncaring, and big solutions over smaller ones. Above all, a pesticide is predicated on the erroneous belief that speed and efficiency are the greatest things in the world and must be pursued by any means necessary.

But you always pay for efficiency, even if you don’t realize it. Efficiency makes you believe that failure is unacceptable. That death is a mistake and is avoidable. That plant yield must be held on a pedestal. That your garden needs protection like some medieval fortress. That there are “bad” forces out to get you and your hard work. That it’s all about you, and everything else is an antagonist trying to personally prevent you from succeeding. Efficiency makes you believe that there is no time to learn and learning is not a good enough reason to do anything.

By not using a pesticide, I’m choosing to come face-to-face with failure. I’m choosing to allow failure and problems to slow me down so that I can begin to understand leaffooted bugs and tomato hornworms. I can begin to question my own dislike and disgust of some insects—is that my belief or somebody else’s? (Progress report: I’m still disgusted by hornworms.) By observing these pests, I can learn that there is an entire universe of things that eat them: ladybugs, spiders, green lacewings, wasps, and birds. And to invite those things into the garden, I can learn that I need to plant more calendula, chives, dill, cilantro, marigold, fennel, and much, much more. And each of those plants has likes and dislikes—as well as culinary uses for me—opening up other fascinating paths to venture down. Suddenly, the idea, the very possibility of my garden has expanded. There are more solutions than I could’ve imagined if I’d just chosen the efficient route. A pesticide now is a shortcut that cuts off your own knees.

There is the possibility that pests take over my garden and destroy my prized work. I say, let it happen. This is the only way to learn. Nature isn’t my enemy; it doesn’t give a shit about me. Isn’t that another relief?

Death and life in the garden live beyond our narrow understanding of failure and success. Things die and come back and die and come back; failure and success flow into one another and cannot be neatly contained like crop rows. They feed and depend on each other, living as something bigger than just binaries. Failure and success change into something whole, not disintegrated.

Paths

There are many different times nested within the general COVID Time, like some bizarre temporal Russian doll. Days of anxiety and rage and fear and sadness have slowly given way to “I can handle this alright,” which has then given way to sheer and utter burnout. Not much is really grabbing me these days; I can hardly focus on my stack of seemingly interesting books, and never in my life did I think I’d get totally sick of Great Films and Great Albums. Big, Important Things have become too much to handle. We wait between the couch cushions for something new.

But hey, at least it’s spring. The sun is shining, the temperatures are swinging wildly from cold to hot. The season itself is indecisive but knows it must do something, anything, after a long, tough winter. There’s a light on the horizon, but we’re not there yet. It’s a good time to think about what to leave behind and what to carry forward.

How will this time be marked? Discarded masks will litter the gutters for a few years I imagine. Maybe some sort of somber marble monument will be built in D.C. We live across the street from a park with some trails through fields of wildflowers and native grasses, and I’ve noticed odder, more relatable monuments to this past year, which I’ve dubbed “Pandemic Paths.” These are paths that branch off the main trails, created by humans trying to avoid each other’s potentially dangerous breath. They’re medically-recommended desire lines, trampling some beautiful plants but also saying something about the past year: a desire to be alone, together. A desire to get away from death and statistics and money and masks to find something new, to keep walking. They are writing an unintentional story in the dirt.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally rediscovered a guide to Texas wildflowers that I bought on a whim at Half Price Books years ago. Paired with the iNaturalist app, I’ve been traipsing out into the park everyday like it’s the distant wilderness, on the hunt for a new wildflower. The mix of analog (book) and digital (app) is also refreshing, having spent so much of the past year firmly in the digital fever dream. The app gives the sober, clinical view of nature—the facts, the science, the stern, tsk-tsking Latin names—while the book gives the human spark. There are all the various folk names for the same plant: cloth-of-gold is also Fendler bladderpod and it’s also also popweed. Each name represents a different experiential, historical path. You can imagine someone seeing a whole field clothed in gold and deciding on a poetic name. Another person stoops closer to notice the plant’s pods look like bladders. And a curiouser soul (probably a kid) figures out that if you step or pinch those pods, they pop.

Occasionally, the authors’ own absurd humanity peaks through the pages of the guide. In the introduction, they describe waiting for the perfect photo under the merciless Texas sun, a task that requires “all of one’s patience and half one’s religion to maintain equanimity.” The guide was originally published in 1984; if the authors made it to our day, they’d be uniquely prepared for our moment.

With these two guides, I’ve become attuned to the details, like how a lawn of April grass is unbelievably crowded with color and texture and species diversity if you take the time to look. Spotting blue-eyed grass or Engelmann’s daisy or greenthread or the impossibly-small field madder has turned into a simple game, something to focus on as the days inch closer to opening up. There’s a unique, orchestrated rhythm to spring now, the cluster of flowers changing week-to-week: henbit dead-nettle is pale and dying, now come the spiderworts and primrose, then it’s prairie verbena and Texas vervain’s turn. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and I’m finally seeing the way spring moves, ebbing and flowing at my feet, in front of my eyes, under my nose.

This is a time for questioning and treading lightly. This is also a time for noticing, for witnessing. This is how things rebuild.

Henbit Dead-Nettle

My first favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: the name, my god, that name. A name that requires an “excuse me, did you just say ‘henbit dead-nettle?’” You can imagine the name rolling effortlessly out of some ancient British botanist’s mouth like pipe smoke, watching his chickens feast on the plant’s tiny seeds. You can play the name on a piano: one TWO three fourfive. Henbit dead-nettle. Say it out loud like an incantation, like the wheeziest epithet, roll it around in your mouth, let it soundtrack your sweeping, your dishwashing, your walking down the street, so that passing strangers are forced to consider: did that person just call me a henbit dead-nettle under their breath?

My second favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: it’s look. It is hairy. It looks like it has slyly wandered into our universe from a Dr. Seuss landscape, a Whoville tree shrunk to the size of a common weed. It is a kid’s idea of a plant: draw a straight line for a stem, scribble a ring of leaves like a lily pad, leave an inch of space, repeat scribbled ring of leaves and empty space until you reach the top. There, pinkish flowers explode out, the world’s smallest, proudest trumpets.

My third favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: it is a “weed.” “Weed” is human for “we cannot control it,” and boy, henbit dead-nettle sure loves to rub that in our collective face. An ocean of concrete cannot stop it. It springs from cracks, from concrete’s failure. It is a green fist, a tiny wry smile trying desperately to beautify our unthinking ugliness. Meanwhile, we try desperately to erode every inch of soil on this planet. Henbit dead-nettle, like other weeds, holds the land in place. It casually points out, cooly smoking a cigarette, that you may have a problem in your garden, buddy. Too much bare soil. Not enough nutrients. I might know more than you do, it says in a glowing whisper.

My fourth favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: its importance. It first appears in that no-man’s land between winter and spring, adding a quiet shock of green to brown fields. This little plant, so easily trampled and sat upon, helps bees survive winter and gather enough energy for spring. Birds eat the seeds. Voles and turtles eat the tender leaves. As the days get warmer, it attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. And in a pinch, you can eat it, raw or cooked. It tastes like peppery celery. It tastes like spring, toughened by the roughness of winter and sweetened by steadily increasing days.

This week in Austin, the warmer temperatures will fall away. A massive cold front will chase us from the parks and gardens and into our homes, these too-familiar places we’re desperate to escape. Spring will be swallowed by a winter that will not leave, and it will feel like we’re now cursed by reversing seasons, the latest curse in a cursed time. Outside, henbit dead-nettle will hold on. It will keep moving the clock forward. It will keep holding the land for us until we return.

Oblique Gardening

I’m taking a course in permaculture design. Permaculture is a combination of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the basic tenets were developed by indigenous societies across millennia. It starts from the assumption that nature knows what it’s doing and encourages the designer to harness that momentum to human needs. Permaculture focuses on understanding environments as systems, not parts, and designing landscapes to closely mimic nature. Instead of even crop rows with one type of vegetable—like the American ideal of a farm—permaculture aims for a wide variety of plants, all interacting with one another horizontally, vertically, and over time.

What draws me to permaculture is its emphasis on making connections, among plants and among disciplines. It can be very narrow or far-reaching, from redesigning a backyard garden to creating cities and societies that are anchored in sustainability. I realize I’ve been looking for this kind of ethos my entire life. Our society is so set on specialization and myopic thinking. Permaculture pulls the blinders off.

I’ve started applying permaculture to music and audio recording. Designing a good permaculture system is very similar to a good audio mix. Every frequency, from bass to treble, sits in a specific auditory niche, and a good mix is balanced among these frequencies. Sometimes when I’m working on my own music, I’ll hear how “it needs something really treble-y.” That treble-y sound doesn’t sound very good on its own, but when it’s combined with the other frequencies, all the sounds work together in a way that’s almost magical, or like a landscape that has exploded to life after a little rain.

The permaculture design principles remind me of Oblique Strategies, a collection of prompts designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 to break creative blocks in the recording studio. Here are some of my favorites:

*Honor thy error as a hidden intention
*Use an old idea
*What to increase? What to reduce?
*Are there sections? Consider transitions
*Try faking it!
*Give the game away

Creative work can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, and logical thinking can actually be your worst enemy since it’s grounded in habit and the limits of knowledge. Oblique Strategies encourage lateral thinking and the breaking of habits. A little bit of chaos or randomness goes a long way, and the prompts’ gnomic nature—which you have to decipher for yourself—contributes to their use. They turn a frustrating situation back into a game and get you thinking in a more playful way. They get you back into the dirt like a kid.

And here are some of the more playful permaculture design principles:

*Observe.
*Stack elements in both space and time
*Make the least change for the greatest effect
*Optimize edge

Already, I’m thinking about how to apply these principles to the world of music, and conversely, how to draw on Oblique Strategies in my garden. That’s not what they were intended for, but that “wrongness” feels like a new Oblique Strategy. It creates the perfect amount of friction that can lead to spectacular (or spectacularly weird) results.

One of the books I read recently was Kay Larson’s Buddhism-focused biography of the composer John Cage, Where The Heart Beats. John Cage used the I Ching—basically an ancient version of Oblique Strategies—to write most of his scores (and a lot of his speeches, too). According to Cage, modern music suffered too much from the egos of the composers. There was no life to their creations, just endless logic and rigidity. You could hear their hands around the necks of every note. The I Ching offered randomness and loss of control, which is an incredibly lifelike and natural feature. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of Cage’s dearest teachers, counseled him that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” So that’s what he set out to do, and by doing so, he explored Coomaraswamy’s ethos of interconnection, where “art is religion, religion art, not related but the same.”

“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases,” Cage said. “Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.” His music sounds like a natural environment: random, surprising, buzzing with the life of independent sounds bouncing off each other. His music is not “pleasing” to many because of this chaos. We’re hardwired to organize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that need can lead to segmentation, segregation, and destruction for the sake of order. It’s how a manicured, geometric lawn turns into a lifeless, resource-sucking space. How much of the world do we not see because of this innate organization bias? How much of life goes unnoticed?

“Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet,” Larson writes. “That’s when a path appears.” In permaculture, this similar humility is greatly encouraged. Watch nature and work with it, don’t try to master it. Accept the randomness it gives you. Be a permanent student. All of this makes me realize how web-like our environments, interests, thoughts, and lives are. Music is nature is creativity is life—not discrete parts, but a whole. Not related, but the same.