Tending to This Life
Like the lavender yearns for the rain,
one needs the water of a warm bath.
Like the evergreen forest scaling the mountainside,
one feels fullest in the green mood of cedar.
One speaks honestly in a fresh accent of eucalyptus.
One is brightest in the sparkle of the bobbing yuzu fruit.
And when the lavender and forest, eucalyptus and yuzu,
call out in their own way, one gives to them in return,
tending to this life and to that.
— Matthew Kosinski
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the revitalizing Hot Springs, we explore gardening as a self-care ritual and a blueprint for a healthier society.
Few things feel as good as a long soak in a hot spring, half-globes of gemlike yuzu bobbing along the surface, lavender petals floating across the water like feathers in the air. While there’s a physical reason for this soothing effect (as we discovered previously), can the experience of a hot spring simply be reduced to the sensual qualities of buoyancy, scent, and temperature? With the warm water swaddling your body like a blanket and the curtain of steam billowing softly across your face, the world outside melts away. There’s something almost spiritual about it, something transformative that hints at a wholly different state of mind. This is the power of ritual, which persists in many forms across times and cultures because we human beings need it.
A ritual is any moment of thoughtful presence in connection with your body, mind, and surroundings — even simple ones, like brewing a cup of tea.1 These slow, focused activities outside our daily routines can help us dispel negative emotions and assert more control over our lives.2 They create spaces for us to step outside the unconscious everyday and reorient ourselves toward the things that truly matter to us.
“Perhaps gardening attracted so much attention because, cooped up at home throughout the lockdown, people longed to reconnect with the outside world.”
Throughout the last year, people have increasingly turned to rituals to keep themselves grounded in a world that has often felt unpredictable. Some baked and some brewed. Others sewed. Many gardened — so much so that seed sales hit historic highs.3
Perhaps gardening attracted so much attention because, cooped up at home throughout the lockdown, people longed to reconnect with the outside world. But most of these new gardeners plan to continue tending their plots, even as life returns to normal.4 Maybe it’s because they’ve realized that gardening is about much more than caring for a flower bed — it’s really about caring for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.
Slowdown Among the Seedlings
Could gardening and a connection to the soil point us toward a calmer, happier future? Despite advances in life quality and expectancy, modern Americans are a nervous bunch. Across all age groups and demographic categories, we seem to be growing more anxious every year.5 In the breakneck pace of contemporary life and its escalating worries, it’s all the more important for us to find those rituals that enable us to slow down and reacquaint ourselves with the beauty present around us.
That’s exactly why Marcus Bridgewater gardens. Better known as Garden Marcus online, where he posts videos that combine practical tips with ruminations on the introspective side of gardening, Bridgewater sees horticulture as a way to “slow down to appreciate nuances that our world today does not necessarily encourage.”6
(Marcus Bridgewater and some of his plants; Source: The New York Times
Bridgewater’s gardening philosophy is part of a long and storied tradition. For centuries, if not millennia, people have adopted gardening as a form of mindfulness, a means of staying present in the moment rather than rushing right along to the next thing. Take the art of bonsai, in which the meditative aspect is as important as all the pruning and clamping that goes into tending to miniature trees.7 To quote Susumu Nakamura, a former director of education for the Nippon Bonsai Association, "Unlike other arts that express through shape and color, bonsai involves living things, always growing and changing. ... Bonsai hone our awareness of the bittersweet beauty and impermanence of life and encourage humble acceptance of change and the passage of time."8
Put another way, as our friends, the founders of Brooklyn-based bonsai design studio Dandy Farmer, write, “We love bonsai because they teach us how to live grittier, better lives. They put dirt in our hands, give us something meaningful to care for, and let our minds escape into a mini forested playground.”9
Bonsai and other forms of gardening resist finality; they emphasize the process of growing over the end result. Even if you sowed those strawberry seeds because you wanted rows of ripe, red fruit to harvest, reaching that point requires a lot of careful, mindful attention. And it doesn’t end with the harvest: The strawberry vines still need your care, or they’ll die after a single season.
This white pine bonsai, on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., has been continuously cultivated since 1855. Some of the longest-living bonsai in the world are more than 1,000 years old; Source: By Sarah Stierch - Own work
In our lives today, we’re constantly ushered onto the next thing or goal. In gardening and other rituals, however, we can find the antidote — a place where we can be fully present in the here and now without a sense of urgency or ending. In this gentler space of being, we can take time to think about how we relate to the world around us — and even how we affect that world.
The Quiet Revolution
“Every plant has a flower, but we don’t always see the flower,” Bridgewater says in one video as he holds up a powdery pink succulent, its stalks crowned by tiny white buds. “The flower will only show itself when the right conditions are met.” Bridgewater spins this lesson on plant biology into a metaphor for how we move through the world: “This reminds me that we have to nurture our environments because they nurture us.”10
It’s a succinct way of expressing another fundamental truth about gardening, beyond its potency as a ritual for self-care: In cultivating plants, we cultivate society itself. As we have explored, civilization began with agriculture. So, it stands to reason that we might turn to gardening to uncover new, more sustainable and fulfilling ways of organizing our societies.
The transformation of a 5,500 acre area of Texas Hill Country, through land management and water conservation practices, is now a local educational center inspiring more resilient and diverse systems.; Source: National Geographic
That is the idea behind permaculture, the agricultural method and philosophy developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the 1970s. Unlike the mechanical, domineering mode of industrial farming, which aims to bend nature to its will, permaculture uses nature’s existing systems to grow crops in harmony with the environment.11 By reimagining how we grow crops, Mollison believed, we could also reimagine our social structures. In fact, in Mollison’s view, permaculture could form the basis of a total social revolution:
“But it’s the sort of revolution that no one will notice. It might get a little shadier. Buildings might function better. You might have less money to earn because your food is all around you and you don’t have any energy costs. Giant amounts of money might be freed up in society so that we can provide for ourselves better. … So it’s a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.”12
That ethical imperative of care is continued today by a network of permaculture institutes that sprang from Mollison’s efforts. And it’s also present in the work of places like Hawthorne Valley, which has built a holistic community-oriented operation on the basis of regenerative agriculture, and Saipua, a small-scale diversified homestead farm that uses agriculture to explore purposeful work; alternative economic models; and new ways of relating to self, land, and community.13
A view of the fields at World’s End, the farm where Saipua is located; Source: Saipua Journal
The Greenhouse as Metaphor
Indeed, gardening might be the best place to start if we want to invent new possibilities for the world, new social systems, and new economic models that benefit everyone instead of the few.
Because gardening — as material as it is, the stuff of soil and seed and rich vegetation — is also a fundamentally imaginative act. In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, poet and gardener Ross Gay talks about the deep connection between poetry and gardening:
“Planting a garden is very much imagining something that’s not there. Which is kind of like a metaphor — linking things that previously had not been linked. … You’re putting something in the ground that is both entirely different from the thing which will arrive and entirely the same. It’s precisely two things or more at once. It’s like time travel too. Which is what metaphor is. It’s saying that these two things are true, simultaneously.”14
The literary critic R.P. Blackmur once wrote that poetry “adds to the stock of available reality.”15 Gay makes the case that gardening does the same — it opens our eyes to new possibilities by putting the future of a small patch of earth quite literally in our hands. It shows us we have the power to make those possibilities real. In gardening, we transform the world, leaving it a lusher, healthier, more nourished and nourishing place than before. In doing so, we start to think about how else the world could be different. That kind of expanded imagination is necessary for something like Mollison’s “quiet revolution” to come to fruition.
Our Future Wilds
If all this talk of gardening as self-care and connection sounds unscientific, consider the very physical dimension of the act. Gardening brings us into contact with the very soil we walk upon — and in a sense, it brings that soil into us, creating a genuine connection between us and our environment. On an even deeper physical level, soil health is directly connected to human health.16
Homesteader Shanna B. Tiayon writes that her first forays into gardening had a real and noticeable positive impact on her depression. Partly the power of ritual was at work, and the social aspect of gardening also played a role. But, Tiayon notes, the earth itself was literally healing, too. M. vaccae, a microbe found in soil, can actually have the same effect on us as an antidepressant. When we inhale M. vaccae, it raises our levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. Just smelling the soil can, in a very concrete way, make us happier.17
So, as much as we nurture the environment when we garden, it has the power to nurture us in turn. And the ramifications of this exchange between us and the natural world often reverberate for a long time to come. The forest gardens planted by Indigenous people in British Columbia more than 150 years ago are still thriving today, providing food and a robust ecosystem to the local fauna despite the fact that no one has actively taken care of them since the original gardeners were forced out of their villages in the late 19th century. That’s because the Indigenous people of the area only cultivated a diverse mix of crops that could naturally prosper in the region.18
“A lot of functional diversity studies have a ‘humans are bad for the environment’ approach,” says historical ecologist Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, who helped identify the forest gardens. “This shows humans have the ability to not just allow biodiversity to flourish, but to be a part of it.”
And perhaps the most hopeful thing of all is that being a part of the effort to increase biodiversity on this planet isn’t all that hard to do. Movements like Homegrown National Park and We Are the Ark are already encouraging folks with gardens to reconsider them as both natural habitats for wildlife and spaces of leisure. Indoors or on a windowsill, we can all start by growing scallions or planting a single arugula plant. It’s a simple act — but like a single seed becomes a towering California redwood, this small deed could be the spark that enkindles a quiet revolution.