The Vegetable Garden As Teacher
To live virtuously, we need look no further than the garden, for it is the most steadfast and honest of teachers. Through the act of gardening, we learn humility, patience, kindness, empathy, and commitment; and likewise receive an antidote to the vices of arrogance, impatience, selfishness and hubris.
Kneeling down in prayer in front of a bed of soil to plant a seed, a seed with no promise of germination, is an act of faith. Planting a seed is a communion and celebration of life outside ourselves. Our wealth, prestige and power have no bearing on the seed; and in planting one, we cross the boundary from seeing ourselves as the centre, to seeing ourselves as a part in a much grander whole.
In gardening we learn to care. Sometimes (more often than not) we do not know what the garden needs. We can’t throw whatever we have at the garden in the hope it will work (well, we can, but then gardening is more akin to gambling); we must pay attention. We must look and listen, see the signs that are before us and heed the call. The garden, whether we enter it desiring to be one or not, requires us to be a loving partner. Not loving in the sexual sense, but loving as Erich Fromm saw it, loving as ‘reaching out…and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself’ and in the process, becoming more than oneself.
Gardening is an antidote to the self, or rather, the myopic individualism and stunted sense of selfhood consumer culture encourages us to emulate. Our society is centripetal, where everything deemed important collapses into the personal. The garden, however, is centrifugal, where the self moves outwards, is enriched, and then moving inwards, is enlarged, only to move outwards and repeat the process yet again.
Whereas in life I may find value in the limited realm of personal gratification, in the garden, as I tend for my lemon tree, I begin to see myself in that tree, and caring for myself involves nothing less than caring for it (and caring for it involves nothing less than caring for myself). I become enlarged by my care and identification by the things around me; the world is not reduced to me, I am increased by my identification with the world. Forgetting myself means losing myself, and then finding it in the world around me.
Through deliberate and constant attention, gardening encourages a particular type of sensitivity; to the wind, to the sun, to the waxing and waning of the moon, to the turning of the seasons, and most importantly, to the quality and nutrition of our sustenance.
Insensitivity means we are not affected; we are not affected because we lack imagination, and we lack imagination because it has never been called for. Gardening works this problem backwards; by becoming responsible for the garden, we start to imagine the current state and potential of our garden; which encourages further involvement in the garden, and as a result, a sensitivity to the needs of the garden and all that affects it.
One of the unintended abilities gained by spending a lot of time in the garden is knowing, deeply knowing, the weather. Weather apps become superfluous. The taste of the air and the shades of sunrise are subtle indicators which we learn to discriminate through experience alone. Needing to consult our phones for one less thing and instead developing and relying on our own abilities is surely reason enough to garden.
Gardening is an antidote to the hollow consumerism of contemporary capitalism. As consumers, we are rarely a part of production and furthermore, have limited knowledge of the processes of production from which we benefit. Questions – such as how is your iPhone made, or even what is it made of and from where are the materials sourced – are basically unanswerable, and few, if any, bother to ask. As a result, we become disconnected from what we own and the functioning of the economic system on which we depend.
But, in the garden, you must plant the seeds, tend the soil, and cultivate the plant. While you may not know all the specifics – where are the seeds from, what trees were felled for your garden bed – you become involved in the process, and as a result, the fruits of your labour become that much more precious. You are no longer a consumer, but a producer; and as a result, the joy of consumption includes all the labour and time that came before it; home grown food may not taste better than store bought food, but it certainly feels better.
By affirming your position in the natural order, gardening offers a corrective to the intellectually deadening language of industrialisation. There are no ‘natural resources’, there is nature; not timber, trees; not pollinators, bees and butterflies; not pests, companions; there isn’t even food anymore; there are spinach, tomatoes, kale and corn. Even more so, it is not just kale, it is my kale; I have become intimately involved in the process; the type of abstract separation which industrialisation encourages is undone with the forging of bonds imbued in the act of gardening.
The garden teaches us how to be patient, loving, kind, attentive and sensitive; but its teachings do not begin and end at its borders.
In gardening, while you may think explicitly about the state of your peas or whether certain vegetables are receiving enough water; what you are implicitly doing is caring, paying attention, and being sensitive. As you spend time orienting yourself in this way, you are subtly shifting, neuron by neuron, piece by piece, the very process of your thinking. A caring, attentive, and sensitive gardener is reinforcing the neural pathways towards being a more caring, attentive, and sensitive human.
And, striving to be this, I can think of no better place to begin than in the garden.