From soil to soul: Gardening and grace


tomatoes‘’Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace’

May Sarton

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’.

Genesis 2:15

The reluctant gardener

Throughout my childhood both my parents were keen gardeners. With five mouths to feed and only a farm workers wages I don’t think they had much choice. The love of the soil however didn’t seem to be hereditary. Thanks to some unhappy teenage experiences of compulsory grass cutting, for many years I lacked any enthusiasm for digging and planting. Though I always enjoyed being out-of-doors I never dreamed of doing what my parents had done and actually grow stuff.

Thanks in part to this early grass-cutting trauma my love affair with gardening only began in my late 30’s. I found myself in possession of a flat in South London with a great little garden. Something inside, long suppressed, suddenly emerged and I have been hooked ever since.

I sometimes wonder whether, underneath, we aren’t all gardeners. Within just a few generations our ancestors will almost certainly have been closely attached to the land, either for a living or simply to provide some fresh food for the family. The norm of city life with no connection to the soil is a relatively recent phenomenon. If we feel no interest it could be that, like I was, we’re suppressing something that could transform our perspective and unearth all kinds of buried possibilities.

Getting out

First off, gardening is a great opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise. An alarming and increasing proportion of us are overweight or just unfit, so doing some digging, lifting, bending, pulling, chopping and carrying is a great way to get in shape without having to join a gym or endure a daily jog. It’s even better for the kids; if we can get them off the screen and into the fresh air, they love to help if we can catch their imaginations and get them to share our enthusiasm.

Studies have shown that gardening and getting regularly connected to nature can also transform our mental health. Studies by the National Trust show a strong correlation between close contact with nature and satisfaction with life. William Bird, a doctor and spokesman for the RSPB, puts it well: ‘The outdoors can be seen as a great outpatient department whose therapeutic value has yet to be fully realised.’

There is also of course the great fun of eating your own produce. Even if it’s just a few strawberries and an occasional lettuce it can transform a simple meal into a kind of harvest festival. Personally I love to freeze a few things like raspberries or blackberries so I can eat them throughout the year. There’s something special about eating ice cream made from your own strawberries on Christmas Day with your Christmas pud.

Seasons for the soul

Gardening can be an antidote to our intensive 24/7 lifestyles. As we get into the habit of being out-of-doors in all weathers and seasons we can discover a rhythm that works with and not against the needs of our souls and bodies. Gardening, and indeed all regular contact with nature, can deliver us from the monochrome of work and busyness into a kaleidoscope of work and rest, day and night, rain and sun, winter and summer, fruitful and fallow. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes puts it; ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven’. Gardening helps us escape the insanity of trying to do it all and plunges us back into nature’s priorities where everything belongs, (including winter, darkness and rainy days!), and everything has its place.

Escaping the cult of the instant

One of the great attractions and challenges of technology is its immediacy. Just one click and Amazon will deliver it to your door the next day. Why wait till you’ve got the money when you can buy that plasma TV on credit? Feeling low? Here are all your favourite songs, films and TV shows at the click of a mouse…

There is something addictive about the cult of the instant that is fatal to our growth in character and spirituality. Psychologists speak of the importance of delaying gratification for a child’s emotional development. Parents who make everything immediately available without the child learning to wait, to struggle, to earn or to anticipate soon learn that the child enjoys nothing and appreciates nothing because it has cost them nothing. Millennials in particular, raised on a diet of instant everything, may have all the practical skills but without sufficient discipline, perseverance and forbearance they may lack the ‘emotional intelligence’ to endure the long slog and daily tedium of the modern workplace.

Gardening and working within the physical constraints of nature forces us to pay attention to the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ where a large part of the pleasure is in the waiting and anticipating, the sense of journey. When we have to wait for seeds to germinate, flowers to bloom and fruit to ripen we are learning what would have been second nature to our forebears; that all good things come to those who wait and the most important good thing is the actual waiting.

Awakenings

It might be hard to believe but gardening and getting connected to the natural world can lead to a spiritual awakening. For many of us technology has become a poor substitute for mystery and wonder. We crave the sublime but the virtual world is the only show in town. We are promised infinite possibilities and unimaginable powers but, alas, the law of diminishing returns also applies to digital reality. So we need ever-increasing cyber stimulation for an ever-decreasing return. Our souls stagnate and our capacity for wonder shrinks.

Through the age-old rituals of digging and weeding, planting and nurturing, harvesting and storing, sharing and celebrating we are taking part in something much older, more elemental, more intuitive than our too-literal minds can easily grasp. When we plunge our hands into the warm earth we become connected to something far bigger and more wonderful than our narrow agendas and frantic schedules- something about the universe, life out of death, transformation and renewal, miracle and mystery; beauty and sustenance out of dirt and wet.

Digging for glory

Technology means that we experience reality at one-step-removed. Travel is fast and convenient but we lose meaningful contact with earth, wind or sun. We get everywhere quickly and comfortably but our muscles and imaginations slowly atrophy. The Internet makes a deluge of knowledge instantly available but we lose the struggle, the journey, the adventure and exhilaration of discovering the tangible world of living things, faces, textures and smells; we easily forget the profound enchantment of physical presence.

We have paid too high a price for our comfort and convenience. We are losing our souls in the process. Gardening is a way, maybe the main way, which we can reconnect with the sheer physicality of earth and weather, fertility and growth. ‘The whole earth is full of God’s glory’ but if we only see it through a windscreen or computer-screen we will never experience that glory in a satisfying or transforming way.

Making a start

For many of us, a garden of our own is impractical or impossible. However, it might still be feasible to start a window box or add some pots to any shared space. Maybe you have a friend or neighbour with some outside space but no time to do anything with it? I’m sure they’d love your input! Some neighbourhoods also have allotments that can be hired for a small annual fee. In most communities, even in London, there are small groups of residents who cultivate small plots of public or sometimes private space in the local area. Thus you become doubly connected, both to the earth and to the local community.

Back to Eden

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the consequences were tragic spreading outwards to distort all of their relationships. They lost that intimacy with the Creator God; discord quickly poisoned all human interactions; and finally, they were driven out of their first home, the Garden of Eden. The intimate bond with nature was severed and we have lived with the consequences ever since.

We can see this estrangement from the Garden, the natural world, all around us. It’s evident in our current environmental crisis: Global warming, biodiversity loss and a myriad other unfolding planetary catastrophes surround us: we have become disconnected from Eden, our beautiful yet fragile home.

We can also see it in the spiritual crisis of the West where materialism, consumerism and the cult of the individual leave so many bereft of meaning or direction. There is a rootlessness to modern life that constant travel and novelty can never erase. Scratching the surface with social media, gaming or entertainment simply can’t satisfy the deep itch in our souls.

So getting back to the Garden is much more than growing dahlia’s or cultivating tomatoes. It brings us back to Gods heart; to the place where mankind first walked with God and saw his face. To become, once more, a gardener will help to save both our planet and our souls.