In his short essay “Think Little,” Wendell Berry discusses some of the pros and cons of the environmental movement. Although he sees it as a move in the right direction, he expresses concern that it will not go so far as to make people actually change their lives in a way that would really reduce environmental destruction. In one small paragraph toward the end of the essay, he says, “Odd as I’m sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.” Why gardening, and how does somebody’s little garden plot help cure the environment, when multi-national corporations are destroying the earth with unprecedented greed?
Berry’s answer reveals itself in the title “Think Little.” For Berry, “thinking little” means thinking for oneself and acting on that thinking in one’s own life. This is in contrast to “thinking big,” which refers to thinking only in terms of bureaucratic solutions, such as legislation and policy making. He does not deny that there is a need for big solutions, but stresses the fact that if individual people don’t change their own lives, changes in policy won’t help. The man who thinks and acts for himself is not just trying to find a cure, he is actively curing already. “But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.”
Planting and maintaining a garden definitely falls into the category of thinking little. It is an activity that demands personal involvement of the individual, and it renders immediate effects. The first effect Berry mentions is that he “is improving a piece of the world.” Small as that piece may be, the gardener is solving the problem of soil erosion, and building the nutrient level of the soil, in his little portion of the earth. He renders the soil more able to support life. This not only benefits him directly, but also his posterity, who might own and use the same plot in the future. By not using toxic pesticides and herbicides, he prevents poisonous chemical residues from lingering in the land.
Next, Berry mentions that the gardener produces something to eat, and in a highly efficient way. Transportation of food over long distances requires massive amounts of energy, mostly in the form of fossil fuels. By walking out to his garden and picking his dinner, the gardener is completely independent of this energy wasting system. The only fuel that he expends in the production and harvesting of his food is human energy from calories supplied by the garden itself! This also reduces the use of his car, both for running to the store for food, and to the gym for exercise, because he gets both for free in his garden.
Once he is done preparing the food, he puts less trash into his bin, because some of the “trash” can be composted for use in the garden. He does not merely reduce the amount of garbage filling up the environment; he actually turns some of it into something useful. Both scraps from his garden produce and other organic materials can be turned to compost which further builds the soil.
Finally, Berry mentions that the gardener, if he enjoys his work, becomes less dependent on cars and merchants for pleasure. Presumably, the garden is attached to his home, and so home becomes a better place. There is no need anymore to go out every weekend, looking for a fun time somewhere else. He can sleep well on Friday night, knowing that he’ll be getting up early in the morning to work in his garden. Maybe he has his family to work with, and invited a couple of friends over to help him with weeding. They’ll work the whole day together, getting free exercise, fresh air, and enjoying each other’s company. Then, when the day’s work is done, they’ll sit down to a home-grown, home-cooked meal that never left the property. They don’t need to go inside, turn all the lights and heat on, fill up a bin with empty drink cans, and play hi-fi video games. They prefer to put on their sweaters, sit around the garden, sip hot cider from home-grown apples, watch the moon rise over their sprouting plants, and sing songs together. They can go to bed satisfied that evening, looking back on a simple, healthy, productive, energy reducing, entertaining day.
The day that more Americans start turning a portion of their lawn, or even all of it, into a productive garden plot will mark a true advancement for the environmental movement. Berry’s advice to plant and maintain a garden at home shows his practical wisdom and deep insight into the real nature of the problem. So, next time you walk out into your yard, take a look around and ask yourself how you could build a small garden at home. Your efforts will be rewarded many times over, and you will be making a real investment for a better future. Think little, work hard, and know that there are many others working with you from their own gardens in a spirit of solidarity for more a humane, inhabitable earth.