photo by Zinta Aistars
t reading on food at the Book Bug Bookstore on March 28, 2014I was one of several people who participated in the Friday night. Here is my contribution.
Meditations Over the Onions
I will be out of town over the next two weeks so before I leave I need to hill the potatoes, and weed the onions and squash. I have only two days to do all this work, but I would do it! As a result, I learned something about gardening: it's not going to get done unless I do it, and I need to maintain my drive and will to get it done. Nature (i.e., the weeds) doesn’t take a vacation. But I was to learn another lesson about work today.
Growing up in the great industrial city of Detroit, I have learned to work without stopping, which is not good for gardening in the hot sun. Pacing myself, resting, and drinking water frequently is an imperative! Wendell Berry addresses this frenzied notion about work by drawing the difference between industrial farming with a tractor and traditional farming with animals. Animals may be strong but they need a rest from time to time, so every once in a while, it's important to find a quiet, shady spot on the land where you can give the animals some respite. (It’s a nice break for humans, too!) Berry points out that this approach is so contrary to our machine culture where we keep going, never stop, and try to be more efficient. All this busy-ness also keeps us from thinking—and meditating. Actually, today I learned how to use the garden as a form of meditation.
Part of my need for a new approach to work is about discovering how I can simplify my life. I’m the type of person who likes to make a long list of things to do and then check them off as I do them. It makes me feel productive and vital. But what am I accomplishing if all I do is work? Where and when does the enjoyment of life come? Do I wait until vacation times or put it off until retirement and then collapse on a lawn chair from pure exhaustion? No, I must now learn to pace myself and find that quiet space within to feel satisfaction at whatever I’m doing. That’s the kind of balance that the nuns taught me about seeking the spiritual life. Such a slower pace allows “room” for prayer and meditation. So, since I desire an essential connection to Nature and a greater enjoyment of life, then I need to make “room” for it—and I can do it through the garden. Also, if I want to be a more thoughtful writer, I need to slow down my pace and resist cluttering it with endless activities. Today, as I worked in the garden I did manage to meditate. Here are some of my thoughts.
* When the field is covered with weeds, I have to look very closely for the plant that may grow into a vegetable. It becomes my focus. I try to save the plant no matter its size or scraggily appearance. Such care gives me a different relationship with the plant that emphasizes nurturing and then requires time and patience. It’s easier for me to have this relationship with the goats, who are animated, soulful creatures. So I worry about how I can have a relationship with the plants in the garden. What I discovered over these past couple weeks is that being with the plants has convinced me that I do care about them. After all, that is why I am here with them.
* My bones are weary and my muscles ache. My hands are full of new calluses, some of which burn from the hot soil as I pull out the weeds. I don’t know how the migrant workers do this all day, every day. Maybe my gardening is helping me empathize with them and their difficult lives a little more. This makes me more grateful for them and what they do!
* To weed the onions I must get on my hands and knees. This is a prayer position, and it predisposes me physically to meditation. Then the bugs start attacking my bare arms and I think I will go mad. I remembered Sister Mary Bader’s experience in Texas where the gnats were buzzing around her face as she did the laundry. When she swatted them, they hung around her all the more. Then she just let them be and discovered that they left her alone. So I tried this today and it worked! Maybe the bugs are just curious. Maybe I entered their territory and they were checking me out.
* Being on my hands and knees as I weed the onions gives me an opportunity to be close to the earth where it's cooler and I can find some relief from the hot sun. Occasionally, a gentle breeze wafts through the garden, and it is so sweet. So I acknowledge it, savor it, and thank it. Such small pleasures really make a difference in my attitude as I do this hard work! Maybe I’m hearing the garden speak.
* To grow a garden, you have to have a certain trust that Mother Earth will make the plants grow. This seems to be a miracle to me. It's as though the plants are in a black box where the magic happens and out comes the fruit. Of course, there are scientific reasons for “the miracle,” but to me there are mysterious forces beyond the science that make it all work. Our industrial age has made us arrogant enough to tinker with these forces for the purpose of creating bigger harvests so we can make more money. The question is: have we fooled ourselves and altered the processes such that we might accomplish the opposite effect that we want—over the long term? I hope not. All the more reason for us to re-learn the process of growing food for ourselves—and to meditate on what we are doing.