Grounding Ourselves in the Garden

The world weighs on his mind like a lead balloon, but as he talks about the garden his spirit is untied and left to rise in the wind. Hope returns to his face. “The world’s salvation is in the garden,” he said over lunch that day. “All the world’s good is there.”

– Lisa M. Hamilton, recounting a conversation with farmer and gardener David Podoll, in Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.

It’s a long day up in my office. There are narrative evals from last quarter to finish, a stream of emails to prioritize and attempt to answer or otherwise resolve, invertebrates to sort in the museum lab, conversations to have with department staff about enrollments and course requirements and glitches in registration. A grant proposal to write. Old research articles to purge. It’s not like one lead balloon weighing on my mind in there: it’s a whole raft of them.

But then it’s 3 pm, and I begin my Thursday journey down to the Sustainable Living Center. I cross the bridge between the redwoods as I walk to the bus, and the cool air coming up the canyon revives me. My thoughts focus squarely ahead to the PICA seminar.

It’s such an opportunity each week, this chance to come into the garden and spend time with students in ways our traditional course structure doesn’t allow. I pull weeds and listen to conversation about the upcoming strike, and consider how and why our class can accommodate it. I pull more weeds and listen to students describing upcoming study abroad trips to Mexico, to India; their enthusiasm bubbles up like water in the pond. I hack away at – that is, “trim” – a giant rosemary bush and learn about classes and internships and career hopes. I shake the dirt off a bell bean root to show off its nitrogen-fixing nodules and point out a weedy grass in an improbable place. From students in the class I learn about pruning and propagating figs and harvesting prickly pears and growing teff. I breathe in bay laurel and breathe out hope.

In these conversations and this work of weeding, sifting compost, and building rock borders, I am transformed. The garden both literally and figuratively grounds me, gives me this chance to connect each week with students and the soil, and to remind me why the mundane work of evals and emails and solving registration problems is, in the end, so important. And based on end-of-quarter reflection papers in seminar, this transformation and connection occurs not just for me. Our work together to transform the scrabble of rock and clay into vegetables and fruit produces even more: relationships, community, confidence in our abilities to carry this learning into new contexts and grow more food in other places, belief that we really can bring about a sustainable society. Listen closely, and you can almost hear David Podoll’s words echoing off the quarry walls: “The world’s salvation is in the garden.”

Katie Monsen, PICA Seminar teacher extraordinaire, with her sidekick, Anika


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