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The movements we make matter…
When the ravages of climate change seem heart-breaking; when the parade of plants and animals suffering from the effects of human activity seems endless, what are we to do? How do we resist the paralyzing forces of “ecogrief,” as author Colby Devitt calls it? How do we sustain hope? Better yet, how do we do something concrete and immediate that will make a difference?
One answer: plant a garden. Wherever you live, however much space you have, inside or out, in a backyard, side yard or front yard, get a handful of seeds, put them in dirt in a place where they receive at least some sun. Water. Watch. Wait. Wonder. And eventually, eat.
Why? The obvious answer is that we save fossil fuel pollution when we consume foods that do not require refrigerated transportation, plastic packaging, or processing other than our own cleaning, cooking, and storing. These moves matter.
Yet, I’m a philosopher who looks at how the bodily movements we make open new possibilities of thinking, feeling, and acting. From this perspective, creating a garden, taking care of it, and eating from it can cultivate in us an experience-based mindset that is hopeful, resilient and effective in the face of devastating odds.
Our vegetable garden this year is about 30 feet by 40 feet. So far, we have planted: green beans, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, Swiss chard, basil, parsley, oregano, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, radishes, mustard greens, bok choy and two kinds of lettuce, as well as strawberries, and in another location, blueberries and raspberries.
Our garden didn’t start out this large. Ten years ago, it was tiny — a few potato plants, tomato plants, and some kale. Yet every year, we have tried to grow more, store more, and shorten the distance between the time we run out of a favorite food, and the time we harvest the next crop.
During the growing season, we spend a bit of time in the garden at the day’s end, and more on the weekends. We weed and water and watch with amazement as tiny bits of matter buried in the earth burst forth into bountiful providers of our health and happiness.
In taking care of this garden, what do we do for the earth?
1. Participate actively.
When we plant a garden, we invest our energy in the very power we want to honor and save from human harm — the earth’s generativity.
Every seed is a movement potential – a part of the earth that wants to keep moving, growing, becoming. By planting a seed, we let that movement happen. We release it. We do what this moment of the earth wants us to do: plant it, so that it can grow and give us more of what we need, so that we in turn want to plant its seeds, and then again.
There is nothing we can do to tell a seed to germinate. We can’t make it grow. All we can do is to entice it to move with sunshine, water and healthy dirt. All we can do is create the conditions in which its movement potential can unfold.
The question emerges, crystal clear: Which seeds do we want to plant? Which will be most effective in relieving the burden of our patterns of consumption? Which will grow in the place that we are, in the soil that we have, with the resources we have to support it?
2. Thin boldly.
Thinning is the process of deciding which plants will grow and which will not. To me, thinning feels like sinning (hence the allusion to Martin Luther’s “Sin boldly”). I have to nip perfectly good plants in the bud — before they have a chance to mature and flower!
I have several strategies for avoiding the pain of this action. First, I start seeds in the green house, in close quarters, and then transplant them all into the garden with the proper spacing. No thinning required. Second, I commit to eating what I thin – or give them, along with the weeds, to the chickens, who turn them into eggs.
This year, three different crops have taught me how to thin boldly. In packed rows of arugula, lettuce, and mustard greens, I thinned some plants — enough needed to eat for a particular meal. In each case, I returned the next day to find that the remaining plants had grown more than the amount I had taken the day before. It was like a miracle. I had been forgiven. I kept taking and the plants kept giving. I learned to take just enough to always find more.
3. Heed life-enabling rhythms.
Because I have a garden, I am happy when it rains. Short of drowning floods, the garden is getting what it needs to grow. So too when the sun beats down, short of desicating the plants, I am happy for them. They are getting what they need to grow.
More important than the sun or rain, however, is the rhythm between them – the intensity and frequency of their oscillation. The garden trains me to pay attention to how long the sun beats down and how heavily the rain pounds, and to sense and respond in ways that support the earth that is taking shape in my plants. When the rain is scarce, I water.
Because of the garden, I notice these rhythms; I rejoice in them whichever end is up, and I organize my actions in relationship to them, all the while experiencing the surge and excitement of the growth that is bubbling up around my feet.
It takes the rain and the sun to make a rainbow… and a strawberry.
4. Feel the feeling of abundance.
Abundance is a feeling, not a quantity.
When walking through a garden that you have created, when the plants are springing forth from the earth and offering themselves to you, it is difficult not to feel this feeling of abundance. The earth keeps giving, in many cases despite the extent to which we have otherwise polluted, depleted, and destroyed our natural resources. The earth does not judge. It keeps coming, responding, taking shape in new fruits. And this experience of the earth’s deep generosity breeds hope. It fosters a sense of bounty that overflows in feelings of gratitude, and in the desire to act in ways that will keep that bounty coming.
5. Do our part.
Work in a garden teaches us that humans cannot solve the problems of climate change alone. We need the help of the earth. We need to call upon and harness the earth’s ability to regenerate both itself and the sources of human well being.
When we plant a garden, we learn this fact viscerally. We let the earth help us. We realize that if we do our part, if we take small steps, then the earth will respond – the earth will meet us. Buoyed by this hope, our steps can grow larger.
The work in the garden is itself a call — a call for the earth to recreate itself through us in line with what it needs to keep sustaining human life. In our gardens, not every plant will flourish. Not every plant will bear fruit. Disease and weeds and bugs and snails all want their share. But some plants will grow and bear fruit, and the cycles continue.
Some experts lament the end of nature and proclaim the dawn of the Anthropocene, arguing that no part of the natural world remains untouched by human action. While this way of thinking aims to wake humans up to the extent of our responsibility, it also runs the risk of perpetuating an ideological dichotomy between nature and culture that functions to justify violence against nature as an element that is “below” culture in value and importance, and within our control.
The truth of a garden belies this distinction between nature and culture. Any act of human culture is an expression of the earth – a moment in which the earth harnesses and directs its own generative energies through the bodily actions of human beings. There never has been a human culture that did not participate in the development and exploitation of the natural forces that make bodies and minds.
The question, then, is not how to protect nature from human action, but how to be the people through whom the earth can heal itself. Which seeds do you want to plant?
Addressing climate change is not (just) about inventing technological solutions to problems we have created. Nor is it (just) about learning to love the earth in order to act differently. It is also about engaging in small acts that alert us to our own ongoing participation in the earth’s generativity; and that free the earth to rebuild itself through the movements we are making.
For additional posts on gardening, see: