Sunday, June 29, 2014

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

Three days later and this eggplant was exponentially bigger. Now that's what I call a monitoring & evaluation plan.
After a long day of work recently, I headed out to the community garden to do some watering and weeding. As tempting as it was crash at home, I always end up enjoying doing some mindless physical work outside. There’s a Zen satisfaction in plucking individual blades of grass from my rows of peppers and tomatoes, and I love feeling the sticky heat of the day give way to cooler evening breezes.

In my line of work, we deal with big, entrenched problems that don’t have easy answers. The heady early days of the Arab Spring have given way to something more complicated and less optimistic, to authoritarian backsliding in Egypt and fresh militia-driven conflict in Libya. It's also hard to define impact in the abstract work of democracy & governance - we're supporting democracy, not delivering x number of vaccines. And even if NDI could solve all the world’s problems, my role in the organization is a modest one. As much as I like to think that I’m single-handedly responsible for the successes (not to jinx it) of the Tunisian democratic transition, much of my work is administrative, a degree removed from the awesome activities in the field that it ultimately supports. 

So it’s nice to come to the garden to deal with concrete, solvable problems, one weed at a time, and to see short-term progress in the form of growing eggplants and reddening tomatoes.

As I was mulling the problem of the day (on this occasion, slavery in Mauritania), the words “Il faut cultivar notre jardin” from Voltaire’s Candide popped into my head. If my memory of high school French class can be trusted, it’s one of the last lines in the book, spoken after the characters have endured various trials and tribulations and gone in circles debating big existential questions. Depending on how you interpret it, it’s a call to pull back from the affairs of the world, or at least to stop with the endless philosophizing, and focus on the little patch of ground around you.

It also made me think of a book I recently read, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity, about the newfound interest in gardening and canning and knitting and cooking. Matchar argues that the trend is born out of frustration with a system that has failed us. If you don’t trust the safety of the food system and abysmal family policies make it all but impossible to “have it all,” leaving the workplace, growing your own food, and homeschooling your kids becomes incredibly appealing. Matchar expressed concerned that privileged, Whole Foods-shopping folks see personal lifestyle changes as the solution, instead of spending their energy advocating for change to the system that would benefit everyone.

I definitely see what she’s getting at, but I think that concern is overblown. I think we can both work towards solving the big problems—whether it’s by supporting democratic institutions in North Africa or tackling homelessness in DC or advocating to improve farm policy in the US—and doing what we can, where we are, to make the world a better place—whether by growing a garden or helping a new immigrant learn English. And in fact, I think that balance is a key ingredient for a satisfying life. Those personal actions may not result in the structural change we need, but they give us the satisfaction of seeing immediate impacts, forging new connections, and gaining a sense of control over our lives. They fuel us to take on the bigger challenges.

So go take on the big abstract problems of the world during the day, and in the evening, come home and cultivate your garden.


  1. Ahh, my little garden is SLOW going. I'm not sure if it's because I have TOO much sun, or not enough sun... (plus, there's the whole... squirrels love to dig around in there too) but hey, I'm trying!

    1. I know what you mean! Mine did pretty well this year, but I have no idea what I did right on the stuff that did well or what I did wrong on the stuff that didn't. It's a learning process for sure! Thanks for reading!