To forget how to dig the earth; to tend to the soil is to forget ourselves.
I tend to a plot in a community garden nearby my house. It’s about twenty feet long and ten wide—big enough to grow lots of tomatoes, lettuce and kale, and squashes that take over toward the end of summer. This past gardening season, I decided the compost pile in the corner of my plot was less useful than the larger community compost piles scattered on the outskirts of the garden. To make better use of the space in my own plot and put that rich soil to use, I built another raised bed in its place. I’ve got some pretty awesome greens growing there now, and I’m really happy with the added gardening space.
Here’s the thing: over the years of gardening here, I’ve noticed that whenever it rains, little “treasures” make their way to the surface of the soil. Typically this booty is just pieces of glass or bits of old plastic plant identifier tags from years and gardeners past. We’ve had an unseasonably rainy spring and summer here in D.C., and I’ve observed that each time it pours rain, I end up starting my time at the garden literally walking around, picking up bits of whatever has unearthed itself.
This past weekend at the garden was pretty uneventful—weeding, eating some tomatoes off the vine, chatting with a fellow gardener or two. Yet as I was taking out lettuce stalks that had gone to seed from that front compost-turned-bed, and without digging down far at all, I hit three enormous rocks and a big, old white trash bag. I promise, dear reader, that this disgusting trash bag was never in or near my old compost bin. It magically appeared in the ground like some uninvited stranger, just inches below my lettuce. Gross.
There’s an old saying about the importance of cultivating the soil, and how we must tend to it before anything can grow strong and healthy. Maybe I’ve heard this idea offered up in a yoga class before? I’ve taken from this call to cultivate that in life, as in gardening, our foundational building blocks—the earth, our hearts and souls—all of these need tending and fertilizing before anything nourishing can develop. It’s a reminder that just as I dedicate time pulling up weeds and allowing my tomatoes to flourish, I might also carve out time to practice yoga or meditate and allow my inner self the space to thrive.
I’ve kept this metaphor close while picking up bits of glass after our summer rains. It feels more true than not that, without this work to unearth materials that prevent growth—especially with a little help from a passing storm—these pieces of glass might’ve stayed lodged deep in the ground. Like grief or trauma or even a lingering distressing thought, it surprises me how deep those shards may lie beneath the surface of an otherwise beautiful garden. And then, oh what a satisfying process it can be to allow them to surface and be released!
After reading a piece in the NY Times called The Trauma of Everyday Living, I want to extend the metaphor even further and question whether these bits and pieces of human existence that stay with us are just part of the natural ecosystem of a city garden. I appreciate the author’s candor in articulating how deeply we feel painful events, and that even over time, the memory of this grief and trauma is part of our human experience. The earth accepts thrown away glass just as we take on our lived experiences… and after some time, some rain, and some tending, these things pop up—literally or figuratively—and the cycle continues in a different way. After reading this piece, it all feels more natural—and almost preordained—that we cultivate the ground and ourselves to both acknowledge and help release our experiences.
Except what was that gross plastic bag doing in my compost pile garden? It didn’t belong, I didn’t put it there, and I didn’t want it there. Seeing a petroleum-laden, big white bag near my lettuce was a punch in the face to this nice imagery of tending to a thriving garden and spiritual life… What if the gardening, tilling, weeding—the yoga, meditation, acceptance and kindness work—what if all of that means the equivalent of an old plastic bag will unearth itself over time?
I rely on those more awakened than I am to answer that this tending and heart work is messy, and to thrive, we have to be open and ready to dig up the equivalent of trash bags in our gardens or our past experiences. Nobody would ask to do it. It isn’t fun and it can be painful without much reward. No doubt it’s a tough job to work with and clean up the tough, gross stuff. As gardeners, we have little choice.
The Pleasant Progressive