With the days getting longer, a gardener's thoughts inevitably turn to that blank patch of dirt where he or she will spend an inordinate amount of time come summer. Why do we do this? If all you want from your garden is the calories, there are much easier ways to get them. But if you enjoy the exercise, the fresh air and the connection with the natural world and with your food, that's another story.
A garden is like a toy farm. All of its parts work, and it's capable of delivering the same benefits and risks as its big brother, the diversified vegetable farm. But because there’s so much more at stake with farming, it’s more intense, including the feelings of joy, harmony and productivity as well as the aches, pains and moments of futility.
Josh Slotnick, a farmer in Montana, believes that farm work makes you a better person: "Small groups doing humble labor with tangible results is a transformative experience,” he told me.
His debut collection of poetry, HomeFarm (Foothills Publishing), is a glimpse into the life of a farmer. The highs and lows he traverses are so dizzying that the book could have been called "Manure-Splattered Double Rainbow." He compares his vegetable farm to making a mandala, a Buddhist tradition that's part meditation and part performance art. Tibetan monks periodically visit the University of Montana, Slotnick explains, and spend a week or so creating a 10-foot-square painting out of carefully arranged grains of colored sand.
The finished product, ornate and dazzling, is cheerfully tossed in the river. The making and letting go of the mandala is an embrace of impermanence, Slotnick explains. As a farmer, he can relate: What was brown in the farm’s off-season is a diverse ecosystem by the end of July. A few months later, though, it's brown again.
"You can walk into the corn, cover your eyes, and feel the humidity swell, and if you stop moving and stand rock still, the sound of bees fills your ears, the squash becomes an impenetrable sea of spiky green, the flowers, carrots, all of it, fill every sensory level, and then come fall, we mow it down and till it in -- pour the sand into the river -- and it's a flat sameness once again."
In between, Slotnick is fixing what just broke, dealing with angry neighbors about a messy pig slaughter, and haggling with a shaggy customer at the farmers market who wants to save a little beer money by using the bargaining skills he learned in Central America to shave pennies off the price of broccoli.
An evening spent moving irrigation pipe with his teenage son gives Slotnick an opportunity to reflect on the bittersweet fact that the nest will soon be empty:
How many evenings have you and I done this,
while the sky goes pink to orange
the mountains flatten to silhouette in the west
we flop lines of pipe from one side of the mainline to the other
juggle end caps, T's and elbows
soak the big squash for hours
keep the seedbeds damp
the mowed beds dry
where I will till on Sunday
If farming does amount to a form of meditation, then some recent research on the effect of meditation on the brain provides a ray of insight into why farming -- and gardening -- might make you a better person. It has to do with the possible effects of meditation on the brain's cortex.
A thinner cortex, in certain areas of the brain, correlates with lack of empathy and a greater risk of depression. There is some evidence that people who meditate regularly have a thicker cortex, the outermost layer of the brain. It certainly wouldn't surprise me to learn that most farmers have thicker cortexes than ordinary pencil-pushers like me. Luckily, I have my garlic mandala -- formerly known as my garden -- to fall back on. It's basically a garlic patch with a year's supply of garlic, planted every fall and then harvested the next summer. Each spring, I toss an assortment of seeds between the emerging garlic plants -- carrots, radicchio, amaranth, romaine, corn, melon, borage -- whatever seeds I have lying around. If the plants don't belong, they die. The ones that live in the shade of the garlic plants take off in July when the garlic is pulled.
The garlic mandala comes and goes, leaving a stash of bulbs in its wake. Does it also make me a better person with a thicker cortex? Who knows? It certainly makes me a happier one.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News. He writes about food from Albuquerque, New Mexico.