Going to Seed

10 July 2024

Going to Seed: Essays on Idleness, Nature & Sustainable Work
by Kate J. Neville
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Michelle Shaw
$30.95 9781779400000

In this award-winning collection of essays, Kate Neville melds the different areas of her life into a fascinating perspective on our perception of idleness: personal reflections from living in an off-grid cabin in northern BC and her academic life as associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto.

Neville draws from a wide range of poets, writers, researchers and scientists to reconsider the notion of idleness in a world where our reaction to problems is invariably to accelerate and advance. What if instead, she asks, we “step back and slow down?”

In 2020, when Kate Neville found herself living fulltime in her off-grid cabin during the pandemic, she began to ponder the accuracy of the perception that “going to seed“ was something to be avoided at all costs. As a gardener friend protested — “the seed phase… is a time of so much activity. Plants send out compressed packets filled with the energy and nutrients needed to sow new life.”

The fact that I was reading this in my garden while hundreds of white poplar seeds covered my lawn like a coating of snow perhaps explains why this idea resonated so strongly with me.

The book is divided into seven distinct chapters, each considering a different aspect of nature as it relates to the overall concept of labour and idleness: grasshopper songs (on creativity), bear pauses (on rest), beaver blockades (on resistance), fir deferrals (on slowness), salmon migrations (on detours), willow routes (on restraint) and owl observations (on attention).

It’s not just our surface level understanding of the concept that she challenges. Neville looks at other aspects such as the morality of work versus idleness. Work is traditionally associated with productivity and employment while idleness seems apathetic – “something for upstanding citizens and responsible adults to studiously avoid.”

Not surprisingly in this context, Neville considers the artist who needs time to create. She quotes the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong, who recounts that in Japanese aesthetics, poems have colours, moods and tones and “part of the work of a writer then is finding them… [this] takes sometimes weeks, months – years really – to develop.” Neville points out that for so many artists, “creative output requires stretches of what might appear to the observer as unproductive, undirected time.”

Some of her sentences are so dense with meaning that I had to keep pausing and rereading. I found myself highlighting passages and quotes and jotting down notes to myself. It really is a book to ponder over, and the notes section of the book is extensive and well worth reading.

In her professional life, Neville studies global resource politics, energy transitions and technologies, and community resistance. Going to Seed was the winner of the inaugural Sowell Emerging Writers Prize.

Find out more about Kate Neville at katejneville.wordpress.com.


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