Nurturing the World With Our Own Two Hands

Imagination opens again to earth. We
believe in bees, the wild rose’s grail filled
with summer–from “In Late Winter,” Thomas R. Smith

The world has changed. Worldwide we feel it. It has been changing all along, but in the solitude of our current sheltering in place situation, we feel it more distinctly. I wash my hands or cook food and consciously consider the scarcity of everything I have, and contemplate the multitude of unknown and unseen people throughout the world who have cooperated in order for me to have the food I eat, pen and paper I use, books I read–packaging and transportation included. This is no simple thing.

Though each of us have different approaches to coping with the shelter in place, if we didn’t recognize it before, we recognize now that we literally depend on each other’s work and actions for survival. Because of the variety of perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills found in the larger community, we have the strength to hold each other up and to meet problems. Our need to depend on each other is bigger than what divides us.

As a child, I grew up in a home in a rural area with parents who lived during the Great Depression. They knew how to live on sparse resources. We grew food in a garden, and we had an orchard. My mother gave us haircuts, sewed our clothes, and also wore hand me down clothing my great aunt sent in boxes that my mother resized or remade for us. We lived minimally, learned to care for things so they would last, as well as to save, repurpose and recycle. I’m glad to have had as a model my parents who had many skills for fixing things and making things by hand.

While living abroad, my husband and I grew small gardens in pots and containers on windowsills and balconies, and while living in India, had a small plot in a community garden as well. Living in California again now, we have a garden once more where we’ve built raised beds. When we first returned home, the yard was filled with weeds. We had built some of the raised beds earlier as well as a grape arbor, and a place for berries, but in our absence, weeds grew prolifically, even though we periodically had someone weed.

It has been hard work, a long process of pulling weeds, creating compost, filling the beds with new soil and compost, saving seeds, watering, learning about what kinds of light various plants need, and how to prune them, but the physical rewards of working in the soil and watching things grow into blossom, fruit, and vegetables is a continuing delight. Recently, I dug weeds out of new areas in the garden and planted the many flower seeds left from plants last year. We just planted arugula, berries, beans, cilantro, collard greens, pickling cucumbers, kale, lettuce, onion, peas, squash, and tomatoes. The grape vines are beginning to bud, and the lemons are ready to pick. It’s a joy to see on the front porch in the morning listening to the bees and hummingbirds at work, and to see the visible evidence of physical work. In his poem, “Morning Song,” Don Colburn writes,

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening
this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing-
and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin
like birds and the earth all over.

It doesn’t have to be spring to watch a bee-crazed garden, light illuminating flowers and the undersides of leaves as if living works of art. Cloudy days and rain filled days are good too, each bring their own mood.

Laura Spinney explains in her article in the Guardian, “It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” that the pandemic we’re currently experiencing “wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalized industry, and rapid urbanization.” Humans have pushed further and further into wild places. industrialized farming in China has pushed millions of smallholder farmers, in order to survive, “into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk.”  What we eat, our lifestyle choices are costly, Spinney explains. It’s a systemic problem. The globalization of farming industries have marginalized the majority of the world’s farmers, and we are all bearing the cost.

Growing our own food is a creative act, connecting us in a relationship to the earth and its cycles. We understand this in a new way with the effort it takes to garden and grow your own food, and it is a way to come back into a healthy, life-giving relationship with the natural world. When I garden, I often remember what I learned years ago when beginning my own garden for the first time, as I describe in this poem.

What You Planted
–for Michael

Years ago, you knelt                
in the garden’s dark soil,
planting carrots,

tucking them into the earth
one by one,
telling me

“You’ve got to treat them
gently, as if they are
your babies,” then you

pulled a blanket of loam
softly over
the next seed
and tamped it down.

Tiny roots
waiting inside
reached into the earth’s
rich warmth,
and stretched.

Look at the garden now.

published spring, 2012, phren-z

Just as artists give themselves creative challenges, time in confined space can push us in new directions, allow new creative exploration. Gardens have requirements. If you want certain things to grow, you have to take care of them by renewing the soil, giving them with adequate water, continuous weeding out of what you don’t want so the plants producing food, fruit and beauty can flourish.

During this time indoors, I hope you’re able to find a way to plant a seed and grow something on your window ledge, on your balcony, or if you’re able to, in your back yard. While you’re waiting to go outside again, you will be nurturing something that grows and gives you sustenance. If you can’t order seeds to grow something or have no space, perhaps you will find some other way to allow the stillness to quietly nurture your imagination so that when doors are able to open again to the outside, you will be like the rose in Thomas R. Smith’s poem above, a grail filled with summer’s abundance.

place, poetry, spirtuality

Going Wild–Walking Out Into Nature

“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”– Wendell Berry

In a few weeks I will be back home in California and able, once again, to walk out my door onto the earth and stand in the garden. I will pick berries and pull weeds, prune and plant. Growing a garden connects us directly to the earth. To garden is to learn something of what the earth needs and to care for it–to have a relationship with the earth and to love it. I miss that garden, that particular piece of earth. If earth is our mother, then I am its child, and sometimes I just want to go home–home to that particular landscape that looks and smells like home, where I have dug and weeded and planted, have walked many times–where I’ve given the trees names. When I go home, I will look out my window to see trees and mountains. I will be surrounded by nature. What a gift that is to the soul; what a pleasure to walk through greenery in forests and wild places.

But all this is still a few weeks away. For now, I am still in India. Last week was labor day holiday, and I took a short trip with friends to Musoorie, a city in the Himalaya foothills, a hill station resting at 6,500 feet, and place with roots from the time of the British Raj that is today popular with honeymooners. A walk along Camelback Road, brought views of iris growing wild on the forest covered hills, steep valleys, and the snowcapped Himalaya in the distance. We arrived during a rain storm, and the following morning, the sky was as blue as I’ve seen skies get in India. Tree leaves literally glowed in the light. This is the India I love to be in, the mountains, where the urban coat can be cast off, and the world’s natural form emerges. I felt myself alive again, filled with a sense of wholeness, looking out at the world in wonder.

Often after being out in nature, I feel more whole, as if I have returned to myself, as if in some odd way I’m being healed even though I may not have been particularly aware that I was “ill.”  Since returning to Delhi, I’ve come across an Atlantic Monthly article explaining new research showing how, as the article’s title says, “Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” People who can view nature from their windows after operations generally recover more quickly, for example. “The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back,” reports Adam Alter. The theory for how nature does this is called Attention Restoration Therapy, Alter explains. Human made environments ramp up our attention. Nature, on the other hand, asks little of us, and therefore calms our attention. The Japanese, the article goes on to say, have long advocated what they term forest bathing– long walks amongst trees, breathing in the wooded air, and the research on the effects of this activity “compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.” That’s pretty nice! You don’t have to go to Japan to experience forest bathing, however. People in California, are promoting this idea as well, and you can head out into any forest. The idea, according to Brian Wu of the LA Times, is to go slowly, not walking more than three miles in four hours, take rests as you like, drink water or green tea, read.

Going to the mountains, or going to the garden. As it turns out, gardening, too, is good for the soul. Sue, Stuart-Smith, in her Telegraph article, “Horticultural therapy: ‘Gardening makes us feel renewed inside,” suggest that when we plant seeds we interact with the earth in a way that binds us to the mystery of how a seed produces life and our minds connect that with the mystery of our own lives. When gardening, one learns the importance of cutting away and pruning, of digging and weeding–all metaphors for what we must do in our own lives if we are to nurture what it is we have as seeds within us that want to grows.

American culture seems filled with the notion of getting somewhere, setting goals, becoming somebody. We get caught in the stimulus, the distraction of competition. After a while, however, this all grows tiring or we can lose track of who are, what we care most about. We lose our zest for life and get caught up in trying to make our mark or make a living, when we’re not actually living very much. Instead, we are walking through one procedure to the next, only partly alive. Feeling this sadness, this loss, however can be a very good thing as it can lead us back to ourselves. Wendell Berry writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As Berry implies, obstacles and questions we don’t have answers for can help us find what makes us sing. When we open ourselves to the Mystery, or to mysteries bigger than our own life, we can experience how everything that is worth something in life isn’t necessarily connected to our effort or accomplishment. Our life stream wants to move from behind the dam that blocks it. It wants to flow, and confronting the question of why it isn’t can help us find they way to let our lives sing again.

The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in his book The Heart is Noble, writes, “The particular profession or job you do is not the most important factor…Whatever work you do, you have to give yourself opportunities to just be. Even if it is only once a day, you should find a moment to just be  yourself in the course of each day. This could be through a short period of meditation or quiet reflection in the morning or the evening, or in whatever way best suits you. The point is to reconnect with yourself. Otherwise, the whole day you are running around and busy, and it is easy to lose yourself. To guard agains this, you should make efforts to return to yourself and recollect what is essential for you.”

Whether it be forest bathing, gardening, or painting on pottery–as I have done this afternoon–whatever it is, let us find those things that return us to ourselves, that allow our hearts to sing so that when we come to the end of our day or days, we will find that we have lived, we have truly lived.

gardening, poetry

Coming Back to the Garden

Gratitude Gardens
Gratitude Gardens

I sit looking out over my yard while I write, the sun neither too warm nor too weak– a perfect gentleness for a summer afternoon. I see the stone steps under the grape arbor, and the thyme that fits between the cracks, and think of how those cracks are like the summer holiday, the space in my life that I am hungry for. The quiet. I sit here satisfied simply to absorb the green and the random dove or falcon call. At unexpected moments the scent of redwood or pine wafts through. Restaurants and movies can be good. Shopping for supplies is necessary. But many of us also need to walk in the woods, go down to the river or ocean, sit by flowers or a slab of granite, or get our hands in the dirt to find ourselves again. I am one of those. This morning I decided to read Rilke again, and pulled from my shelf the volume of Selected Poems From Rainer Maria Rilke with translation from Robert Bly. In his A Book for the Hours of Prayer, Rilke writes,

I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.

As a traveler, I’ve circled around the globe exploring and discovering, but there is another kind of travel, that of the inner pilgrim, traveling within trying to understand what it means to live and how to live meaningfully so that we can learn who we are and why we are here on earth–what it means when we meet and greet each other, what it means to be in relationship to others, to the earth, to this place in time. Like Rilke, I don’t know if I will ever achieve this, but this is my attempt.

Herb Bed at Gratitude Gardens
Herb Bed at Gratitude Gardens

Here on my land while watering the garden, pulling weeds, or planting, I realize how deeply satisfied I am, how little it takes to make me feel content. I feel settled inside, whole. All the years of travel and exploration, these have been good. But the continuous striving that the workplace emphasizes seems irrelevant here in a garden that holds to an organic pace of being. Things grow according to the pace they were meant to grow at. The gardener nurtures them along by making sure there is adequate soil and light, plants the plants with others they are compatible with, tomatoes with basil for example, or strawberries with borage–but the true becoming is there in the mystery of biology and the seed. All the years of working and the practice of my work, reading, writing, and then I come home to the garden and sense I have found my true self, or it is at least a place I want to find myself in.

A metaphor for life, the garden has much it can help us understand about ourselves: that there are seasons and cycles for everything, the value of weeding to protect the life you are nurturing, that plants have personalities so to speak–some need more sun, others shade, which plants help them grow better, make them taste sweeter, and which protect. Gardens take work. If you want something to grow, you have to put in the effort by digging, planting, tending, and harvesting. Gardening can be a contemplative act. When you get your hands in the soil, you start to understand the connections to your own life. These are the connections I want to explore and know through our experiment in living here at Gratitude Gardens, a garden we are slowly building over the years here on our land.

At Gratitude Gardens we will raise our food and use the garden as a place to connect to the creative process in a variety of forms, for writing and art. We have planted herbs, flowers, grapes and fruit trees, and this summer are expanding the raised beds to make way for future food. Most anything we practice intentionally with our hearts can be a spiritual path that will teach us more of how to live if we are willing to view it in that way. For me, building a garden is an important part of that practice, and I want to believe there are others like me who feel hungry for the quiet, want to connect or reconnect to the earth and learn how to listen to what it has to tell us about life.

Gratitude Garden in its Beginning Stage
Gratitude Garden in its Beginning Stage

Adam and Eve left the garden. Everyone leaves. It’s the path of learning, knowing, of growing up. But we can come back too. We can make a garden. Yes, it’s made by the sweat of the brow, but that is an important part of learning what the gift of a garden is, and learning how to find yourself in one.

Maybe you, too, “have been circling for a thousand years,” or feel you have, and like Rilke, “still don’t know you “are a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.” Why not go on inner pilgrimage? Discover and claim your path so you can find through that work how it is you can come back to the garden.


A Wider Perspective

It has been a summer of work–building a framed structure with bird netting to protect the berries, laying a stone walkway, planting, cleaning, sweeping, hanging doors, moping, waxing, cutting glass for cabinets, hanging lights, organizing workers to lay tile, build a stone wall, make cabinets and more. Through it all, my husband and I have watched the grape vines at the entrance to our gate grow foot by foot, first reaching to the top of the trellis, then growing one by one down the crossbars overhead, the vibrant green leaves a symbol of the beauty and fullness of our lives here under the rich blue skies and the perfumed air of the Santa Cruz mountains. Then, last night my husband got up to get a middle of the night snack when he noticed the leaves were missing on the grape vines. He came to tell me, and I, too, got up and went outside to examine the damage. The vines were, indeed, bare. The deer, perhaps the very same beautiful deer I wrote about a couple of postings ago who mysteriously stared at us at us for so long from the edge of the forest, had indiscriminately eaten what we had watered every morning, and that had brought so much joy to our hearts.

“It’s deermagedon,” my husband explained this morning, as we further perused the damage, discovering the deer had eaten the strawberry plants, and the kale as well. “We work without rest, and then what we work so hard for is gone over night. It makes me wonder what we are doing,” he said. I thought about those who lost their loved ones in the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and in Japan, the Chinese girls who died in the recent plane crash at the San Francisco airport. We’ve all lost things precious to us, but to lose a family member in such a way would be truly tragic. Most of our losses in life aren’t as enormous or as difficult as what happens when a natural disaster strikes or a terrible accident, but still the losses must be confronted, and perhaps the way we deal with smaller losses gives us practice for how we will deal with me difficult losses when the arrive. We’re all bound to face serious losses in our lives when we lose the ones we love to death, and all will die one day. To protect our garden we had built an eight foot deer fence, not exactly the walled garden of Luso, Portugal, filled with exotic trees and hermitages, but peaceful, and precious to us, though we don’t yet have a latch on the gate. Sadly, the deer discovered our vulnerability and boldly ate our plants.

So what did we do after “deermagedon”–how did we deal with the loss? After an hour of sleeplessness, and a bit of rest, we woke and assessed the damage in the daylight, and noted that the vine stems were still present. Also, not all the leaves had been eaten. The ones that were too high for the deer to reach, and the ones the deer had to bend to low to eat still remained. The vine wouldn’t die. The base of the strawberry plants were still there, along with some of the strawberries, and about a third of the leaves. The kale was pretty much done for, but at least we had had the opportunity to eat some of the kale the previous night. We watered the plants and sent them some words of encouragement, told the story to a few friends and family members. Then, we got back to work, though we still took notice of the plants through the day.

Does loss cause us to change direction in what we are doing? That probably depends on the severity of the loss, and though we were upset by what the deer had done and how something we treasure was lost, we knew we could recover. Rick Hanson suggests in his blog post, “Drop the Case” that when someone has wronged you, a good thing to do is get a wider perspective on the situation so that you can “drop your case” rather than letting it get its hooks in to you. The deer was just being a deer. We can make it less inviting for it to come in our yard once we get a latch made.

Loss can also be a matter of perspective. When you think about it, we’re losing something all the time as our lives change and morph. When we leave one city, one state, or one country for another, we lose things–the people we know from that locale are left behind, as are the geographic uniquenesses of that particular location–the plants, animals, landmarks, the food specialties from the area. The history of the place we move to is different. If we are choosing to move from the area, losing these things has a different feeling than if we are forced to leave, however. If our choosing to leave something, someone or some place behind, helps us to deal with loss more constructively, then perhaps a key to dealing with loss is to change our perspective.

Years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, where he talked about how you can’t receive anything new until you let go of what you are holding on to so tightly. “You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.” Once you talk like that, you’ve already given up believing that your life might be otherwise. You’ve already let the hope for a new life float by. Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts. You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender.” (beliefnet) Nouwen clearly describes the consequence of trying to hold on to what we have lost or are afraid of losing–we end up with something small and clammy, when we could be opening ourselves to a new adventure, an new way of being that is reaching out to us, ready to embrace us.

Carrie Newcomer’s lovely song, “Leaves Don’t Drop” shares a wonderful insight about trees. “Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,” Newcomer sings, illustrating an interesting paradox that in letting go–in dying, we make space for something new to grow. “To die and live is life’s refrain,” describes Newcomer. In death is life. This is an ancient truth that many religions describe. Jewish scriptures in Ecclesiastes tell us that “For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” Christians trust the paradox found in Jesus’s death: through it life is found.” In Chinese belief, the yin yang symbol teaches us that in life is the seed of death, and in death the seed of life. They are interrelated and part of each other.

Losing the leaves off the plants in the yard was disheartening, but in the bigger picture, not so bad. I’m made aware, again, that I share my space here with deer, birds, insects, and gophers. Getting along with everyone’s needs is challenging, and yes, I could even say an adventure.


Coming Down to Earth

This morning, my husband and I lifted 7,000 pounds of rock from their wire containers and hauled them over to the ditch in about an hour and a half, where they will soon be made into a retaining wall. Yesterday we lifted 3,500 pounds of rock for the same purpose. Needless to say, I’m tired today. Nevertheless, it feels very good to be working with my hands, my feet on the earth, and working hard. It’s a contrast to my life during the school year where I meet with students, spend time commenting on student work, and go to various meetings. I love the contrast, the balance of those two ways of being. It’s so satisfying to look out across the yard as I did this evening, and say, I made those stone steps leading down to the house! It gives me joy to be able to see the physical results of my labor, and it was labor, too, as the earth here is close to being sand stone and required my using a hatchet to chop into it so that I could carve a space for the stones to fit. When I am standing on the earth outside my door in the summer, or sitting on it, fingers in the soil planting, when I look up at the sky and smell the redwood tree incense, I feel so full and alive, complete. Connected. Real. As Wendell Berry said, “One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener’s own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.”

Mornings, I water the berries and herbs, the lemon tree and grapes. Since arriving in California this summer, the grape vine has grown about a foot, and the lemon put on numerous new leaves. My husband and I have worked to protect the berries by making a walk in wood-framed room hung with bird netting, which we are calling our berry palace. The juice of a boysenberry or a blueberry picked from our own vines and bushes exploding with tart sweetness in our mouths is a wonderful gift. Working on the land for our food, even the preparation of the land for food that we will later grow, helps me to see more clearly my place in the world, and how I am connected to all that is around me. I water the plants, and amazingly enough, they grow and become what they were meant to be. The diversity of life growing all around me seems a miracle.  Again, Wendell Berry says, “And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.” When you work with the earth, when you learn about it and from it, and take care of it, you love it. Work, it seems, can be a path toward love, can be the way to come to know the meaning of the earth’s gifts from the inside.

Slowly, as I spend more time working outside, I’m becoming more aware of the intricacy and mystery of life all continuing on silently around me. Professor Suzanne Simard in British Columbia studies forest ecosystem and explains how the “mother trees” exchange of nutrients underground through intricate webs of communication through nutrients. Her work is fascinating. By continuing to listen to the land, we can grow to live better with it. Working on the land, even in small ways, is one way to grow toward understanding what it needs.

As a teacher, my life allows me to contribute to other’s in a way that enriches, and that opens exploration and opportunities for students. A teacher’s life is a good life because of this. As I am outdoors working these past few weeks, I feel a growing awareness of building a new life here in America, a life I will come home to someday. I don’t know what that life will be yet, or when it will come to pass, but I hope it is a life that will go on giving back to the world, and that will allow me to grow more connected to the earth, to listen to its mysteries, and to be able to share my discoveries with others.