National and international events this year have been increasingly stressful. Unlike many people, I can’t unplug and ignore them. My job as a social scientist and educator means that I have to stay engaged, even when I find the world anxiety-producing.
The farm has been my anti-anxiety medication. I often arrive at the farm with muscle tension and a sense of stress, my mind mulling over all the issues of the world and my small place in it all. And then I pick up my pruners and harvest some squash or plant some kale and I feel better.
Gardening for food is a whole sensory experience that demands presence. It makes mindfulness easier. I don’t have to push away distracting thoughts if my mind is already engrossed in a farm task. Yet these tasks are repetitive and soothing, and so they become a form of moving meditation.
One of these days in the summer, in the height of plum production, I was having a difficult day. National news was disturbing and my own family was having some challenges as well. I went back to the orchard with my bucket to pick plums. The anxiety melted away as I reached up and stretched toward the sun, looking at the plums for the perfect color, touching their smooth taut skin to feel for ripeness. Beetles buzzed occasionally past, their hum momentarily taking over. Midmorning hunger was soothed by a bite into the perfect plum: sweet but tart, juicy, with crisp skin.
There is increasing research that suggests that soil microbes help our bodies stave off anxiety and depression. At least for more mild anxiety, the cure may lie literally in the earth. But in my experience at the farm, gardening is offering us more than just contact with soil. It’s a total sensory experience that gives us moments of being fully present and joyful. It reminds us, with just the right balance of ease and demand, to notice the earth and to be grateful for it.
The world’s stressful events, large and small, march onward. But so does the garden. I’ll keep looking for those perfect plums and in finding them, find inner peace.
Two gophers have been trapped and died since I arrived at the farm. They’re terrifically destructive little beasts. One of them took out 15 tomato plants before he succumbed to his love of peanut butter, smeared on a trap. I have uncomfortable, mixed feelings about this.
Food is the result of a cycle of life and death. Plants can manufacture their food from sunlight, soil, and water. We are not so fortunate. Our lives are the result of the death of many, many beings. Even vegans’ lives depend on the death of not only plants, but also of pests. Without control of any kind, gophers, beetles, and caterpillars would consume our crops. Even an organic farm with a respect for life has to consider how it will control its pests so it can yield food for humans.
Still, it’s uncomfortable.
It’s uncomfortable for reasons of both empathy and cognitive dissonance. As a person who is highly empathetic (and also animist, believing all living things – and even some non-living ones – have souls), I feel for the beings I eat. I can imagine their feelings, their suffering, their desire to keep living. All beings have an innate desire to keep living, and my desire to do so takes that capacity from others.
Silly or not to others, with every gopher trap, inside I am saying a little prayer to the gopher. I say I am sorry. I tell the gopher that it could live, if it would leave the farm. And I hope that if it doesn’t leave, and is trapped, that its death is swift and without suffering. A gopher’s death, or a chicken’s death, or a carrot’s death – should make us pause and reflect. We should feel a sense of the sacredness of these beings’ sacrifice for our own lives to continue. Perhaps if we felt this, we would be more insistent on farming in ways that are humane as well as sustainable. We can’t live without death. But we can treat death with the respect, sanctity, and compassion it deserves.