A brief meditation on calculative thinking in the garden

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once made the distinction between two types of thought; meditative and calculative. Calculative thinking, in his view, was the dominant mode of modernity and was characterized by technical planning and investigation that concerns itself only with ever greater efficiency and productivity as its goal. Calculative thinking also moves quickly, in contrast to meditative thinking which is characterized as slow, contemplative, and which takes into consideration the meaning of things in addition what is strictly quantifiable.

The idea of society being ordered by and oriented almost entirely towards the development of technology is one that would be further developed by Jacques Ellul over the course of three great works on the philosophy of technology; La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, Propagandes, and L’illusion politique. Across these works Ellul demonstrates how technique is not simply a dominant mode of thought, but a system that by its very nature eliminates alternative ways of thinking (if they can be shown to be less efficient) and which applies itself to ever more areas of human life.

Now, a garden in the imagination of many people is a place amenable to meditation, and not what we would immediately associate with technnology. It is increasingly, however, an arena of calculative thinking. Indeed gardening techniques such as the Square Foot Gardening system have been celebrated precisely because they are the invention of people with engineering backgrounds and a calculative mindset. There has been a proliferation of homesteading and self-sufficiency coaching social media accounts catering to people interested in learning to apply techniques that achieve higher yields with less space — peak garden efficiency.

Hydroponics may well be the epitome of calculative thinking in the realm of gardening. In many hydroponic systems everything about the plants lives is strictly controlled; the total amount and intensity of light, watering, levels of individual ionic salts and other nutrients, as well as pH and other factors including air flow. Even the presence of beneficial microbes is controlled such that only specific strains of bacteria innoculate the nutrient solution.

Technique in the garden does not just manifest in the form of calculative methods but also in a preference for or mandated use of specific products. This is as true for hydroponic growers as it is for those growing in soil. Recommendations for a particular technique are often accompanied by a recommendation for a particular product, be that a specific root innoculant or brand of liquid or granular fertilizer. Often little thought is given to the rationale or long-term sustainability of the use of such products, with rare exceptions such as the general advice in the international gardening community against using products such as peat moss that are known to be environmentally destructive. Rather the short-term benefit for growth and yield speaks for itself.

I found myself somewhat taken aback recently by an admonition in a text on soil science for gardeners. It preceded a chapter on diagnosing and remedying soil problems. I felt that it flew in the face of everything else I had experienced in the way of gardening as a practice (and judging from Pavlis’ general tone that was probably the intent).

Before you do anything in the garden, try to understand why you are doing it. What effect will it have? What problem are you solving? If you are not solving a problem, then don’t do it. Many standard gardening practices simply are not required.

Pavlis 2020

It feels wrong in some way that this envincement is so poignant. Gardening as a practice ought to be accompanied by the type of slow, meditative thinking that Pavlis here implores of us. Yet in my experience that would be the exception.

My own grandfather was certainly guilty of what Heidegger would characterize as a flight from thought — thoughtlessness. Every season we applied lime and granular fertilizer in more-or-less the same amounts to the soil. Throughout the season we applied MiracleGro©️ water soluble fertilizer only. Was the soil pH truly too low? Did our vegetable crops actually want for nutrients? That kind of meditative observation of our own local conditions was secondary to the calculated and consistent application of technique. And in all fairness year after year he was perfectly successful having done so.

That the thoughtless application of absolute efficient methods has penetrated even our home gardens, however, is proof enough that Heidegger and Ellul were right.