- Martin Shaw
Mornings at Schumacher College begin with all students, volunteers, and staff gathering in the main hall to share news of the day’s happenings. I’ve found this short check-in to be vital to community life here. It is an opportunity for everyone to glimpse anew the whole through its various parts, to hear what each other are up to before going our separate ways. Implicit in this routine is a commitment to coherence, an understanding that what happens in the classroom, the kitchen, the garden, the office, is all related. That the boundaries between domains are permeable.
I’ve had the privilege this year of participating in Schumacher’s first apprenticeship in sustainable horticulture. As apprentices, we work one day per week at School Farm, a nearby CSA (community-supported agriculture), and the rest of our days are a medley of tending to Schumacher’s gardens and learning some of the tools and theory around ecological design and food production.
At morning meetings, when it’s our turn (“…and what are the garden apprentices up to today?”), there’s often a pause until one of us offers up the self-evident, “Today we are… gardening.” It’s become a running joke, this juxtaposition to the other program reports. “We’ll be exploring Goethean science and Henry Bortoft’s dynamic way of seeing…” (Holisitic Science); “We have a guest with us today to discuss Theory U and emergent organizational models…” (Economics for Transition); “We’re on a field trip today, going Dartmouth for a Deep Time walk…” (the current short course, with the good fortune of experiencing Stephan Harding’s storytelling). Then off we go to our different worlds. I lace up my boots with a lingering feeling of something lost in translation.
In a late-night conversation in the tea room, Jane, lead gardener and mentor to the apprentices, said something that helped me understand this recurring morning meeting phenomenon. We were reflecting on our experience of gardening and how it’s affected our interaction with the College as a whole. “In some ways, I feel like I’ve become less articulate,” she said. “Thinking in the garden is different. It’s not primarily verbal.”
Things rings true to me, as I imagine it does to anyone whose daily work involves direction interaction with the land. After nearly a year here, I do less thinking about the garden, as the garden does more of its own thinking through me. Garden thoughts. Their forms, textures, rhythms, and transformations arise from the living landscape itself. They do not belong to me.
There’s a humble little plum tree in the forest garden behind the Old Postern. Have you seen her? Her strong, slender branches arched up and then down, laden with fruit. I’d hardly even noticed her until indistinguishable green turned deep, handsome purple, catching my eye, drawing my hand to press gently, testing for softness. Some plums became speckled with mold before ripening. Others enticed small larvae, who nibbled an entrance where stem meets fruit, and made a home near the pit, nibbling and pooping (an unpleasant surprise for plum-hungry humans). These I picked away as soon as I saw them, hoping the brown rot and moth munching would not spoil too many fruits. I also cut back young shoots where they grew too tall or too crowded, inviting the tree to direct energy into fruit rather than more vegetative growth. A novice to pruning, I was careful where I put my secateurs, and hoped that she would heal quickly.
This plum tree, she seemed to appreciate my simple care, which was accompanied with long stretches of sunlight. The air around her was fragrant with flowering mint, animated with a buzzing chorus of bees. Every day, I visited her. Every day, there was less rot, fewer hidden critters, and more ripening.
After her fruit had all dropped or been picked, my attention was drawn toward the green gauge plum tree just next to her, whose fruits were just beginning to soften, and then as those disappeared, to the yellow plums — a succession of falling fruit! But that first tree, she is present to me now in a way that she was not before. Through the action of my hands, the sensitizing of my awareness, even the bacteria in my gut, she is a part of me. And, in a very small way, I of her. This is what I love about gardening. To garden is not to be in control of, but in dialogue with; to become familiar and yet never fully know. There is no single recipe for wonder, but for me, among the key ingredients is the act of linking my sustenance to that which has a life utterly its own.
Plum ripened in my mind amidst myriad other characters and dynamics — kale drooping in the heat, courgettes swelling faster than we can pick them, apples beginning to blush. I feel myself, as poet and gardener Stanley Kunitz put it, “in a world of friends”. Now wind arrives with a hint of autumn on its breath. This prompts me to check how the winter squash is sizing up, put the last of the chamomile flowers up to dry, concoct syrup from rose hips, jelly from quince… I am called by my place and time to imagine beyond this moment of abundance, toward short, cold days when the pulse of the land is slow.
“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany… Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society.” (Oct. 4, 1859; in Thoreau 1999, p. 91)
I have no communications to make to the Royal Society, and often very little to say in morning meetings. But the garden continues to speak in its own animate language. My work is to be there, to hear it (to the extent that I can), to speak back through gesture. Again, Stanley Kunitz: “…it was an interplay of forces; as much as I responded to the garden, the garden, in turn, responded to my touch, my presence.”
Each of this year’s apprentices has brought their own particular perception, and their own particular touch, to the garden. I’ve learned much from each of them, by seeing the way they uniquely interact with this place that we share. Forgive us if we’re sometimes quiet in morning meetings. We spend much of our day immersed in a different kind of language, a wordlessly eloquent native tongue.