Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

It Takes a Garden

We are at all times both cause and effect. Our mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how others behave, and how they behave influences us. The permuting patterns of those interactions become the shape our societies take.
-- The Gardens of Democracy. Page 34
The Garden of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (Sasquatch Books, 2011) could be a manifesto for the Monticello Road project.

Liu and Hanauer argue that it is time to look at society and its three arenas (culture, economy and government) according to a new understanding of how the universe works: interconnected, approximative, reciprocal and in need of constant, humble tending. We more like a garden than a machine. The authors call for a new form of self-interest that based on the notion that we do well when we all do well. Furthermore, the path to change will be the sum of regular people doing small things: democracy, heritage, economic growth—it’s really just us and the sum of our everyday activities, as much how we live as what we do.

I have always been intrigued by the garden as a metaphor for all complex systems: our bodies, our neighborhoods, the nation or maybe even the universe itself. It’s a big reason I left New York and the more I read and experiment with my own garden the more convinced I am that it’s true. This is hardly new—the Bible told us so.

The thing that our parents and teachers might have misunderstood, though, and we’re starting to learn now is that we’re not gardeners standing aloof—we are the soil. Actually one thing you learn as a gardener is that there’s not much difference between the plants, the bugs, the compost, or even the guy pulling weeds. It’s only a question of applied intent.

I don’t wish to dwell too much on the nuances of this metaphor. Like any device metaphors have their limitations, but the spirit of what this one says is powerful, namely that fundamental change is the fruit of underlying and atmospheric conditions and that hummus must be built and nourished through the introduction of positivity.

Society is not some arena where we duke it out, it is us, the sum of all of our interactions and the tone we take with one another.

By celebrating our neighborhood, by getting to know one another as individuals and lifting one another up are actively building the dream city we want to live in.


As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions. 

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