I am 70 years old. I have reached the point in life at which I choose -- or, to use New Year's terminology, resolve -- to do only those things that make sense to me. The list of such activities has become much shorter than it was even 10 years ago. It features time spent with family and friends, speaking selectively to groups that may profit from my encouragement, reading worthwhile books, and pursuing a few carefully-chosen projects that advance the cause of effective, affordable medical care for all Americans.
But perhaps most importantly, I garden.
Anyone who knows me will attest that at any time during the day, you are most likely to find me picking tayberries, "deadheading" peppermint, or succession-planting shallots. There is almost nothing, really, that I would rather do.
The reason is that, in a busy and adventurous life, I've never found any activity that so efficiently concentrates most of what human beings need to be healthy and happy. Thoreau was right: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."
Gardening is indispensable. It does elevate.
My passion for gardening may strike some as selfish, or merely an act of resignation in the face of overwhelming problems that beset the world. It is neither. I have found that each garden is just what Voltaire proposed in Candide: a microcosm of a just and beautiful society. In the world at large, people are rewarded or punished in ways that are often utterly random. In the garden, cause and effect, labor and reward, are re-coupled. Gardening makes sense in a senseless world. By extension, then, the more gardens in the world, the more justice, the more sense is created.
Gardening is also the most religious activity I know. The word "religion" stems from the Latin "religio" which means to bind or connect again. The re-connection one experiences in the garden is no vague metaphor; it is a specific, literal rejoining of our life-enhancing relationship with the earth, combining gentle exercise, exposure to the sun, intimate contact with nature, and right activity to produce both beauty and fresh, nutritious food. The ancient bonds that held these together have been violently sundered by the last 200 years of industrial "progress," and left most of us vastly poorer for it.
In The Art of the Commonplace, philosopher and farmer Wendell Berry says it eloquently:
Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health -- and create profitable diseases and dependencies -- by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight. And such a solution, unlike the typical industrial solution, does not cause problems.
The 'drudgery' of growing one's own food, then, is not drudgery at all. (If we make the growing of food a drudgery, which is what 'agribusiness' does make of it, then we also make a drudgery of eating and living.) It is -- in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need -- a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies.
Gardening is not trivial. If you believe that it is, closely examine why you feel that way. You may discover that this attitude has been forced upon you by mass media and the crass culture it creates and maintains. The fact is, gardening is just the opposite -- it is, or should be, a central, basic expression of human life. A sane culture - and I've been lucky enough to spend time immersed in several worldwide -- would construct its daily rhythms around active gardening rather than passive consumption.
As to how much to grow, I find that volume is of little consequence. Large gardens are wonderful for those who have space and time, but I know New Yorkers who derive great pleasure from pots of tomatoes on a foot-wide balcony or even forget-me-nots and herbs in a window box. Grow something, somewhere, and care for it. The benefits of gardening are only marginally (as doctors like to say) "dose dependent."
I have not, in this essay, made a specific distinction between growing food and growing flowers, because for me, the two are always linked. I have never grown a flower garden without vegetables, nor a vegetable garden without flowers, and see no reason to change that habit. (In fact, the difference between the two can vanish -- I greatly enjoy peppery nasturtium flowers on my salads.) A garden with vegetables, fruits and flowers feeds body and soul. Grow all of them.
I am extraordinarily lucky in that I am able to garden year round -- I do so in British Columbia in the summer, and near my home in Tucson, Ariz., in the winter. But I know that now is the time many in the U.S. dream about their next garden. One of my favorite parts of gardening is sharing information with others, so here is more about what I grow, and why.
Some of my gardening photo albums:
Now, please tell me -- what do you resolve to grow in the coming year, and why?
Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of www.DrWeil.com. Become a fan on Facebook, follow Dr. Weil on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog.
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