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Third Places Aren't Enough: On Community Gardens

Sarah Soltis at Public Discourse

Photo by Steve Adams / Unsplash

Gardening demands a certain amount of labor that a bar doesn’t require of its customers, for the garden’s central endeavor is not relaxation but loving and patient work. Thus, a garden promises less entertainment and amusement than a third place does, demanding instead focus, effort, and attention. Because it’s not passive or consumptive, it is less conducive to the conversation and dialogue that a bar or diner might allow. A garden, therefore, is not a place for discussion and debate where unexpected consensus might emerge.

But one look at social media suggests that mere cultivation of public conversation cannot create a spirit of friendship. The free-speech optimists who think open conversation is sufficient for civic cohesion rely on a utopian view of human nature: we need only rub elbows at the pub and talk things over, and our issues will eventually resolve themselves.

Spontaneous agreement and goodwill, in other words, are unlikely to emerge by convening at third places. Today’s local establishments—many of which donned rainbow flags and signs declaring that “hate has no place here” last month—indicate that many modern commercial places by themselves are insufficient to create common ground. The ground of the garden poses a different possibility for connection, one that compensates for some of the deficiencies of third places. At shared gardens, neighbors connect through a shared project. Fellow gardeners enjoy the increasingly neglected endeavor of working the ground.

The garden thus reminds human beings of their rightful place in the cosmos and the core truths about their condition. Cultivating land recalls Eden to our minds—as well as our distance from it. Even in an amateur’s plot, the gardener must use tenderness, patience, and sweat (a famous mark of the Fall) to bring stems from seeds and soil. Planting, watering, weeding, and finally gathering and sharing blackberries recall the range of human experience: both the pain of man’s fallen toil and the harmonious, loving work of Eden.

Because gardening retains this shadow of Eden, it is not, like much of the work of our “second places,” frenzied work. Rather, it is marked by the affection Josef Pieper describes in Leisure: the Basis of Culture, a “love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical ‘worker.’” Pieper connects this work sustained by love with “active leisure,” the concern of his book. The work of active leisure is a “cheerful affirmation” of one’s own “being, his acquiescence in the world and in God.” Loving work thus acknowledges our place in creation, thereby implicitly acknowledging our Creator himself.

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