The rich, brown-black soil crumbles in my fingers, cool and just slightly moist as I rake my hands through a garden bed that will soon be planted with carrots. It’s a mild day in mid-March and the sun is shining, warming the back of my neck and the surface of the soil while I pick out the last remnants of over-wintering weeds. The soil is so loose and sweet, it’s a pleasure to do this work—weeding—that most gardeners regard as an odious task. Maybe I’ll tire of it as the season progresses, but right now as I’m planting our first vegetable crops at the beginning of another growing season everything feels good—the gentle warmth of the sun; the soft, smooth soil in my hands; the singing of the chickens behind the fence a few feet away. I’ve missed this.
It’s not only that I’ve missed this kind of contact with the earth through the long, cold months of winter, when the ground is frozen and little grows. I’ve also missed, for the past few years, the cyclical mind set of tending an annual garden. For the most part since we moved onto our farm four years ago, my partner Tasha has been responsible for planning and tending our annual vegetable garden while I worked at my desk on my “off-farm” job. This year, we’ve decided to split the vegetable garden, which Tasha has diligently improved and expanded over the course of our stay here: from a hard-scrabble patch of tough, dry clay to row after row of fertile, productive beds, where the soil improves by the season.
Ironically, the last time I really got into vegetable gardening was when we lived in the suburbs, before we moved here. Turning Tasha’s backyard lawn into a hyper-productive vegetable garden and mini-food forest was something of a coup for us. After two years of gardening there, we both felt confident enough to spread our wings and pursue grander dreams of living in the country and running a farmstead. Yet it’s those early days of working in that garden that I remember most vividly—the sense of accomplishment and wonder at having grown much of our own food supply; or the peace and calm that came to me in the evenings after a stressful or tedious day at the office followed by a few hours thinning greens or preparing plant beds.
I missed participating in the life cycle of the garden, too—the totality that begins with winter’s hopeful planning and progresses into starting seeds indoors in early spring. The first days outdoors are spent preparing beds, transplanting starts, and direct seeding. Last frost passes and the feverish, verdant growth of late spring and early summer begins. The first harvests and fresh greens of June and July give way to late summer and long-awaited tomatoes and watermelons. Pumpkins and peppers ripen and are picked, and the greenery hangs on into the fall. The first frost comes and the garden fades with the dying of the light. Seeds and soil sleep under blankets of snow and the cycle begins again.
Gardening has to be one of the most immersive and direct ways for people to connect with natural rhythms and experience the circle of life. But unlike many other outdoor activities which may require a remote setting or access to diminishing wilderness areas or natural resources, gardening only really requires access to sunlight and water and a little space. Anyone with a modest backyard or even a deck or balcony can grow many types of vegetables at home. Gardening is a restorative act: it is a way of inviting a bit of the natural world and its seasonal rhythms back into our lives, a world from which many of us are becoming increasingly alienated by the demands of modern life and its technologies and preoccupations.
The Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka famously declared, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Whether or not Fukuoka was a Buddhist, Zen or otherwise, the philosophy of “natural farming” which he developed and elucidated in his book The One-Straw Revolution, advocates for an approach to farming that embodies non-attachment on many levels. Fukuoka strongly favors observing and working with natural systems and recognizing their complexity over human interventions like tilling, using fertilizers and pesticides, and even most weeding and pruning regimens. But beyond the practical recommendations and methods that Fukuoka encourages, his approach to horticulture is most significant for its recognition that the growing of food should be a deeply spiritual and transformative act, culminating in the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
While I am not a Buddhist myself, I have recently been working to adopt a practice of mindfulness through meditation. In pursuing a practice in which my ultimate goal is to achieve a calm, clear mind and a sense of peace, I notice similarities here to mental states I have experienced while gardening and doing other types of so-called “handiwork.” On many occasions, particularly after spending a day doing abstract work like writing computer code, I found calm and relaxation by doing things like building bee hives or a dinner table; drawing; or working outside, especially in the garden. These activities, seemingly by offering my mind a primarily physical outlet, calm me and help relieve the stresses of the day. While immersed in them, I have noticed how my consciousness settles and becomes clear. The mental static and internal crosstalk that is with me so much of the time disappears, and the mind becomes focused on the task—quite literally—at hand.
As at least one recent media report details, researchers have found evidence that meaningful work, craft, or exertion that takes place in the physical realm is essential to a sense of well-being, even amongst rats. The article from CBS news, which features conversations with neuroscientist Kelly Lambert as well as Matthew Crawford, author of the best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, notes that handiwork is “something a lot of us crave—especially now, as fewer of us do much at all with our hands.” Other research has shown the benefits—mental, emotional, and otherwise—that arise from learning to play a musical instrument. The linkages between mindfulness (and other meditation practices), the learning of a new physical skill, and the concept of neural plasticity—that is, the brain’s ability to create new connections and seemingly rewire itself—have also been well-established.
Developing and nourishing the mind-body connection that is so central to many spiritual pursuits, not least among them a practice of mindfulness, can be approached through many creative and physically engaging endeavors, it would seem. Yoga, T’ai Chi and many other martial and contemplative arts acknowledge the importance of the body’s role in achieving clarity of mind. Yet gardening, as I have found, facilitates a hands-on connection to the living, more-than-human, natural world while also providing an opportunity to engage the mind-body connection through fulfilling and worthwhile handiwork.
Alex Tzelnic asked, in the title to his recent essay, “Can Nature Experiences Replace Mindfulness?” While I have attempted here and in other writings to explore the many similarities and commonalities among natural experiences and contemplative practices—particularly where they intersect in the concept of transformative ecology—I find that the two categories of experience seem to complement each other more than they conflict or compete with each other. In other words, the practice of mindfulness can certainly enhance one’s experience of nature, while natural experiences undoubtedly expand and enrich an attitude of mindfulness. Gardening, then, is an activity that ideally enfolds aspects of both a nature experience and mindfulness into one practice, while also providing a source of healthy food, fulfillment, and exercise.
Matt Miles is a writer, poet, permaculturist, maker, and rock climber. His work has previously appeared in Dark Mountain. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole systems farmstead.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash