I’ve made it into a habit to take a little stroll in my backyard every day. From the backdoor, I’ll take a trampled footpath that leads to the chicken pasture. I’ll pass through the vegetable patch and the orchard next to it, checking the health and conditions of the crops. I’ll head over to the bee-stand, kneel next to a hive, and observe the activities of those fascinating creatures. Finally, I’ll enter the forest: an enclosed, living space of peace and contemplation.
The seasons offer the perfect conditions for observing this personal, ever-evolving painting of a landscape. As winter comes to an end, the barren and silent hibernation of nature gets swapped with an explosion of colors, vigorous growth, and the return of life. Before you realize it, everything is drenched in a lush, green blanket of living matter.
This annual cycle, this yearning of nature to take over again and to heal itself, is one of the greatest miracles I’ve ever witnessed.
You can witness it too; all you’ll have to do is this: start a garden.
If the garden thrives, we will thrive
I firmly believe that gardening is the single most important step each one of us can take to improve the quality and sustainability of our lives.
Let me explain.
Gardens exist in all colors and varieties. They are a prime example of the possibility of diversity. Gardens can be tiny, they can be huge, they can be formal or wild. Yet all gardens have one thing in common: they facilitate the process of creation. Therefore, they empower the individual and embody the definition of true beauty.
Gardens are a source of positive joy. They engage you to learn about nature. They let you rediscover the magic of the earth. They demand you to go and live outside. They force you to rethink what life should be all about.
Gardening is practicing the art of meditation. Pulling weeds, pruning trees, planting seeds. I can think of no other activity that involves so much honest, simple work, gifting us ample time for contemplation. The garden is an exile, a haven from our rushing, stressful daytime jobs providing us with the most productive and empowering form of therapy.
A garden is the opposite of a house. A house is dead and sterile. A garden is an explosion of life. A newly build house, once finished, is at the height of its lifecycle. From then on it will only deteriorate and lose value. A garden on the other hand matures with time. It will ripen in beauty throughout the years as plants and trees grow. Harvests will increase by good practices and soil improvement.
When we first started living here, our own garden was nothing but a barren, exhausted field. Now, ten years later, our garden thrives in abundance and diversity. I know that the garden then will be at the height of its existence when my own life is ending. I find this a very comforting thought.
The garden lets us rediscover the concept of place
The garden, in other words, will age together with us. It will be our trusty companion. It will demand us to stay put and take care of it, as it takes care of us.
A garden is a key trigger for a local, deeply rooted life that is defined by place.
Understanding that we will co-evolve with our garden, that the garden will improve throughout the years and that the beauty of its existence will accompany us throughout our own lives: this is the key to a true regenerative mindset.
If we embrace this vision, the garden will humbly oblige us to stay. It’s the first step in rediscovering ‘place’. It’s the opposite of plundering external resources, then moving on to the next one. It’s the opposite of a runaway, rootless, globalist mindset.
The garden urges us to focus on what really matters
Bare hands in the dirt, working the soil, that loamy mixture of organic matter, fungi, and millions of bacteria: I can think of no other act that brings us closer to the earth, closer to the land and the local.
The garden urges us to rethink our contemporary culture of displacement, outsourcing, and fast-forward motion. It lets us understand that a decentralized approach, focusing on our own responsibilities always defeats a centralized, industrial vision of letting others decide and act for us.
Asked about his vision of utopia, anarchistic revolutionary Pierre Joseph Proudhon answered:
“The people will become what the first book of Moses declares, and what the philosopher Martin in Voltaire’s Candide suggests: they will cultivate a garden. Working the land, this former toil of slaves, will be the highest artform and the people will live in the quiet of the senses and the serenity of the spirit.”
— Proudhon, Kleiner politischer Katechismus
It’s no coincidence that Proudhon quotes Voltaire. ‘Cultivating a garden’ was the core of Voltaire’s worldview: a vision that embraced the local and small. Voltaire insisted that we should forget about politics and public opinion. Instead focus on yourself, and on your own contributions to improving life. This vision we could call a practical philosophy in the best Stoic tradition.
Working the garden then will make us once more understand the difference between the human economy and the economy of nature, between economy and ecology, between the industrial and the natural, between machines and life.
The garden will urge us to focus on the self, as the first step towards resilience and sustainability. And thus, it takes back the power from the big and reinstates the small as a true means to independence.
The garden teaches us a practical, everyday philosophy
If we, like Voltaire, define ‘cultivating the garden’ as the highest artform, then tending to our own little patch of dirt will render us into artists mastering the art of life. This artform is an eternal one, filled with divinity, which is the true apparition of nature.
In 1621 Robert Burton came to the same conclusion in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, as presented by a quote from Girolamo Cardano:
“Minerals are food for plants, plants for animals, animals for men; men will also be food for other creatures, but not for gods, for their nature is far removed from ours…”
The collapse of ecosystems through reckless land-management, the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, soil depletion by intensive tilling, the extensive practice and belief in ‘mono-culturism’: all of these are the result of man longing to be God, claiming his virtual spot on the top of this man-invented food-pyramid.
Yet we are no God, we’re part of this earth and finally once more will become food for plants and turn into soil. This is how eternity manifests itself. The way of the garden is the way of life, and this movement is cyclical.
Indeed, there is no pyramid, there is only a cycle. This cycle of nature and fertility includes every aspect of life, from birth through growth, to death and decay. Let us understand this cycle as the definition of eternity and the fundamental process of a healthy system.
Making compost is a fine example of this process. It’s the beating heart of the garden and maybe the most important crop we can cultivate. It’s a representation of the cycle of life to be witnessed in backyards all around the world. Now, this is what I call rewarding: ending the day by going outside and building these heaps of future fertility: stacking fallen leaves, weeds, grass clippings, chicken manure, twigs, and branches into big piles and let nature do its work.
The garden teaches us that the creation of soil and hummus is at the core of the health of our small, green planet. It tells us that there are no simple, singular solutions to complex problems. It demonstrates the beauty of the finite, as the finite is always part of the infinite. The garden lets us accept our own mortality. It forces us to conciliate ourselves with our thoughts about death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The garden shows us how to embrace the simple life
The epiphany that everything must return to the earth and that this earth is the true start of growth and regeneration is an important insight. Dedicating our lives to this cycle of creation means triggering a positive change in our own lives and in that of others.
Once we accept this vision, the garden becomes an empowering device that connects people and builds communities. It will improve self-reliance and self-confidence. It will provide food, fuel, medicine, and knowledge. It will increase diversity. It will shift our minds from consumerism to creation. The garden then, provides all the ingredients for a good and simple life: food for our stomachs and food for our souls.
Money loses its power. Prestige and success become vague and unimportant concepts. Poverty becomes a non-issue. Poverty, as defined by a lack of money, is a purely western perception. A gardener understands: true poverty is the lack of creation, knowledge, wisdom, and community. True poverty is living a gardenless life.
As a byproduct, the garden will be a major weapon against climate change. A garden filled with perennials is key to healing the land, capturing carbon, creating oxygen, enhancing habitats for wildlife, minimalizing our own impact on this planet.
Let’s start a garden, and let’s do it today
“Taking thought for the morrow is a waste of time, I believe, because all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.”
— Wendell Berry, Our Only World
If we want to achieve utopia, we should understand that high-tech factories will not bring us there. Outsourcing won’t be the solution either, nor high-return monetary investments. We need to rediscover the fundamental necessities and core values of a dignified human existence. We need to rediscover the beauty of a simple life.
We should not wait on big solutions by big companies or big governments somewhere in the distant future. Even though we are told to. Providing part of our own food and thus reclaiming responsibility and independence is a small yet effective act of civil disobedience. That is why we should start our gardens now.
In the end, the best way to inspire others is by practicing what we preach. So folks, if you are looking for me, you can find me in my garden, digging my little patch of dirt.