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The Rationality Of Gardening

Economics can't explain why we plant and harvest

Is it rational for me to grow, in my garden, my own vegetables and herbs? I ask myself this as I contemplate the fortifications I have erected around my recuperating stand of basil and around my two remaining pumpkins. Furtive and voracious groundhogs have increased the costs, in labor expended, of raising this year's crops beyond the usual regimen of planting, watering, and weeding.

I know how a friend of mine, who is an economist, would answer my question. He came in from his garden once with a handful of cucumbers and announced, "Here's this year's crop. If I count what I paid for the seeds, and figure my labor at minimum wage, they cost at least five bucks apiece." So ended his gardening career. From then on, his cucumbers came from the supermarket. My basil would not be so easily replaced, I realize. Out here in the boonies, bought basil is dried basil, and dried basil does not make a salad heavenly or supply the basis for pesto. So it's grow it myself, or do without.

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But what about the pumpkins? In a few months, farmers not five miles from where I've encaged my swelling gourds will have roadside stands glowing orange with their harvest. For less than $4, I could have one of their pumpkins for a jack-o'-lantern and one for our Thanksgiving pie. Is it rational to go to this trouble so that the pumpkins we use have been grown under our care?

I'm still thinking about this as I gather wild blackberries and blueberries for a fruit salad at dinner. They're growing in the sun like weeds in a patch by the edge of our woods. It's mid-July and the berries are bursting with their ripened juices. Ten minutes of grazing yields the handful I'll need. I look with pleasure at my yield, glistening at the bottom of the white bowl.

Whether the means are rational or not, it comes to me, all depends on how one understands the ends achieved. Do the "goods" I've gained from my labor consist entirely of these objects? Is our consumption of these berries in the bowl the same as if we'd bought them in the store? If the answers are yes, then my 10 minutes spent for 40 cents worth of berries was worth less than half the minimum wage. But I know that these equivalences are false, and it is here that our notion of economic rationality can lead us to act irrationally.

Adam Smith founded his famous economics on the power of the division of labor. If each of us concentrates on doing just one thing, he showed, we'll each be more productive. Then we can truck, barter, and trade with our fellows, exchanging a bit of our product for more of what they produce than we could have made for ourselves. If a pinmaker spent his 10 minutes making pins, in other words, he would earn enough to buy more blueberries from a blueberry grower than he could harvest on his own in that time.

But there are costs and benefits left out of that calculation. The time of the pinmaker is enormously productive, but it is conceived and, too often, lived as a means to an end. One of the sacrifices of specialization is that the stuff of our lives - time - is sacrificed on the rack of narrowness and repetition. My time grazing for berries, or watering my pumpkins, is not pure cost like the labors of the efficient pinmaker. It's a labor of love.

For the part-time gardener, the means is part of the end, and it enriches beyond the production of a mere commodity that can be purchased in stores. I become connected with the organic processes of the earth in a way that pulling some produce off the counter could never do. Where the specialist's world tends to narrow toward the size of a pinhead, with my devotion of time I have purchased a larger world for my spirit to dwell in.

Tonight, when I combine the berries with yogurt and cinnamon, the result may taste no different than if the berries had been store-bought. But for my family and me, it will not be the same bowlful of food. We will be savoring also our place on the earth, the ground on which we live.

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Come this Thanksgiving, when my wife, April, makes a pie from one of the pumpkins we've grown, I'll be celebrating not only the blessings of living in this prosperous country, but also the pleasures of watching a plant turn earth into pumpkin.

What's rational is to seek a life that's rich in more ways than one.

Andrew Bard Schmookler lives in Virginia and is author of "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution."

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