Even as an infant, I loved dirt. Plopped in a patch of soil, dressed only in a cloth diaper and a sunhat, I would clench this best of toys in my fat little fist, shake it up and down, and grin. My parents dreamed of homesteading, so there was plenty of dirt to be had. Our bit of heaven, a tiny cabin on a little island, came with a goat and a pair of peacocks and acres of fields to cultivate. I grew up with a garden—bugs and soil and seedlings—as a central part of my life. Now I see gardens as the key to a healthy future for our species and the earth.
Big business is taking over our food stream. Food production and transport depend on petroleum. For these reasons alone we all need a food plot of our own. But more than this, gardening heals. It returns us to the miracle of life and connects us with a truth our technological society tries to forget: we live on a planet. We depend on the same planet that our ancestors have for tens of thousands of years. A garden reminds us we are in relationship with the Earth with whom we co-create life. This reconnection with our ancient and contemporary birthright has the power to save both the planet and us.
If you didn't grow up with a garden, a grandparent or parent who grew the best tomatoes ever, sweet off the vine and tangy with the summer sun, then your first gardening experience probably involved a Dixie cup, some dirt, and a handful of dried beans. Your first garden flourished in the windowsill of your kindergarten classroom. Though you were probably unaware, those little cups connected you to the land, human history, and your ancestors. Those little bean plants probably didn't grow enough food for an afternoon snack unless you were lucky to have a plot outside to transplant them, but your body knew the ancient feeling of food cultivation. Your body remembers those first mothers pressing beans into the soil to feed their families. It knows the smell of dirt, the freshness of a green leaf. Most children love to dig in the soil and plant seeds, because it's fun—and it reconnects us with our past.
The little Dixie cups filled with soil and a seed gave you a little taste of miracle. Put this shriveled up pebble into this dirty dirt, pour in water, and guess what? It turns into a plant. Suddenly bean vines take over the windowsill, spill onto the bookshelves, and infiltrate the gerbil cage, growing little white flowers that will eventually grow more beans. Life begets life.
Of course the lessons of the kindergarten cup garden apply in a larger garden plot, and what the garden teaches us can bring us into a new and powerful relationship with ourselves, each other, and the planet. Gardening is not just a kindergarten science project or an antiquated hobby or merely a means to fresh food; it is also a spiritual practice that holds the power to awaken and heal.
Gardening is miraculous. It is a ritual of life that tunes us in to the cycles of the sun, of life and death and rebirth. It is a celebration of the first planting in early spring, the first sprouts to grace fresh salads, the slowly blooming fullness of summer, the bounty of the fall harvest, and the quiet of winter. The garden brings the power of food and life literally into our own hands. In a world where we give much of our power away to corporations, technology, time, and money, the garden is a balm of self-efficacy.
Gardening is certainly sun worship, but more than that, it encompasses the sacredness of the Dark: The cave of the Goddess, the Dark Night of the Soul, the Via Negativa. Gardening is about the chthonic churning of death into life and back into death. As roots reach deep into the darkness, we too ground, returning to center. And we get nice and dirty in the process.
The garden teaches us about light and dark, and also about the body. Notice how traditional cultures have retained both a relationship with their food and relationship with the body, while "civilized" western society has long worked hard to disconnect humanity from both our food (many people do not know what growing food looks like) and from our bodies. The soil and our bodies are connected, and teach us something about God/dess. We manifested on a planet in a material body for a reason. Not as punishment as the Puritans taught, but as blessing, as tools for enlightenment. The material world is Spirit manifest. When we delve into the earth and our earthy selves, we learn from the most ancient sacred text of all.
I can wax poetic about the garden for ever—but the best way to know the power of the garden to reconnect and heal is to feel it yourself. Begin with the soil—scoop up a handful of dirt in your palm and smell it. The dark sweet dirt that grows food smells of sun, metal, and the bacteria that feed all life. Let it sift through your fingers. See it under your nails. Bury your hands in the soil and sense into the wonder of the earth. What do you feel? What does She tell you? What do you remember—of younger years, of a loved one, of former lives lived on the land? Let the wisdom of the dark sink into your senses. Let the garden connect you with the cave, the depths of the earth, the underworld. Let it make you whole. Now imagine a world where all people, young and old, wealthy and poor, woman and men, all knew this wholeness deep in their bones. This is the world of which I dream.
The earth and the garden return us to our vibrant, whole selves, a balance of light and dark, sun and soil, body and soul. We come from the messy earth, we inhabit messy bodies, and all is blessing, all is Spirit. We and our children and all our neighbors need to know this. We can remember the power of the garden by bringing the Dixie cups outside, planting our beans in a communal plot, and celebrating the gifts of the earth each day. We can take back our power from big business, take back our power from body-less religions, and sink our roots into the soil to grow a world transformed.
Clea Danaan (Colorado) has been gardening organically for over twenty years. Her articles on ecology and spirituality have appeared in SageWoman, Witches & Pagans, GreenSpirit, and Organic Family magazines. She is the ...