No More Eternity in an Hour: Gardening, Time and the Climate Crisis

The dandelion’s rival grows tall, an iceberg in the border; its taproot matches the height of its spike of purple flower, each petal a new way to tell time. The group of lupins emerges every year in April – straggly, starry-leaved, and then in late May, the spike bursts forth, twisting like a wolf’s tail from the thicket. I stand in front of the purple patch and breathe in their heady scent. A scent which draws not only me but also the bees and butterflies, wasps and hoverflies. I dip my head amongst the throng; I immerse myself in this other world. A world where time is not counted in hours, minutes, seconds, but in the light and dark, the slippery dew of the morning and the heaviness of the afternoon’s heated air. 

‘To garden,’ writes Penelope Lively, ‘is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time.’ I watch a solitary bee dive into the lupin’s throaty petal. Pollen dust of gold gathers at the flower’s centre to make my garden grow in what should be a never-ending cycle, in which I am a gentle observer of other worlds.

I am but a spectator of this narrow world, a flower border in Western Europe. 

To garden is to be privileged: to have the space (whether bought or rented) and to have the time. Having the time to garden, ironically, means you have the ability to experience time differently. Gardening is not counting the minutes, the hours, the years. It is thinking in seasons: snow drops breaking through the earth, the forsythia bursting into bloom, the time of roses. It is looking forward to and planning for the next season, planting bulbs, trimming shrubs, and hoping for the future of your apple tree. Gardening is a slow and calming activity, one that is done at a steady pace. It is frequently lauded for its health benefits in a society that looks to speed and craves instant gratification. Is living in ‘garden time’ as Lively calls it, the antidote to the life of consumerism and speed of the Global North, which has accelerated the climate crisis all over the world? 

Garden time is being able to imagine: to see in your mind’s eye the daffodil bulbs that are lying dormant under the thin shadow of the bare dogwood, its leaves discarded early under the blaze of the sun, its roots reaching downwards towards where the ground water still flows. Knowing how the daffodils will burst through the soil in March, how the spring leaves of the dogwood will provide shade in summer for the violets, whose seeds lie dormant in the earth from where they self-seeded themselves last summer, means being able to hold in your mind’s eye, simultaneously, the present, past, and future.

Seeing these parallels and these connections could help us understand the connectivity between our actions and the climate crisis, between the environment and the crisis. It could help us comprehend how the earth is made up of cause and effect, how everything is linked to everything else. Above all, garden time could help us to simultaneously see the present, what has changed since the past, and, most importantly, what will change in the future.

But is living in ‘garden time’ the equivalent to withdrawing to our rose borders and ducking our heads beneath the picket fences? What happens to garden time when it is crossed with the terrible worry of your potatoes succumbing to blight, drought, torrential rain; if, when the crop fails, you eat less? In other words, is garden time nothing more than a privileged concept? And what happens to garden time in the age of environmental crisis?

We know there is no time to lose in averting what we can of environmental catastrophe. Now, surely, more than ever, is the moment when we are required to count the minutes, the hours, the years. Nick Admussen writes that our late awakening to the effects of the crisis is not a failing of science but a failing of culture. ( What is the method of keeping time, if not a cultural construct, favouring those that have more of it? The construct we have adopted – a dependence on hours and years – means we live in industrial time. A contrast, for instance, to Aboriginal Australian time (which has somewhat inaccurately been termed Dream Time), in which the past, present and future act together in the same space, linked closely with elements of the landscape. 

When we say we no longer have time in the age of environmental destruction, it disproportionally favours those people who already have more time – as time can be bought with money: leisure time, time to garden, space to garden. For those who have to work longer hours or more years, the concept that we are running out of time is incongruous. As has been argued elsewhere, a re-imagining of the use of time (e.g. fewer working hours) could be a way forward. ( Could garden time be more compassionate than our industrial time – less harsh and unforgiving than counting hours? Out of this advantaged concept a useful measure for re-imagining time can be extracted.

Of course, garden time can also be called farming time, and ironically, the development of agriculture can be said to have been the starting point for the Anthropocene. ( In a crowded Europe, time for the nonhuman is privileged too. In recent years another wolf’s tail is making its way back onto the scene: Canis lupus, the grey wolf. The animal has been sighted in various locations for the first time since the nineteenth century. All over central Europe, the wolf is slowly returning to the forests. But the process is taking time; measured in the decades it has taken, the decades it will still take, to rewild those spaces that have become human places at the cost of other species. The time of the climate crisis does not count in hours either. It counts in the centimetres of Arctic ice that have melted, in the tons of soil that have eroded all over the earth, in the number of wild fires that have occurred in the Amazon, in California, in Siberia, in Australia. Time is now measured in the erosion of your plastic watch. Old time is dead.

The lupin flowers, named after the wolf in the mistaken belief that they ravage the land they grow on, are a straggly mess in June. Their flowers died prematurely, their desperate seed heads brown, their leaves collapsed. The sun has dried out the earth so deep that even the lupin’s long taproot cannot reach water. I collect their seeds in paper envelopes. There is hope in re-seeding. I miss their scent, their purple glory. I miss the deep, vibrating hum of the insects dancing among the petals. How do I tell time now?

The argument that we human animals need to re-imagine ourselves as part of nonhuman nature is not new, as Val Plumwood and Timothy Morton, among others, have argued extensively. It can be no coincidence that the establishment of GMT, for example, was in the nineteenth century – the period of industrialization in the Global North and the acceleration of so-called ‘progress’, which would eventually lead to today’s climate catastrophe. ( The irony is that human time creeps along – it is a preconception that climate change is slow, it is our concept of time that lags behind. ( Seconds, minutes and hours cannot make sense of the climate catastrophe. Even years cannot accurately map the developments. We need to see time spatially and not solely temporally. Even as everything shifts around us – indeed, it has long begun to shift in the Global South – as the earth dries out faster and the rivers rise higher, this change can be mapped in our simultaneous understanding of the past, present and future aspects of our fields, forests and seas.

Perhaps re-imagining the way we approach time could be one aspect of this redefining of ourselves. Perhaps those of us who have most contributed to climate change should adapt to a new time: one where we produce less, consume less, expect less, and destroy less. Instead of pilfering concepts of time from cultures not our own (e.g. Europeans swiping Dream Time), may we look to the nonhuman native species in our fields, forests, gardens and learn how to tell time from them?

And yet, it is perhaps humankind’s terrible punishment for the havoc we have wreaked upon the earth that, in order to restore our environment to a liveable home with a future, we have to forego the salving, restorative practice of living in garden time. In our age of environmental catastrophe, this option comes with its own pitfalls. Do we, in fact, have the time to learn a new way of telling it? And is garden time not changing just as fast as the climate is? Today, we have to adjust our time telling to the speed of the climate. A compromise is necessary. Garden time can be a useful construct if we adapt it: view it not an ‘escape’ from the rush of minutes and the speed of hours, but as a visual aid to imagine the spatial pulses of that apple tree; suggesting, as Lively writes, ‘yesterday, and tomorrow’. 

I want to water the lupins to make sure they will return next year. I want to carry watering can after watering can across the road that runs along the garden. But I do not. Next summer might be hotter. The water butt has dried out. Nothing is immeasurable, not water, not soil. For the poet William Blake there was still eternity in an hour as he gazed at the flowers two hundred years ago. The palm of my hand is empty of Blake’s infinity. The road next to the garden has just been newly laid. The asphalt shines brutally, reflecting the sun onto the crisp leaves of the nearest plants. I want to bend down and rip up the tarmac with my bare hands. But what of those who need to travel from A to B?

They say the grey wolf travels 20 to 30 kilometres every day. Each step a new way to tell time. Daffodils are budding in December in London. This cannot be measured in hours. This must be measured in knowledge: in the knowledge of the preceding daffodils and the upcoming bulbs. They are reporting that the pregnant female wolf seen at the Belgian border a few months ago is missing. She was a symbol of hope, of the possibilities of rewilding, of sharing space, of sharing time between species. 

They are saying she has been shot. 

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