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Photo by Carlita Benazito / Unsplash

I lost a lot of money in the 2008-2009 crisis. I was doing alright but lawyers throughout Michigan were shuttering their practices. I knew it could become difficult to sustain my homemaker wife and seven young children.

An acquaintance asked me if I’d ever tried square-foot gardening. I hadn’t. He said it worked great for him, even though he’d had no gardening experience. I read a book about it. A gardener was born.

My mom tried vegetable gardening in the 1970s. She churned an area next to our house and planted tomatoes. I had to do the weeding, but she did everything else. After a few months, she brought in tomatoes.

My accountant father observed that the same tomatoes could’ve been bought for $3.00 and my Mom had spent that much in supplies, plus a lot of time (I don’t recall that he expressed much concern about my time). He gently suggested that the whole thing wasn’t worth it, my mom agreed, and the plot went back to shrubs.

It reminds me of a museum curator overhearing a tour guide telling a group that a dinosaur skeleton was nine million and six years old. The curator later asked the guide how he knew that. The guide replied, “Well, it was nine million years old when I started working here, and that was six years ago . . . “.

The guide’s dinosaur account was precise but not accurate.

My dad’s tomato accounting was also precise. My mom’s gardening efforts were a net loss, even with my serf labor.

The lesson stuck with me. Until the financial crisis, then I started to mull it over and realized gardening can save a family money if done at a big enough scale to justify the upfront investment. I also began to read about rising pesticides in our food, soil depletion, and how produce loses a lot of nutrients before it reaches the shopping cart.  

I realized my father’s conclusion was precise but not accurate.

Iain McGilchrist published his bestseller, The Master and His Emissary, in 2009. He followed it with The Matter with Things in 2021. These books explain “The Hemisphere Hypothesis” and explore its implications. The Hemisphere Hypothesis uses neurological evidence to examine differences between our brain’s left and right hemispheres. It has been referred to as a “Copernican revolution in metaphysics.”

The Hemisphere Hypothesis can be boiled down to three points:

1. The left hemispheres and right hemispheres of our brains do the same things.

2. But they attend to the world differently. Their dispositions are different.

The left hemisphere’s role is to get things done. It accordingly attends to the world with focus and purpose, which means it approaches things with dispositions of manipulation, control, and accomplishment. It cultivates tools that help it, like abstract ideas that give it principles for maneuvering and explicit knowledge that puts the ideas into action; plans, processes, and predictions for implementing action; precision for measuring effectiveness. Bureaucracy, McGilchrist likes to point out, is left-hemispheric.

The right hemisphere attends to the world with broad attention, a degree of detachment, which gives rise to wonder and curiosity. It appreciates implicit knowledge. It knows truth can be paradoxical and elusive. It’s more concerned about the whole and appreciates that the flow of life eludes precision, process, and planning. McGilchrist calls the right hemisphere “a bureaucrat’s nightmare.”1

3. The right hemisphere is the rightful master in the relationship. It appreciates the left hemisphere’s importance, while also knowing that the left hemisphere’s tools are limited. In the modern era, however, the left hemisphere has usurped the master’s role. The left hemisphere neither understands nor appreciates the right hemisphere’s importance. It values the right hemisphere as much as Lenin valued the Romanovs. This left-hemispheric hegemony has contributed greatly to the mess we call “modernity.” I believe left-hemispheric hegemony is the essence of modernity.

I also believe postmodernity is the era of our attempt to recover from modernity: our attempt to subdue the left hemisphere and restore the right hemisphere’s master role. This attempt is often theoretical, like the philosophy of deconstructionism that attacks modern philosophy’s emphasis on linguistic and logical rigor (pursuits the left hemisphere loves). The attempt is also practical and has given rise to a number of “fads,” such as the neo-psychedelic movement, mindfulness meditation, and “dopamine detoxes.”

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Getting to the Root of the Matter: A Hemispheric Look at Gardening
Gardening is just a hobby, and it might not always be practical. But it is arguably the pursuit that postmodern man needs the most. A Copernican revolution in metaphysics explains why.