My grandmother was an example of what our Lakota relatives mean when they say that an elder is more than just an old person. Her wisdom was the product of a life lived deeply, rather than merely lived a long time. I can still hear her voice reminding me that “God gave us two ears and one mouth, which tells us that we should listen twice more than we talk.”
Spending time with Grandma in the garden was always an adventure, even when we did nothing but “watch the corn grow.” Between long silences, she spoke of fascinating things that seemed to hold no interest whatsoever for my parents: why bugs are important, why our ancestors planted their crops by the moon, how to judge a soil by taste, how to talk to ants, how to listen to the wind … and why we should.
My father thought she was a little crazy, but I have yet to meet a saner person. Her neighbor, Mildred, was the crazy one.
The best advice she ever gave me was simple: pay attention. “If you don’t pay attention,” she would say, “you’ll never learn anything worth learning.” It also seemed as though she never wasted an opportunity to point out what she thought my sister and I should pay attention to.
Photos by Melita Bena
She spoke of certain forces, the energies of life that flowed through everything: in the soil, in the trees, in the stones, in the water, everywhere in nature. Wakan, she called them. Sacred. As I grew older, she spoke of the principles that governed those energies and how those same principles operated within and between animals and people. She knew over 50 years ago what scientists are only now beginning to glimpse: that all life is sentient and everything is interconnected, like a huge holographic spider web, where everything contains and affects everything else. If we all had Grandma’s wisdom, I suspect we would behave differently toward the environment, toward other species and toward one another. The trouble with acquiring wisdom, however, is that, contrary to expectation, it is not an inevitable product of experience. Wisdom comes from understanding, and understanding does not come easily.
Understanding requires observation without preconceptions. It is very hard for us to do this. It means setting aside what we already think we know in order to see clearly. Mostly we are too busy forming rebuttals to fully listen, too focused on the old map to see the real territory. What we perceive is usually colored by our expectations in any case — what we think we know.
Setting aside what we think we know is rather challenging, but it is prerequisite to paying attention properly and thus necessary to learning anything new. Or as Grandma would say, anything worth learning.
Now what has any of this to do with gardening?
In my world, gardening is a illuminating spiritual practice offering numerous pathways to expanded awareness — the reward for paying attention properly. All that is required is flexibility and an earnest intent: open eyes, open ears, open mind, open heart. I could also say a sense of humor and natural fertilizers.
The dynamics of life — in the garden, in the forest, in the ocean … in human relationships — are fairly obvious. If we pay attention. Mostly we are not really paying attention, living as we do in the trance of what we think we know. What we find out when we pay attention can be surprising.
The lessons of the garden are directly analogous to the lessons of life in general. The same principles apply. It’s all about ecology, relationship, the laws of interdependence. We ignore them to our peril.
Tending a garden properly will bring more psychological understanding and spiritual illumination than any other activity I am aware of, with the possible exception of really good sex. With apologies to my fellow psychologists — most of whom have a good sense of humor — I have long suspected that intensive gardening may be a better preparation for the work of a therapist or minister than the courses at most graduate schools. There are many for whom their garden is their therapist, many of whom are also therapists themselves who garden for their own therapy.
So … unless your therapist is really good, my advice would be to stop wasting your time and money when you could be gardening.
The Teaching Garden will be taking some down time for the holidays and the Shasta College semester break, but we will be resuming workshops again in January/February. Upcoming topics include Pruning, Grafting, and Planting Fruit Trees, as well as Soil Preparation and Starting an Organic Food Garden. Exact dates still to be dialed in. We’ll keep you posted.
Jim Collins is a local ecopsychologist, organic farmer and founder of a regional seed bank. He is currently garden manager of the Community Teaching Garden project at Shasta College, a pioneer program promoting self-reliance, sustainable practices, regional food security, and ecological literacy by providing information, instruction, and practical experience in sustainable organic food gardening.
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