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Cultivating place with Jennifer Jewell

Locations: News Published

With a planet and society in flux, many find themselves seeking a deeper understanding of the world around us and our place in it. If this is you, join ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch on Wednesday, August 11, at 6 p.m. The Jessica Catto Dialogue series presents author and national award-winning radio host Jennifer Jewell.

In the beginning of her career, Jewell recalls being “so excited to write about it, to merge my love of gardening with my love of writing. It was such a rich topic!” Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden, is her national radio show and podcast; Jewell’s culminating response to her lifelong career in gardens and media.

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“I was absolutely inoculated with the importance of this from my birth on, with my parents. They didn’t do it consciously. It was not an articulated value or paradigm. It was just who they were, and where they found sanity, joy and meaning.” Jewell’s mother was a gardener and floral designer; her father, a wildlife biologist.

In cultivating her first “very own” garden as an adult, “I jumped out of bed every morning like I was meeting my first love! It was fantastic.” And then, “The way that newspapers and magazines wrote about it in the late nineties was reducing it to a weird, two-dimensional kind of status symbol accessory to our lives, not elevating it into this calling that we use to talk about cooking or music or literature, or the fine arts or dance! And that’s what gardening is to me,” she says. “That’s how I experience it; that’s how all the gardeners I communed with experienced it, and that’s not how it was being represented. I grew more and more disenchanted.”

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Submitting a story about an elderly Japanese bonsai master in Arvada, her photography was rejected.

“The editor said to me, ‘Well! I can’t print this story with these pictures. That man has a dirty t-shirt on and that’s just not going to fly,’” Jewell recounts, derision in her voice. “And I was like, Okay, I’m out… I used our move from Colorado to northern California to think about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I just knew that isn’t what I wanted anymore. That’s when I discovered radio,” she says of a medium in which “I could get to the voice of what we were talking about and not have pretty pictures get in the way.”

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That clash in value systems began to play out in her personal life — which is the very fodder and compost of our gardens: our own uniqueness. Jewell realized she was being forced to choose, and her decision changed her life.

Each word is weighted and deliberate as Jewell explains, “I do not want to be a part of a world that perpetuates this idea that earning money or being important in a productivity mindset is what keeps anybody healthy and well. And I certainly didn’t want to message that to my daughters.”

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While her life transition was “brutal,” as she put it, “the second I did it — I’m not kidding — the universe came to me every single day and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”

Her radio program went national, becoming today’s one-hour long Cultivating Place podcast, grounded in what Jewell has called “the Tao of compost.” 

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Jewell tells another story, one of several about her mother.

“Her religious system was the garden, was compost. In the sixteen years that she battled cancer — and ultimately died from it — it was her answer to almost everything. Literally on her deathbed, she wasn’t scared. She wasn’t worried. She wasn’t anxious. She was completely at peace, even at the age of 55. It was because she honestly believed in this concept I call ‘the Tao of compost.’ She saw it every day in the garden, in the soil, the air, the water, the bugs, in the plants — they all worked together in this continuum of life, rebirth, life, rebirth.”

As in life and death, the liminal space between people and their gardens encompasses far more than what we “see.” In conversing with gardeners from all over, Cultivating Place traverses the aliveness between people and the cultivated ecologies sustaining them: where the wild things are; navigating by plants; the garden as crucible; homegrown hope; cultivating intention; botanizing globally, growing locally; solace in the soil; new naturalism — on and on!

“We’re not talking about what our gardens look like, or how pretty they are, or how much they cost, or where to get ‘that next thing.’ Talking about this ‘heart and soul of gardening’ reinforces for me that other people too are hungry to talk about [gardening] in this same way.” For Jewell, “this engagement and empowerment with gardeners was meeting the divine, and acknowledging it where it had met me.”

Spend an evening with Jennifer Jewell at Rock Bottom Ranch to explore the diversity of life and being a human through garden, place and culture.

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