I was listening to “John Wesley Harding” this morning and thinking that Bob Dylan is someone who cultivates oddness—in a way that seems oddly genuine. (But what is authenticity in a celebrity? One of the subjects of my British lit. dissertation….) Anyway, that got me thinking about what an encompassing, useful word “cultivate” is. We cultivate land, relationships, our intellects, our tastes, even our eccentricities. Or if you’re a four-year-old boy who loves tractors, you’ll cultivate just about any surface.
There are no surprises in its etymology: since its entrance into English, by way of medieval Latin, it has had both a literal and a figurative sense. It has always meant: to till the soil, to promote the growth of plants and to educate, train, refine a person or intellect; to promote the growth of a science, an art, a sentiment, a friendship; to devote one’s attention to these things. It is close to nurturing. We like to help things grow. Cultivation is culture in the abstract as well as in the most basic form of crops planted for us to pick and eat.
As an adjective applied to the land, it implies an opposite: land is either cultivated or it’s wild or waste. I like the way Michael Pollan, in my favorite of his books, Second Nature, puts cultivation in the middle of two seemingly opposed concepts in our modern Western paradigm: nature and culture. Pollan argues, with grace and good sense of humor, that between these, which are not really opposed, must be cultivation. In fact, nature as we know it is already cultivated—as a science, an art, a sentiment. Since we’ve already had our hand on almost every inch of nature, our obligation is to cultivate it. Not to turn it all into cornfields, for crying out loud, but not to let it become waste. To cultivate wilderness that we’ve already tampered with—even if just by demarcation—rather than consider it “virgin” and expect it to fend for itself in the midst of the mean world of modern civilization and its pimps.