Michelle Matthew, Executive Director of Arlington Garden, reflects on Earth Day, and what we can learn from garden during the pandemic.

This year marks the 15th Anniversary of Arlington Garden and the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. But this Earth Day, April 22nd, we were closed. Our events have been canceled, and our efforts to celebrate have been postponed.

I know that there are many other anniversaries and celebrations being recognized in isolation, including congregations of ritual and gatherings to grieve and mourn. If anything, this pandemic is forcing us to acknowledge the importance of community and open space. Many of you may be walking more, driving less, meeting your neighbors, reaching out to your friends and family, and figuring out ways you can still connect.

At Arlington, we intend to still be one of these means of connection. We’ve been hosting volunteer check-ins on Zoom. We are working on setting up celebratory online programming. And we are sharing stories about the garden’s beginnings. Hopefully, you’ve been enjoying the recent newsletters from our Communications and Volunteer manager, Andrew Jewell.

And the garden remains open. While we remain open, we ask that visitors wear masks, and practice physical distancing. However, we have temporarily cancelled our volunteer program and our Director of Horticulture, Leigh Talmo, has been in quarantine. For the rest of the mandatory shelter in place order, we have made the hard decision to close the garden on Tuesdays so that our staff can conduct maintenance safely and reduce exposure.

The pandemic has led to many more weeds in the garden, but weeds aren’t going to kill us. Instead, Arlington is a place where human health can be restored and replenished. At Arlington we don’t use poison or toxic chemicals that pollute our watershed. Nor do we use gas powered mow and blow equipment, which create air and noise pollution. The work that we do, and that Leigh leads, takes time, care, and knowledge of the difference between a weed and a wildflower.

This Earth Day, I thought a lot about our communion with the land and the thoughtful way we care for it. This past week, we brought in “Ramsey” the ram (see photo above) to chomp on some weedy mallow. If you’ve been to the garden, you’ll see how beautiful and alive it is, how good it feels to be there. This feeling is not by accident, but springs from the inherent principles of the garden’s design, and our cherishing of and care of this special place that once never was.

If you look at many public landscapes, you will find that they are often monocultures (lawns), which require high energy maintenance (mowing, blowing, chemicals). These homogeneous landscapes lack plant diversity and habitat. On the other hand, when you visit Arlington, you find complexity and density. This complexity requires specific knowledge, technique and care. Our garden is low-maintenance in that it requires less energy intensive resources. However, our labor is knowledge intensive. Sometimes the garden may feel messy and imperfect, but that’s okay. Just think about how good it feels to be there, and how its beauty comes from the habitat we’ve fostered and not its manicure.

During the pandemic, Pasadena has grown so quiet, but still I hear gas-powered equipment. Often in urban environments, our domination over nature suggests a pretend worldview in which we are always in control. This pandemic, which may be the result of biodiversity and habitat loss, is representative of issues that we will continue to face, especially if we do not admit that our relationship to the land is out of balance. In our efforts to control nature, we have unfortunately gone out of control, with invasive lawns and habitat loss.

What an unprecedented time, and what a wonderful opportunity for us to reset and foster a new relationship to the landscape. One that is more tolerant and inclusive of the “messiness” of  natural habitat. A worldview that encourages beneficial insects, and provides habitat for declining birds and insect populations, uses less weed killer, and stops all mow and blow.

As we all work to return to our “normal” lives, I hope that we can take this time to reflect, and be introspective about our relationship to our bodies and in turn our relationship with the land.

Like many of you, I so badly want a haircut! However, I think it’s going to be okay to let it grow and leave it alone. Sometimes, we have to learn that leaving something alone is okay. Thank you for your patience while we figure out how to take care of our garden, and our horticultural staff.

I hope that you can enjoy the beauty that our garden brings and know that it will be there when you are ready to return.

Michelle

We hope that you continue to enjoy the garden — just not on Tuesdays. For the time being, if you visit, please wear a mask and stand at least six feet away from people who aren’t in your immediate household, so we may continue to flatten the curve.

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