Let me continue my list from last week, this time moving on to the less practical reasons for why someone might want to start gardening. I know it’s a week before Christmas and this probably seems like a weird time to be talking about gardens — but as I have learned all too well, if you don’t start thinking about your garden until the spring, then you’re already late!
1. Gardening puts you more deeply in touch with the natural world and its cyclical changes. Obviously we’re all aware of the passage of the seasons as we make the switch from mowing lawns to shovelling snow and back again. Gardening forces us to be aware of the different moments of the changing seasons in a way that is deeply unfamiliar to us. Get reacquainted with sister earth, our home.
2. Gardening puts you more in touch with the great majority of the people who have lived during the course of human history. The overwhelming multitude of people have had to eat food they grew themselves — often even the warriors! The Spartan soldiers were exceptional among the Greeks for not being mainly farmers. In Rome, the separation of the warriors from their agricultural work, as they began coming home from war to find their farms sold to greedy, wealthy men, spelled the beginning of great troubles for the republic. To learn gardening is to try on the dirty shoes of our numberless, faceless ancestors who had to scrape a life from the soil. Maybe we’ll learn a bit of humility as well!
3. Gardening puts you in touch with the sources of your existence. In the modern world, we are so distanced from that natural reality that underlies all of human existence. Our food seems to grow up overnight in the supermarket, and all we have to do to cultivate and harvest it is to earn ourselves a paycheque. What a bizarre and abstract system. Of course we all intellectually understand where food comes from, but, even if we continue getting most of our food from the grocery store, I think there’s still value in having a more direct connection to the source of our physical sustenance.
4. We can do some small part for the environment. You may have heard (though you may not have, since it’s a great secret) that plant foods make far less of an impact on our planet’s deteriorating health than animal products. However, there’s also no comparison between a tomato grown in your own backyard as opposed to a tomato that’s been shipped from half a continent away. You’ll also leave the soil on your property much healthier than you found it, if you’re doing things right.
5. Gardening begins to move our mental centre-of-gravity out of the indoors. We weren’t made to spend our time in a box. Everything today is drywall and concrete and flat surfaces and paint and lamps and screens. The human soul needs to get outside and stretch, and breathe. Gardening isn’t the only way to do that, but it helps.
6. Gardening gives you practice in encouraging what is beautiful. Often, gardening entails some initial ugliness. If you’ve ever tried composting you’ll have some sense of what I mean. But in your mind the goal is continually something that is deeply and naturally beautiful, and your interest is in drawing that beauty out of the initial ugliness, slowly, gently, persuasively. That describes so much of what a good life should be all about, in terms of how we relate to ourselves and to others and to the world around us. How can such an exercise not be beneficial, and even necessary, to the person who loves virtue?
7. The least practical reason, but the one that calls out to me most enticingly, is Eden. For many centuries, almost everyone in the Western world believed that humans were originally created to be gardeners, planting and tending in paradise. Even those today who no longer believe the Bible has truths to tell will be unable to escape the fact that this is their cultural inheritance, and it will shape them in countless ways that are usually invisible to them and everyone around them. For me, the thought of gardening is the thought of living out one’s destiny. It stands in for the fulfillment and perfection of the human person. By prioritizing gardening, I communicate to myself in a profound way that I am committed to living the good life and fulfilling my potential. That’s satisfying.