British television has a reputation for excellence. The BBC’s prestige dramas, like Sherlock, Broadchurch, and ITV’s Downton Abbey are known for their performances and sharp writing. Equally important is the sense that British TV knows not to overstay its welcome. British series tend to end sooner rather than later, unlike American franchises, which more often start strong, go on too long, and fizzle out.
People are made for gardens because they are made and nurtured by a gardening God.For all the cultural clout of British drama, it might be the unpretentious reality of their non-fiction programmes that has the most to teach North American viewers. The Great British Bake Off is perhaps the most well-known and beloved import of this type, a competition show which takes the venom out of the competition. But while Bake Off has spawned localized imitations, I haven’t yet encountered an equivalent to the balm that is Gardeners’ World.
The BBC’s Gardeners’ World first premiered in 1968 and has, remarkably, continued to broadcast through the digital media revolution. Whatever viewers’ familiarity with the show, Gardeners’ World offers a unique and timely perspective for an audience emerging from lockdown, an audience that watched a global pandemic unfold across its screens and on its streets. Exhausted or dissatisfied with digital pursuits, some of the newly homebound started digging in whatever dirt they could find. Websites brimmed with home gardening projects and feeds filled up with happy house plants, but every ambition carries risk. When only one of my three cilantro seedlings survived the move outside, it reminded me that I am dust. Eventually, we all return to the ground.
Gardening, then, isn’t all roses and butterflies, although those may come.
Gardeners’ World’s host, Monty Don, doesn’t offer shortcuts or “life hacks” as he dispenses advice. Instead, he spouts steady and practical wisdom. He’s no guru; he does not offer secret knowledge, an expert circumvention of troublesome means towards desired ends. Gracy Olmstead, a writer and amateur gardener herself, likens Don to poet-farmer Wendell Berry. Writing of Don’s book The Complete Gardener, Olmstead notes he “applies many of the principles Wendell Berry applies to agriculture to the garden itself—suggesting that oak tree, rose bush, and carrot all ought to be treated with the same fidelity, respect, and organic sensibility.” The pandemic presented an opportunity for many, myself included, to see the “organic sensibility” of human lives anew.
Don’s conviction that “the garden is a body and whatever you do to one part inevitably affects the whole,” is the reason briefly pressing pause on the world, despite its many hardships, blessed so many newly-confined viewers with insight. Lockdown slowed life and reoriented our collective focus to the home and renewed interest in some of the most common and ordinary human activities.
It’s true that screen-time spiked—I played and watched my share of video games and TV—but few of us were starved for Netflix binges when shelter-in-place orders came down. What was missing were limits, and the ancient knowledge that some limits do the work of a trellis, guiding and supporting. Without such restrictions, people are free but unfulfilled, left to tangle and rot.
The freedom to let Netflix’s auto-play serve up the next stream frustrates any purpose of liberty that is not merely more ease. To people overwhelmed with inputs, choosing becomes a burden. Not knowing what is good, it becomes comfortable to opt for what is easy. This is why there is a collective tension around distraction in the digital age. The fundamentally human hunger for good things is frustrated by tools that exist to create ease, not goodness. Doomscrolling doesn’t give life or encourage growth; it’s just frictionless consumption, which consumes. On the question of digital distractions, technology scholar and critic Michael Sacasas writes,
These matter only to the degree that we believe our attention ought to be directed toward something else, that in these instances it is somehow being misdirected or squandered. Attention, like freedom, is an instrumental and penultimate good, valuable to the degree that it unites us to a higher and substantive good. Perfect attention in the abstract, just as perfect freedom in the abstract, is at best mere potentiality. They are the conditions of human flourishing rather than its realization.
And so, back to the garden. Gardening is boot camp for harried humans whose attention is shattered to learn to notice, wait, and see anew. Maybe the trend of planting COVID-19 victory gardens was propelled by the fear of bare grocery shelves, but the scarcity we suffer in 2020 runs deeper. It’s why Gardeners’ World feels so generous in a digital world that wants to sweep us on to the next thing, the next meme as much as the next crisis. Gardeners’ World lingers on swaying blossoms, sleeping dogs, and sinking spades for seconds that feel like minutes. The result is an hour that’s regenerative. Spend an afternoon outside following a bee from flower to flower or watching for that unmistakable moment when leaves perk up in the sun after rain. After that, it only takes a minute of scrolling, a few well-practiced flicks, to raise the question: Who decided this is how we should spend our time?
We were not created to browse a bottomless feed or to follow identical parcels of “engaging” content across bright glass. It was for-profit platforms, created out of hubris and little reflection, that decided that digital spaces should privilege the most extreme and inane fruit of the human heart. Thanks to new mechanisms of instant feedback and gratification—likes, hearts, and shares—some of the worst human impulses are reinforced. And it’s no accident: digital media is the way it is by design. Doomscrolling is the point. Ruining family dinner and creating an itch that cannot help but be scratched is the goal. Cat photos and catching up with friends are incidental, valuable only as a piece of the machine that keeps us coming back, keeps us flicking through the feed. And it’s so easy to do. In User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play, Cliff Kuang asks whether a quick, easy and user-friendly world is the best world we can create. He admits he assumed “making things frictionless was an unalloyed good, right up there with science, efficient markets, and trustworthy courts.” By seeing people as grist for their digital advertising mills and other predictive products made from our data, the Big Tech firms deliberately chose to play a dangerous game with our attention. Kuang, near the end of a book about the history and promise of good design, suggests, “The ease of user-friendly design allows us to become the worst version of ourselves.” What were humans designed for, then?
People are made for gardens because they are made and nurtured by a gardening God. One reason the power of gardening metaphors persists is that they account for the complexity and interdependence of reality. Another reason is that it’s how we were made. Stamped on our nature is the slow, mysterious rule of growth. Humans aren’t built, aren’t programmed; we grow. Our appropriation of mechanical and technical metaphors is just one indication of our estrangement from the garden, Eden or otherwise.
In this way, gardening is freeing because it brings us back to a bounded space. Although we cannot live without taking from the world God has given us, we’re called to care anyway, to be care-takers. Gardening frees me to care for things that do not scream for my attention but are nevertheless worthy of it. Instead of being pulled across time and space at the whim of digital powers, the practice of gardening rehearses the paradox of freedom: that we are only human within the appropriate limits. “What is jeopardized when our capacity for attention is compromised and hijacked,” according to Sacasas, “is not our ability to read through War and Peace but rather our ability to care for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world as we should.”
Humans were made for gardens and are cared for by a gardening God. A good world that begs—and begets—attention is on display in Gardeners’ World. Monty Don and company hold up the practices and dispositions of the gardener more than lauding the products of agriculture. The work is slow and demanding, and with no pull-to-refresh option, failure can last a literal season. Yet, if there is an argument for resisting the mechanical metaphors of the digital age with the patterns of the garden, it is a simple one. Time spent in newsfeeds often makes me anxious, bitter, and biting. Time in the gardeners’ world yields sweeter fruit, more pleasing because of the dirt and the ache of good work than despite it.