Gardening as spiritual exercise

by Cynthia

It’s late November and time to put the garden to bed. There are still lettuces and cabbages and other greens growing like mad in one of the raised beds, tucked snugly under a row cover to protect them from the early morning frosts that herald the coming winter. In another bed is a lovely stand of green peas, their vines curling tenaciously around the cane poles I staked along the borders to give them support. The pea vines are a lovely translucent green and the pods are full of peas that will never mature. The vines froze in the first hard frost, leaving the big, flat pods shimmering and glassy. Clearly in my late summer greediness for a second pea crop I miscalculated the timing of days to maturity and first autumn freeze. I’ll pull them up this weekend and throw them in the compost pile.  One of the blessings of a vegetable garden is that even mistakes can be turned into something useful.

Last weekend Tim and I mucked out the animal stalls and transferred the litter to the garden. We are doing a little experiment. Since we won’t plant again until Spring, we put the manure directly into the beds, with four of the garden beds getting goat manure, and the other four getting chicken litter. We are wondering which poop will be the best soil amendment. A deep pile of leaves goes on top of the manure and hay mix from the stalls, and then before planting, a couple of inches of compost. I realize I put more energy into making sure my garden beds are well nourished than I do taking care of my skin. I know women who layer creams and moisturizers and clarifiers on their faces every night with the same kind of intention that I put into feeding my garden soil. While both seem important, I find the effort expended in taking care of the garden more rewarding than trying to stop the effects of time on my face. I’ll be wrinkled but well fed, with a lined face and a nourished soul.

Growing your own food, at least a bit of it, changes your life. Even in the places all over the world where people must grow their own food or starve instead, that active engagement with the natural world outside their doorstep deepens their experience. When I walk the hills in rural Guatemala, and look at the tiny well-tended kitchen gardens of Mayan Indians who subsist on next to nothing, it is clear that those beans and corn and cilantro plants are part of their cultural and spiritual expression of all that is holy to them.

 In Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely little book about faith, An Altar in the World, she writes, “To make bread, or make love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone.”




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