It has been two years since my first blog post describing my ‘change in plans’, my career shift. I’ve learned a lot about gardening and home canning. I’m becoming wiser about the limits of my joints and tendons. I try to balance organization and planning with the patterns of nature, to summon energy for writing when there is a constant tug to get outside. I could list the facts I’ve learned and anecdotal garden experiences I’ve had over the past two years, but these are things you can look up, or things you already know. Instead, I want to tell of less tangible lessons I’m learning from gardening. This is my version of Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten; just replace the word kindergarten with my garden. I do not consider myself a master of any of the lessons discussed below. It’s a process I hope to continue until my seasons run out.
First a little background: I’ve had small doses of these lessons in my 49 years, but not as often or as foundational as I now wish. My siblings and I grew up with dysfunctional parents who were too busy sorting out their own problems. Our home atmosphere was thick with tension; their parenting style benign neglect with some emotional neglect woven in. I had no idea how sheltered and naïve I was until I went to college, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. Catching up for me meant to-do lists, interests in (too) many things, and always wishing for tomorrow, or next week, or the next month. Life became a race, a blur, until I no longer knew where the finish line was or what my objectives were. Mix in modern society, with iPhones, Facebook, and Amazon next-day delivery—all of this just further blurred my days.
But my garden teaches me:
Patience—No matter how often I check the tomatoes, they will ripen at their own pace. They need the right combination of chemicals produced under the right range of temperatures. Summer days and weeks have their own pace and it feels good to follow along, rather than fight it.
Humility—I am inconsequential to the universe, meaning I am no more important than another person, and possibly plants and animals. I’d accepted this notion years ago and I am comfortable with it. It is why I love how mountain and ocean vistas make me feel small. With my garden, I am reminded of my insignificance daily. So much goes on in a garden that I’ve only an inkling of, and that would occur without my input at all, save having planted a seed in the first place. I have problems with a hierarchy of species that puts humans at the top. The base of the pyramid is key. We wouldn’t be here without all that green biomass to sustain us. And what of insects? E.O. Wilson states: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Tolerance—Gardening is no fun when I’m filled with hate for invasive weeds or insect pests that want to eat my plants. I don’t weed angrily anymore and I only bother with pests when there are too many. I’ve taken words like battle and war out of my garden vocabulary. Though, I did use the phrase crime scene to describe the theft of all my Romas and red runner beans last night. Like I said, it’s a process. I’m not pressing charges by the way. Regarding insects, if I want an eruption of pests gone, I make myself hand-remove them. Standing with an insecticide and spraying at arms-length seems more violent, and at odds with being humble.
Respect—I have garnered incredible respect for all the farmers before me, whose wisdom is now collected and disseminated on the Internet. They have saved me years of struggle and confusion. Yet, in their spirit, I am willing to experiment. I don’t want a perfect garden NOW. I actually want the garden to teach me some things, and I don’t mind if it takes time.
Awe—How did homesteaders harvest enough food to last the winter for big families before there was easy access to groceries? I am recording what I harvest each day. My family would not be eating as enthusiastically as we do if this were all I had to offer. And while I am canning more than jams, there is no way we could just shop for flour and sugar during the winter months. Well, unless bread and jam were all we wanted for dinner.
Reflection—I have flowers all over the garden and this has enhanced its beauty, and attracted more bees than I’ve seen in years. It also invites me to sit and ponder all the life and death around me. Why don’t we talk more about death? It’s everywhere. It’s in past seasons: my father-in-law, my mother, and my sister-in-law. It’s in front of me: the blister beetle I just killed, the cucumbers senescing on the vine. It’s in me: cells die and new ones form constantly. Harmful bacteria are introduced and my immune system kills them. Beneficial bacteria in my gut die as a natural part of their life cycles or because I didn’t eat the food that nourishes them.
We don’t talk about death because it scares us. I don’t want to feel scared any more than I want to feel hate when I’m weeding. I fear a sudden and painful death despite Hollywood’s attempts to make me numb to such events. I fear a slow and painful death from cancer or an illness. But I don’t want to fear natural, end-of-life death. To me the alternative – eternal life – is horrifying. I don’t want to wear out my welcome. I hope when it’s my time to die, I will approach death with grace. There have been nights I have fallen into bed with sheer, physical exhaustion from a good homesteading kind of day, content with what we’ve accomplished (for the purpose of living) and thought, If I die in my sleep, I will have died happy. And yet, as soon as those thoughts cross my weary brain cell synapses, I feel the vibrations of deep muscle fibers screaming NO! Not yet! But I wonder if this is what it’s like, could be like, when I am very old and life in general has tired me, when my season is over.
Every species has its own life cycle. In general, life doesn’t wear out its welcome. When it’s time to die, it’s time. I worry that the faster paced we go in life, the scarier death will become because we we’re bypassing the process. In trying to cheat death, we’re missing life.
So, ultimately, the best lesson my garden teaches me is to slow down. Spend some time each day in the NOW. Eat a tomato off the vine; they don’t all need to go to sauce. I don’t need my cell phone in my pocket in the garden. I don’t need to weed every day if it exhausts me or takes the fun away or means I didn’t sit down for a few minutes and watch. When I slow down, everything looks a lot clearer.
I’m not saying to never plan; planning is important. Just do it slowly. I’m not saying to not embrace technology. But be careful of progress gaps (term taken from Paul Kingsnorth: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7277 ). Do it thoughtfully. I’m learning to see my days through my years.
I’m excited for the writing I will do this fall and winter, as my garden rests, waiting to emerge once again next spring. But I’m not so excited that I am wishing for that time to come now. Right now, I’m happy to pick more tomatoes. I want to hold on to the slowness I have finally welcomed.
I often go to the garden before sunset to sit and wait for the chickens to go to bed so I can close them in for the night. This sitting refuels me for the last few hours of the day. I look at sunflowers and zinnias; I listen to bees finishing their work for the day. I hear grasshoppers and cicadas tell me repeatedly that summer is nearing its end. But summer will return. We live. And while we live, we face death; we look it in the eye daily. It’s ok. It’s preparation. Thankfully, I’m not a grasshopper. I hope for many more seasons to learn, grow, and garden. But I want to be ready when it’s time. I want to give my final grasshopper call with grace and hope someone is there to heed it and reflect. Are you living the life you want? Are you racing or walking? Is your view clear enough? If you’re not sure, you might try summer school too. All you need is a garden.