Is it me, or are the desire to travel and the desire to garden at odds?
The reason I ask is that I find myself faced with the quandary of wanting to travel and wanting to settle (literally cultivate a home and garden).
Inside me, the hunter/gather and farmer/settler archetypes coexist in uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relation.
Not an ideal scenario, right?
Over the past few years I’ve attempted (with varying degrees of success) to harmonise my desire to travel with my desire to garden: I’ve gardened whilst dreaming of travel, and have even gardened whilst travelling, albeit in other peoples’ gardens (if the latter appeals to you I suggest you look into becoming a WWOOFer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms).
Although my heady months of WWOOFing during my overland odyssey from England to Australia in 2012-2013 were extraordinary and deeply rewarding, there was something that dissatisfied me, generally, about my experience:
I never stuck ’round long enough to reap what I had sewn.
The nature and manner of the type of travel in which I was engaged (long-term, multiple-country, terrestrial, low budget, low carbon) was such that no sooner had I settled down and begun to develop feelings for a place, than it was time to move on.
By threading one WWOOF to the next I finally made my way overland from England to Australia, via twenty-one countries. The entire journey took seventeen months to complete and is remembered as a series of falling in love with places, and then having to leave – learning gradually, and with distance, to let them go.
The good news, I discovered, is that as a species we’re admirably well-adapted to love broadly and widely, deeply and long. The understanding that I have cultivated over the course of my hybrid travel-gardening adventures is that humans are polyamorous in terms of their relationship to place: that they can belong to many places (and cultures) at once.
As I write, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I regard travelling and gardening as incongruous (and I admit, I haven’t decided outright that this is truly the case) is that gardening is something you do at home. Traveling, on the other hand is a practice you practice ‘away’ from home. Insofar as practices go, gardening and travelling share the characteristic of being place-specific. It just so happens that the places in which they occur are thoroughly incompatible, even opposite: home & away respectively.
Community gardeners, allotment gardeners, WWOOFers and other itinerant farm workers aside, the majority of us tend to choose to practice gardening at home: in our own back yards, front yards, on our rooftops, balconies or windowsills.
One of the fundamentals of permaculture is that the closer to your backdoor you do your gardening, the more well-tended and productive your garden will be. In my experience this is true – that’s the reason my partner and I have constructed our vegetable beds within 1-3 strides from the backdoor (and even then I notice that the garden bed closest the house is generally more well-tended, well-watered, weed-free and fruitful than the garden two strides further away – lazy, huh!)
Unlike gardening, which is a home-turf enterprise, travel is a practice for ‘away’. In fact, travel is not only practiced ‘away’ from home, it is premised on the notion of having to first leave home in order for it (traveling) to occur. Let me be clear here that I am talking about biophysical travel – not metaphorical/metaphysical/out of body/multiple planes of reality travel – which I agree can theoretically take place anywhere – even at home. It goes without saying (and yet I’m saying it) that in order to experience travel, you must first remove yourself physically (and I would argue psychically) from your home environment.
You have to Go! Skedaddle. Vamoose. Piss off.
One of the reasons I myself engage in travel is to experience something other than what I routinely experience at home. When I travel I seek landscapes, peoples, cultures that possess the quality of being different in nature or kind to that which I know; that with which I am intimately acquainted. My current home is on the Sunshine Coast in southeast Queensland. Here I have ready access to beaches, volcano stubbs (the Glasshouse Maountains), gentle rolling hills, waterfalls, dairy farms, pineapple and sugar cane monocultures, rainforest valleys and dry eucalypt forests. Naturally, when I travel, I want to see things different to those that I can see at ‘home’: snowy mountains, deep rivers, bird-infested wetlands, mediaeval cities, Central Asian Steppe, Taiga, medinas, mosques and gothic churches.
It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.
(Alain de Botton)
Unlike travel, which is mobile and ephemeral, the rewards of gardening improve the longer you stay put. The longer you stay put the more likely you are to reap the rewards of what you sew, establishing a deep and richly connected personal relationship with your physical environment; becoming acquainted with local weather patterns, landforms, the quality of the soil, non-human animals, native vegetation and cultivated plants.
One of the great pleasures of gardening is the harvests you obtain: yields of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, roots, flowers and scents. These yields take time to accrue. Take jaboticabas, for instance, they can take up to twelve years to bear their first crop of fruit. That’s some wait! What I suppose I’m saying is that both gardening and travel entail a temporal (time) as well as a spatial component.
The third principle of permaculture: Obtain a Yield
I find this discourse on the duality of travel and gardening amusing, confusing and interesting because I am personally (and professionally) passionate about both. In fact, I have made a lifestyle (at various times in my life) of both travel and gardening. My doctoral thesis is very much about these twinned practices, framed through the concept of ‘permatravel’ (a contraction of ‘permanent travel’ and ‘permaculture travel’).
As someone who identifies herself as both a traveller and gardener I am invested in cultivating a theory and practice of living that accommodates both, and in the process, helping to erode the tired old dualism of gardening vs travel; working towards a blended and interfused practice: gardeningtravelling, permatravel, farming nomadism, wandering gardening.
As part of my doctoral research I am writing a permatravel memoir, the title of which is Seed: The Art and Mystery of Permatravel. The title is ironic because, as this blog post demonstrates, I am a long way from having perfected the ‘art’ of permatravel and am therefore in no position to instruct others on how to perform it. Although I have dabbled in it on and off, permatravel is still a mystery to me. This mystery is a source of tension that drives my research.
Although the permatravel memoir I am writing is unashamedly ‘about’ me and my experiences, I believe that the research has a broader significance. My journey and my story are part of a larger social and cultural phenomenon. Permatravel, I believe, is not just a me phenomenon. It’s something much bigger!
What I am finding is that there are plenty of other gardening travellers (or are they travelling gardeners?) out there. I encountered a good many during my overland journey from England to Australia, and of that good many, a great deal have become my good friends.
In addition to meeting and talking to other traveller-gardeners I am also seeking, as part of my research, to read and incorporate the life stories of other travelling-gardeners who have written about their experiences or who have had their lives written about by others. Some of these individuals are well known. Others are more obscure. Some are living. Others are deceased. These individuals include (but are not limited to) Bill Mollison, Juliette de Bairacli Levy and Nikolay Vavilov.
What my research is revealing is that in spite of the apparent schism between gardening and traveling, there are a number of individuals who have managed, over the course of their lifetime, to harmonise the two, fulfilling both their desires to travel and their desires to garden. I want to be one of those individuals.
Being a doctoral candidate I have spent the last twelve months staying put, grounding down. Head down, bum up, working, writing, reading, gardening.
After completing my confirmation (a big research milestone) a few months ago, however, the travel bug re-emerged and bit me on the bottom. Instead of rubbing tea tree oil on the bite, as is my custom, I wrote an email to a gardening-travelling buddy of mine (an equally soothing and restorative activity), floating the idea that I might throw in the towel with my research and take five months ‘off’ to travel. May, I told him, was the month I intended to depart (May, as all good gardeners know, is an ideal month in the subtropics to sew newling winter vegetables). It was, I stated guiltily, a foolish and inopportune time to consider leaving,
The response I received from my friend was something of a surprise: “Don’t stress too much over it. Travel’s more important.”
IS travel more important, I wondered, glancing from the screen of my computer to the frilly green border of lettuces tumbling over the wood-trim of the garden bed nearest my studio?
What precisely did he mean?
I looked to his life for clarification.
My friend, Glen, let’s call him, has a lovely garden – a flourishing garden. He has been gardening for over four decades. His current garden (he’s had many), is an eighth of an acre residential block in Noosa, with sandy soil and a north-facing aspect. It’s small but productive, consisting of mixed plantings of banana, paw paw, tamarillo, cherry guava, loadsa herbs and a whole bunch of annual vegetables: peas, beetroot, leeks, sweet corn, depending on the season and time of year.
In his twelve square meters of raised beds you’ll find upwards of 40 varieties of flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, annual and perennials. His garden holds a special place in my heart as its from this garden that many of my own plants (in the form of cuttings, root divisions and seeds) got their start in life.
The key to maintaining a productive garden as well as a regular schedule of travel, Glen confided, lies in a combination of crucial factors: the presence of good neighbors, resilient gardening strategies, the astute selection of plant types and species; a preference for perennials; and most importantly, an easygoing attitude. Inevitably, he stated, you’re going to lose a few plants while you’re away. Get used to it. Don’t fuss. It’s no big deal.
Being a relative newcomer to gardening I wasn’t entirely convinced by my friend’s blasé attitude; his advice that I should throw in the towel and go AWOL. And yet his words found their mark. The day after receiving his email my wanderlust got the better of me. At ten o-clock at night I found myself online booking a ticket to Chiang Mai, Thailand – the date of departure just three days away!
I spent the following three days madly preparing my garden (as well as myself) to withstand our impending separation; emailing neighbours, stockpiling mulch, doing everything I could think of to guarantee my garden – newly planted for winter – would survive.
If you’d like to read about the outcome of my journey and how my garden faired during my absence: which plants perished and which survived, stay tuned for my next blog post: Home & Away Part 2.
Also to come… a post outlining my top-five neglect-hardy food plants to grow.
Note: This discussion about travelling and gardening is part of an ongoing conversation I am having about permaculture and travel (permatravel) on this blog. Permaculture Traveller is an offshoot of my doctoral research on cultivating an integrated form of gardening-travelogue (permaculture-travel memoir or permatravelogue).
Indented quote: from Alain De Botton 2002, The Art of Travel, Penguin Books: London, p. 59