Gardening as an exercise in empathy

Unlike the last few years, this spring I planted some seeds. I thought it would help me connect with the land, and maybe it has and will continue to do, but I’ve already been surprised by how well it has connected me with other people and their stories.
I planted my seeds in what not so long ago was the territory of the Blackfoot people. As nomads, they relied far more on what grew naturally on the land than on what they had planted themselves. I’m not suggesting that the development of agrarian societies wasn’t good and/or necessary, but it does seem to represent a time when people switched from trusting the land and its Creator to relying on their own hard work and planning. I was trusting my seeds to the soil and its natural processes, but perhaps some people who had walked this land before me had demonstrated a greater level of faithfulness.
To do my planting, I set aside half an hour to scrape away the grass that was growing there, lay my new soil on top, plant my seeds, and then water them. However, that thirty minutes of labour actually represented a break. The rest of my morning involved reading, writing and communicating, all while seated at a desk. My time with the shovel and watering can was a welcome interruption, one that actually got my heart pumping and my skin perspiring more than anything else I would do that day. What a luxury it would seem to many of my ancestors that I could approach the task of turning and seeding the land with this recreational mindset. Pioneers and others, toiled away all their lives to clear and work the land, and they would have felt there was a nobility to their work, but the sense of duty they attached to their work was a stark contrast to the optional and novel approach that I was taking.
To complete the job that I had given myself, I had to draw on skills that were taught to me by my father. I wasn’t doing anything terribly complex, but I only knew how to plant a garden because my father taught me how. I did the planting myself, but even as I was doing that I was thinking about what kind of tasks I could invite my young children to help me with down the road. My father didn’t ask me to help in the garden because I brought with me some kind of expertise, or because my participation would speed up the process. The utilitarian value of bringing my children to help with my little patch would be small, but inherent in these tasks were important life lessons about hard work, the cycle of life, and so on. As I planted my seeds, I could identify with the man who tried to teach me these values.
With soil covering my seeds, I walked back to the shed to return my spade and to pick up a watering can. In between, I stopped in at my desk again where I found a few new emails that invited a reply. It took longer than I initially planned before I returned to water my soil. I hadn’t put much thought into the importance of the timing, until on my walk back to my patch I observed a number of birds sitting in nearby trees. I realized that my newly unpacked and loosely turned soil served as a fairly weak cover from hungry beaks. Maybe as a pastor I should have made the connection a little sooner, but in my worry about birds I remembered the words of Jesus about a farmer who sowed his seeds and some fell on the path where they were trampled by human feet and eaten by birds. Jesus told stories of farmers and seeds because it was a language that his first audiences would most easily connect with. My work as a teacher and sower of spiritual seeds can be no more effective than the proverbial sower whose seeds were eaten, choked, and under nourished as much as they were embraced and supported by good soil.
Recently, the people of nearby High River, Alberta were victims of a major flood, and for many residents, there was sitting water on their land and in their homes for weeks. If it was just water, that would have been bad enough, but these waters had picked up chemical and organic toxins further upstream, and when the waters eventually receded, these toxins were left behind. In the following spring, some residents were encouraged to plant sunflowers because these plants are particularly good at drawing those toxins out of the ground. I was planting sunflowers too, partly as a show of solidarity, but it struck me as I reflected on this story how far I was from that reality. My soil was not contaminated. No nearby buildings were water-logged. No nearby residents were kept from their homes. My ability to show solidarity in some ways depended on my privilege of not being affected by the flood in the first place.
I’m sure that if gardeners were surveyed, very few would list “solidarity” as their primary motivation. I wasn’t growing plants for food or even for beauty. In no way was I relying on them to grow for my own well-being. The pioneers of this land, and every farmer that have lived on it since, need their plants to grow and produce food. Without that, they and their customers would have starved.
Finally, I watered my seeds the first day. I came back the next day and watered them again. Then, the third day, and the fourth and the fifth, I was away, and it was hot. Was the land too dry? Would my new seedlings be parched before they could even get started? I was reminded that all of those times I had weekend plans that I didn’t want cancelled by rain, I was hoping against the deep desires of farmers all around me. It is easy for me to drive within my city, and from my home to another city, and completely ignore the dry fields and the farmers that are anxious about them. I can water my small patch, but large scale farmers face limitations that I do not.
Time will tell if my labours will be rewarded with healthy plants and flowers, but already the roots of this exercise have stretched out to connect me with the Blackfoot, the pioneers, farmers, flood victims, Jesus and my own father. So far no green sprouts have appeared, but the fruit may already be evident.

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