Louise Maher-Johnson’s poem, “Notes from a Climate Victory Garden,” offers a series of calls to action, as seen in the poem’s opening:
Rebalance: Greenhouse Gases (CO2,N2O, CH4, H2O vapor) with
Recognize: Plants cool by evaporation, ground cover, shade, and
Replant: Lawns with Victory Gardens, as in world war past.
Organized by lines beginning with verbs with the prefix, “re-,” the poem offers alternatives to typical ways of imagining our relationship to the land‒ways historically predicated on resource depletion and exploitation. Bookended by opening and closing lines beginning with the verb, “Rebalance,” the poem is woven with ideas for mitigating and replacing harmful agricultural practices. In contrast to a lot of environmental poetry that reads like an elegy for a dying planet, this poem helps us consider specific calls to action for repairing the harm to local ecosystems. As a result, my students and I were able to learn about recommended shifts in both behavior and mindset, suggested through the imagery of a climate victory garden.
Climate victory gardening is a type of gardening that utilizes regenerative agricultural practices with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. Inspired by World War-era victory gardens, climate victory gardens aim to maximize soil protection and minimize climate impacts beyond the boundaries of the garden. Prior to reading the poem, my students looked at pictures of actual victory gardens planted during the World Wars. During wartime, several governments encouraged people to plant victory gardens both to supplement their food rations and to boost morale. The picture below shows a father helping his daughter and her Girl Scout friends tend to a victory garden in San Francisco in 1943.
Because so many of the poem’s embedded calls to action appeared as a choice between two options, I saw weighing them as an opportunity for students to explain why they would advocate for one option versus another. I had learned about the “Why This/Not That” thinking routine from reading a Moving Writers post by Hattie Maguire. To help students move from identification to analysis, Hattie asks them to consider why this word versus another word. I love how this exercise helps students weigh writers’ word choices, as well as justify their own word choices. In this scenario, I introduced the strategy with the question: Why monoculture versus permaculture? These were the terms that my students found to be the most mystifying in the poem. By researching the terms and thinking about the impact of both practices, they could analyze why monoculture should be “replaced.”
Students working in pairs weighed between themselves why “permaculture” or the “slow food movement” or “victory gardens” was a more sustainable practice. They were able to move from merely describing a practice to analyzing its benefit by thinking about it in terms of predicted impact. Once students did some research, they learned that monoculture is a legacy of the Industrial Revolution: relying on intense energy inputs (like coal and oil). Because monoculture focuses on maximizing the yield of one crop, it creates loss of biodiversity on a vast scale. In contrast, an established permaculture system requires fewer energy inputs and uses natural heating, cooling, and recycling to produce zero waste.
Reading this poem with my students was an antidote to thinking recognizable to many. When asked to contemplate the causes of wide scale environmental degradation, their answers suggested resignation and evasion: “It’s too late.” “People are selfish.” “This question is so big; it’s overwhelming.” Thinking about the harm we’ve caused our planet home can set off the gloom-and-doom mental loop that further inhibits planning for collective problem-solving and action.
Anticipating this tipping point – when information-glut moves them from despair to inaction – motivates me to find poems such as Maher-Johnson’s. After we discussed it, we rewrote the poem as a class with our own calls to action. The boldfaced lines are those from the original poem that my students decided were essential to the poem’s design. After combining our ideas, we read it aloud together, each student taking a line:
How are you helping students become climate stewards? What text pairing would you suggest with “Notes from a Climate Victory Garden”? Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.
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