Let’s turn the clock back for a moment to late August 2007. Toronto was experiencing the “worst drought in 50 years” accompanied by a drowning humidity. How an intense lack of water AND a drowning humidity can coexist is beyond me. I’m sure there is a meteorologist out there who can explain it. All I know is that dry earth plus wet air equals thousands of dead curcubits — the zucchini plants rotted at the stem and cucumber vines were assaulted by powdery mildew. Nary a curcubit in the city was left alive before it was all over. One week my gardens were lush and lovely, and the next week, UTTER TRAGEDY. The side garden was attacked for the 5th or 50th time that season. I was sweating like a pig and my hair was doing that annoying flippy-uppy thing that I hate.
And a four-person TV crew was there to capture it all.
The show Recreating Eden called me about two years ago with the possibility of shooting an entire episode about myself and You Grow Girl. Recreating Eden is a gardening show with a twist. It doesn’t teach people how to garden through the use of pleasantly authoritative talking heads or makeover show and tells. There is no spritely suburbanite with perfect teeth and a flowery vest demonstrating how to plant a peony or apply Miracle Gro to a pot of marigolds. Instead this is a documentary show that explores passionate gardeners; who they are, why they garden, how they got to be where they are, and what they are doing. As an avid gardener and documentary fan I’ve long admired the show. Over the years they have featured some pretty incredible gardens and some equally fascinating gardeners.
As you can imagine I pretty much near passed out when they called. The first conversation we had was a long one spending two hours going into all aspects of my life, starting at the beginning really and working our way to the present and the work I do around gardening. I was pretty impressed by their thoroughness and their interest in going beyond the obvious.
That conversation was a turning point for me. It coincided with a speaking event in which I was asked to speak about myself “the gardener” rather than the usual “how to garden.” Both of these instances forced me to take pause and make closer connections between my early life experiences, what I am doing now as a gardener, and the choices I have made along the way in getting to this point. It seems funny now, but before that point I had not yet made a solid connection to the fact that I did not grow up with a real backyard or a “real garden” and how I was able to overlook the absence of either to end up with three. As an university student I studied a variety of topics such as cultural theory, class, and race — as you will soon see these are not just areas of interest but integral to who I am — yet I had never stepped back and put all of those aspects together to see how my experiences and world-view outside of gardening had so closely informed my relationship to gardening. As an aside, while working on the You Grow Girl book I struggled to find an appropriate way to broach some of these topics. It wasn’t until these two incidents (the show interview and the presentation) that I really came to understand just how much I needed to integrate these subjects and bring them into how I talk and write about gardening in a less surface way. I am still navigating my way through this terrain but it is slowly coming to the fore with all sorts of incredible and fascinating results. I’ve made many amazing and meaningful personal connections over the last few years by exploring these topics that I’ve been remiss in approaching here. I hope to remedy this over time.
But I digress. Time passed. Months and months passed. And then surprise, the show contacted me to say that they wanted to shoot an episode and when should they come? Which leads me to five hot and humid days in late August 2007, my dead curcubits, dormant gardens, and flippy hair. The week I chose could not have been worse. I know from experience that every gardener says, “You should have seen it last week.” The week that passed or the week that lies ahead is always going to seem like the better one, but it really, truly was SO much nicer just a week before. And every week thereafter.
I’m not quite sure what to say about my experience with the show. In some ways I am still processing the impact of it six months later. And I suppose the problem is that I haven’t actually seen the result of those five days in August so until then the experience is relatively unresolved. How those five days will be translated and pieced together to tell a story — my story — remains to be seen. I have done some work in television over the last few years so I have that to thank for feeling relatively comfortable with a sound pack stuck to my person and a large camera in my face at all times for five days solid. Believe me, after a while you either forget or just stop caring about whether or not the sound pack is still on before going to the bathroom. The same goes for the flippy-uppy hair and the beads of sweat pouring down your face. I suppose my day-to-day vanity routine just isn’t finessed enough, but by the third day I’d mostly just given up trying to look reasonably good for the camera. I have a feeling I’m going to come to regret it. And while the show is documentary and it would be nice to believe that everything that was captured on camera was 100% real and true and as simple as having my moves followed and recorded, the reality is that it actually involved a lot of doing things over and over again, walking or biking into frame repeatedly, and repeating natural and impromptu activities that occurred off-camera a second or third time FOR the camera. I’d say the hardest part of the week was the intensity of having those four people and all of their equipment around at all times. I live and function in small spaces that are not equipped for any extra girth. I can imagine this was not any easier on the crew than it was on me.
I had a lot of mental work to do and psychological stuff to sort through before the crew arrived. During the time that elapsed between the initial call and the discussions about shoot dates I didn’t question why they wanted to do an episode about me. I didn’t allow myself to get too excited or bent-out-of-shape about it. I didn’t think too hard about what this was or how it might effect me. I mostly just put it out of my mind and went on with my life. One thing I have learned through my various dealings with the world of television is that it happens when it happens. It either does, or it doesn’t. The end.
I spent a lot of time in the weeks and days leading up to their arrival contemplating how this all might go down, assessing my personal boundaries and worrying about the outcome. As previously mentioned, the show goes pretty in depth into the lives of its subjects looking at every conceivable angle. As a viewer I think that is fantastic but as a subject it terrifies me. I had to figure out what I wanted about my life to be out there in the world on a TV scale and I had to prepare myself for the possible fallout of whatever is revealed. Because I knew (and still know) that no matter what I said and no matter how amazingly this turned out, it is going to be a difficult and painful picture for me to look at.
A few weeks before the crew arrived, the director, Gwynne Basen, asked me to think about what I wanted out of the experience. At the same time a friend asked me what I wanted and what felt most true to me. I replied to her that my intuition is always to talk and to say what I have to say despite my fears. Through the course of our discussion my friend directed me to this talk by Eve Ensler the creator of The Vagina Monologues at the Ted Conference where she talks about finding happiness. My friend thought I would find some of the connection I needed in Eve’s words and she was right.
“When we give in the world what we want the most, we heal the broken part inside each of us…. Happiness exists in action. It exists in telling the truth and in saying what your truth is, and it exists in giving away what you want the most.”
In times of fear when I am required to step up, take action and speak I often turn to this quote from Audre Lorde:
“I have come to believe over and over again, that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood…. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…. and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us. The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
- Audre Lorde (The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action).
In the end I decided this could be a good opportunity for me to dive into subjects that matter to me and show a side of myself that I have mostly kept hidden from this audience. Over the years I have segmented my life into manageable sections, keeping my gardening life (which is very public) separated from the whole of who I am. This lack of wholeness has distressed me. I do not have a public persona or play a character. I have never been interested in presenting a public image that is safe, perfect, groomed, and fabricated. I am messy and flawed. It has been very hard to function within the world of gardening media, most especially television, which always seems to want to slap a ton of makeup on me, reign me in and reduce my thoughts to easily digestible quips and sound-bites. And of course privacy and appropriateness is an issue. Like everyone I need to protect my privacy however I saw the show as another step forward in bringing all of these sides of who I am together in a public space. In the end I decided that despite the risk I needed to trust these four strangers as much as I could, let go a little and see what happens.
Unfortunately, looking back, I’m not sure how much or how well I accomplished my goal. I spoke on camera about some difficult things and definitely found myself pulling back at times. Flattening out rather than speaking up. I don’t know how it has been edited, what has been kept and what was left out.
Maybe when it is all over, once the show has aired and some time has passed, I will be able to tell you more about the fun parts. I’ll talk about the crew who were all very lovely and really tried to put me at ease. I will tell you about the friends and people who generously gave of their time to rally behind me and appear in the episode. That aspect of this experience really surprised me and still makes me teary. THANK YOU. And then I will tell you about the amazing morning spent photographing the incredible Lorraine Johnson in her backyard ecosystem. I was so nervous because it was the very first shoot AND I was visiting Lorraine Johnson AND it was all being captured on video. AND in HD, a format that is not very forgiving. Some day I will describe the fantastic surprise discovery of the Woolfits garden just around the corner from my place. I had no idea it was there! And Julianna’s unreal backyard tomato garden and tasting party wherein I ate so many tomatoes I had a sore mouth for three days! They were a very full five days.
And now in five days and counting the result of those five days in August will air on television.
I have not seen the episode. I don’t have cable or know anyone who has cable (I am surrounded by PBS watchers) so I don’t yet know how I will see the episode when it airs. I don’t know what to expect. I trust the people who worked on my episode but it is still scary.
I am literally shaking in my boots.
Update (2012): The episode is now available online here.