Me circa 2012 at our community garden plot.
It seems like the more I grow food the more my fascination with growing food grows. Every spring my wife and I have always found some way to plant something. When we lived in our first apartment we carefully tended to pots of tomatoes that sat in a southern facing window of the sliding glass doors and planted them in a small garden plot at my in-laws house. The next year, in a different apartment, we had our balcony full of potted vegetables. When we lived in Vietnam and didn’t have the resources to garden but we became fascinated with the local markets and shopped for fresh produce on a daily basis.
Another year we rented a community garden plot down the street and did as much as we could there (picture above). When we came back from Vietnam we had some flexibility since we didn’t have many bills, or a car, or much at all really we decided to live and work on an organic farm for 4 months.
And for the last 4 years I’ve worked nearly every Saturday at our local farmer’s market selling organic produce (for the same farm we did our internship with). This year I built a greenhouse in our backyard to expand our growing capacity to more than just raised beds.
You get the idea. Some form of connection to the soil, seeds, and plants has always been there in increasing form. But what I really want to talk about here are is why these experiences have been so valuable to me.
Poetry and Metaphor
The best metaphors for explaining and making sense of my own personal and spiritual journey have all come from gardening. One of my favorite part of gardening is opening the seed packets and pouring the seeds into the palm of my hand. It fascinates me. Every. Single. Time.
When I look at these tiny seeds it almost seems impossible that they could become anything of significance. They are just dry, inert, shapes that could easily be blown away in the wind and forgotten. Yet somehow, within these tiny and seemingly inconsequential seeds contain all the necessary genetic data to transform into its precise form. They are potent with potential. All they need is to be placed in a fertile environment where they can thrive and simply become themselves.
It is also interesting to me that in order for the plant to become itself, the seed must be buried in darkness and—I suppose you could say—dies. The seed becomes a seed no longer. It germinates. It cracks open. Its dry, hard structure is softened and made vulnerable. Its new form is birthed.
I love watching new seedlings emerge from the soil. Some seeds come up out of the soil with their cotyledons (first leaves) pointed straight toward the sky emerging from the soil like a graceful synchronized swimmer. Others come up bent. The curved stem is all you see at first but then the cotyledons are lifted up out of the soil and slowly displayed before the sun. It looks strenuous and sometimes takes 3-4 days for those leaves to finally break the surface of the soil. Then, those cotyledons, the ones that worked so hard germinating beneath the soil and breaking through the surface, eventually turn brown and die. Just when things look bad and as if the sprout is maybe dying or not doing so well, its first true leaves emerge bright and colorful between the brown and dying cotyledons.
The transformation into its true self continues.
This is the strange irony. A thing is always dying as it is growing. Death is always part of growth. What was vital to one stage of growth is no longer needed for later stages.
Eventually the plant comes into fruition and into a season of joy and celebration. If you’ve gardened you know this season of joy well. The plant seems to produce exponentially. For a time it seemed like things would never come into fruition. Then suddenly I am gathering handfuls of green beans, bunches of kale, baskets of tomatoes, and armloads of zucchini. Somehow the plants seem to be as happy to give as I am to receive.
It is then that I look down at the leaves of kale in my hands, just the few of dozens upon dozens, and I remember the seeds that I held in the palm of my hand that were carefully dropped into the soil one by one. Those tiny, dry, seemingly inconsequential seeds gave rise to these robust and productive plants that become a meal for my family to gather around and give thanks.
And then after a season of bearing fruit, producing, and flowering it sends the last of its vitality into creating new seeds. The plant itself withers, yellows, and dies. However, these tiny, dry, and seemingly inconsequential seeds containing all of the genetic data and potential for new growth become the plant’s final offering. The plants leaves, stems and branches end up extended as far as possible as if trying to offer their seed gifts to the sun itself. The plant may even completely die and becomes skeletal in form still managing to hold its seeds out where the wind can spread them and return them (or itself?) to the soil once again.
This is the natural and organic process but it is also poetry and metaphor. You’ll hear the poetry in your own way and the metaphors will be your own, but they are there. I hope you can see and experience it too.
It is poetry and metaphor that you can touch, eat, and participate in.
And that is why I grow food.