This article originally appeared in Strong Towns Advisory Board member Grace Olmstead’s monthly newsletter, Granola. It is republished here with permission. We encourage you to subscribe to Granola, follow Olmstead on Twitter, and then listen to the podcast interview we did with her in March.
When we moved into our Virginia home, our backyard boasted peonies, sunflowers, and a profusion of lilies. I couldn’t wait to see daffodils bloom in the spring.
Spring came and went, however, and no spring bulbs appeared. It was obviously my job to plant daffodils in the garden, if I wanted to enjoy them. Yet with babies, toddlers, book writing, house projects, and what have you, I kept putting off the planting work. Years came and went, and I never bought my bulbs.
This year, we decided we were going to sell our home. I looked around my garden and felt sad. This garden would lack daffodils for at least another spring. I’d never gotten around to it, and my chance had passed.
But I was wrong.
I had mentioned our lack of daffodils to a dear neighbor. On my next walk through our neighborhood, she beckoned to me and said she had uprooted some of her own daffodils and put them in a pot on her porch. They were for me—or, more accurately, for our house. The beautiful double-flowered daffodils, covered in ruffles, were a stunning buttery yellow. I carried them back home and planted them with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and a corresponding sense of sadness, because (due to my own procrastination) I would not get to see them bloom next spring.
I had only just finished a conversation with some friends about my book, and we’d agreed that while we don’t always get to stay in one place, it’s important to live in places as if we’ll die there, investing as much energy, love, and care into our homes as we can. If we’re to be more than “boomers” and exploiters of place, we should love our communities and landscapes for their own sakes. This is what “living like a perennial” should look like: having an attitude of longevity and love that fights back against the consumerism of our age, and against that incessant internal voice that asks, petulantly, “How does this benefit me?”
If I had planted my spring bulbs sooner, I would have been able to enjoy them. But, as I dug down deep and planted the bulbs, I realized that wasn’t the point at all. The point was that daffodils would be here, adding beauty that hadn’t existed before. If it was my responsibility to love my home like a perennial, I would love it until the day I left it behind. I would practice love in a way that (hopefully) blessed the home itself, the land itself, and the people who came there after me.
An instrumentalizing of our relationship with nature and with place has urged us only to practice stewardship and care when we can benefit from it. (One could argue this isn’t really true stewardship at all, as it tempts us to cut corners or practice neglect when our own interests diverge from those of the places and people we’re meant to care for.)
But perhaps we’re called to something more than this, as humans. Some of the biggest struggles we’re confronting in an age of climate change stem from an attitude that pushes costs down the road, constantly delaying the real needs of our places, hoping someone else will eventually take care of them. Many of the more privileged in our world thus enjoy unbridled consumerism without grappling with its worst costs. To do otherwise would require bearing sacrifices, making investments for others, and never reaping the rewards.
Living with an attitude of longevity can involve its own form of privilege: it takes money, time, and resources to invest deeply in places, to choose more expensive food sources, or to repair an ailing house. Many lack the time and money to steward things well for themselves, let alone for the next person. One of my favorite aspects of the “Maintainers” event Granola did in June (and of the latter chapters in Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s book, The Innovation Delusion) was the opportunity to consider ways in which people can make their tools and talents available to others in their community—through repair cafés, tool libraries, and other neighborly forms of voluntarism and support—thus using collective service and stewardship to empower others in their maintenance needs and goals.
It’s also true that some of “perennial” deeds are perhaps simpler and more accessible than others—and that, if we start teaching our children young, they might be part of our muscle memory as we get older. I remember my mom always telling me to leave a place better than you found it. We usually applied this when house-sitting or staying as guests at our grandparents’ home…but I wonder what it would look like to take this attitude with us to the local park, or on our walks in our neighborhoods. Picking up trash, pulling an errant weed—could these be ways of, on a collective level, leaving places better than we found them? Could we model a sense of responsibility that’s bigger and deeper than the four walls of our homes when we think about hospitality and its demands? This is far bigger and more important than planting daffodils. But perhaps little deeds, done for others and for the future, offer a start.
I eventually bought a few more daffodils, and planted them all around the garden. The bulbs went down into the earth, and I watered them. I planted seeds in my vegetable garden—tomatoes, sunflowers, squash, green beans, and more.
This past week, I left tomatoes still ripening on the vine, sunflowers unpicked. But someone will, I hope, enjoy them. Someone can still look with delight at the first tendrils of life bursting from the soil next year. I can offer them that delight. And maybe 20 years from now, someone in that house will still enjoy spring daffodils.
I picked a sunflower, just opened, from the garden. And then I said goodbye.