Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry once wrote: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, however long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch very arduous and humble and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”
Think of the places where you connect to soil, where you witness the everyday miracle of photosynthesis, where you step into the earthy dance of sun, rain and soil, tiptoeing atop the labors of generations of humans before you, laying down your labors for generations to come. Rural or urban, sprawling or highly rising, mobile or set in place: soil is our land and our nurture.
Gardens are us!
The ground at our feet—or at our fingertips—is sacred. The journey may be short, measured in steps—to the garden just out the door or just down the block, to the pots on the windowsill or on the deck, to the rows in the windowbox or on the planting berm, to the rooftops or the acres surrounding a homestead or a neighborhood. Yet the routines and machines of the everyday world can make the journey an arduous one filled with distraction and distortion.
Now these garden-spaces call us to learn to be at home again, to step into the dance of soil, rain and sun with full awareness, to take the arduous journey to the ground at our feet as nothing less than the shift in ecological consciousness that defines the historical mission of our era.
Gardening has a broad and deep legacy in our homeland: North American tribes worked and traveled the land and its ecosystems for millennia; enslaved peoples worked farms in the colonial era; day-laborers built railways across the continent; migrants continue to work the fields today. All this supporting our impulse to garden in the pots and plots of our homes and neighborhoods.
A visit to Bartram’s Gardens in Philadelphia reveals the story of how a great garden of diverse tree species, planted in this mid-Atlantic climate that supports trees from regions both north and south, provided inspiration for nature-revering men, locked in political conflict, to move toward resolution in ideas of governance as they stood among favorite tree species growing together in one urban forest-garden. Finding unity in their diversity, they embodied fertile soil for the uniting of colonies into one growing nation.As nation-building got underway in the colonial era, the land with its soils, farms and gardens was held in high regard. In Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Vintage: Random House, 2011), Andrea Wulf recounts how our nation’s unfolding was shaped by the botanical and gardening passions of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison.
In contemporary America, we are a people who report gardening as a great national past-time. As eloquently narrated in their book, Tending the Earth, Mending the Spirit, Gray Is Green friend Connie Goldman and her fellow radio journalist Richard Mahler, gardening can manifest as “second nature” later in life, providing meditative activity, focus for peaceful reflection, inspiration for attuning t0 the cycle of life-death-renewal.
Perhaps we possess some primal instinct to witness closely the miracle of leaves turning sunlight into food, standing in awe of that process on which we are utterly dependent. Perhaps we want to simply touch the dark soil in which microbial communities of no-see-ums work the wonder of creating space for water to carry molecules across membranes into roots. By intentionally standing at this interface between dark soil and sustaining sunlight, we create an occasion to arrive at the place beneath our feet, to step into our own transformational moment, to see more clearly our authentic place within the larger process of all life.
In any case, considerations both mystical and pragmatic arise with our urgent need to reconnect with soil as the stuff of Earth—and to make the connection a vital one through gardening and other daily practices, to embrace the full range of weeds and cultivars, through flood and drought, from seed to fork—as a magnificent relationship moving us to live and advocate on behalf of our present and our future.This magnificent relationship is our American tradition. Consider the words of Thomas Jefferson, as recounted by Goldman and Mahler: “The Earth belongs to the living, and no man can by natural right oblige the land he occupies, or the persons that succeed him in that occupation, to the debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life eat up the use of the lands for several generations to come. Then the Earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.”
The ground at our feet is our garden—and the homeland we love.
See Gray Is Green at the American Society on Aging National Conference: on Thursday, March. 14,during the ASA Conference in Chicago, Board President H.R. Moody and Maria Valenti, with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, will be co-hosting a breakfast session on “Environment and Aging.”
Watch for our upcoming message with ideas and links for your 2013 garden adventures!