Feeding the earth that feeds us

Valley Gardens

  • Wednesday, March 19, 2014 2:19pm
  • News

In Greek mythology, Gaia, Mother Earth, is the quintessential creator and sustainer of life.

John Lovelock, a research scientist, used the image of Gaia to explain his theory that the physical components of Earth work in intricate and complex systems that keep the Earth in equilibrium. He suggests that our lack of respect of our Earth, Gaia, is testing its capacity to stay in balance, as it has in the past by keeping the surface temperature of the Earth and the salinity of the ocean constant.

Gaia, a womb of life, seems an apt image of our Earth. It is active, alive, producing. Its natural gift is maternity, giving life.

John Muir, the great Scottish-born naturalist who loved the Pacific Northwest and climbed Mount Rainier (and wrote "Ascent of Mount Rainier"), said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

As gardeners, then, we must constantly assess our relationship to our land. Do we treat it like an unruly child, ready to punish and shame it into obedience? Or do we treat it with respect and honor its graciousness to us?

A first tell-tale sign is to go to our garden sheds or garages and to catalog what we feed it.

As humans, we concern ourselves with organic and healthy foods – fruits, vegetables and whole foods – because we understand the food/health connection. Ironically, we then excuse ourselves from our table filled with a nutritious meal and head to the garden and gorge it with pesticides, sometimes doubling the concentrated strength to make certain the weeds are killed.

Many of us take the Christian dictum to have dominion over the world quite literally. We spend our entire garden budget on poisons and controls.

If our relationship with the land is one of honor, the garden products we buy might be much like the nutrients we look for in our own food. We will have shelves of lovely food for our plants – bone meal, compost, alfalfa tablets, fish emulsions, etc.

Michael Pollen, author of "The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye-View," has marveled at the intelligence of plants, the way they communicate with other plants and animals and how they continually adjust to their environment. A colony of teeming life lives beneath the soil. Enriching the soil is perhaps the greatest way to honor it.

When we care for our gardens, we spend a good bit of time simply observing it, as it alerts us to what it needs. When a plant droops or looks unhealthy, it might be bending its back to tell us it’s not getting enough sun or water. Moving it is often kinder than giving it more fertilizer, which, in the end, makes it even more thirsty.

Sometimes we overstress our plants – supplying no water and then torturing them akin to waterboarding with excessive moisture, which sets up a culture where disease can flourish.

Part of honoring our gardens is to be childlike, with a sense of experimentation, laughter and awe, as well as allowing the garden to be in flux, finding its own way. Very few of us have a finished and mature garden. When visitors come, we often apologize with statements like, "I’m still working on this part." Or, "Please don’t look at this mess."

If we allow the garden to be a child who grows into its own personality and dimensions, then we can take ourselves less seriously and can delight and laugh at the antics of nasturtiums gone crazy. We can stop and watch the wonder of the clematis seed pods that look like a ball of gossamer spider webs. We can linger at the climber rose bush and see how its gangly branches that look amazingly like a 12-year-old girl’s leg is metamorphosing into a classic Audrey Hepburn beauty.

We can add whimsy to our garden the way we did as 4-year-old girls when we painted each fingernail a different color, including green and orange! We can allow ourselves to make mistakes, forgetting to read a label and to see that a small seedling eventually will grow into the size of Jack’s beanstalks. We can stand with our mouths agape in wonder and our eyes a bit misty when we pause and see the Escher-art quality of a spider web rather than being the adult and brooming it away into the garbage.

Countries, as well as gardeners, are assessing the way we hone our lands. Didn’t we all watch in amazement to see a garden take shape on the White House lawn? In these hard economic times, we are seeing that the land provides a new currency.

Costa Rica is way ahead of most counties in protecting its unique eco-environment.

In a recent editorial by Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, he reports that Costa Rica pays those people who keep forests intact and rivers clean. Companies pay a tax to profit from natural resources and those taxes, in turn, are paid to the indigenous people for keeping forests intact and rivers pristine. Deforestation has been reversed.

Costa Rica understands, and Friedman hopes the U.S. begins to embrace, the idea that "nature provides this incredible range of economic services – from carbon-fixation to water filtration to natural beauty for tourism." Man and nature can work together to provide for the other.

As gardeners we are opening our eyes more and more to the way Gaia sustains us. Our responsibility, then, is to help her stay as healthy as she can be. A litmus test for us is to look in our garages and sheds and to see what nutrients – or pesticides – we feed our earth.

John Muir’s 1868 book "My First Summer in the Sierra" praises the Native Americans for their low impact on the wilderness and disparaged of the white man’s heavy impact. He said, "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools."

Bev Hoffman can be reached via e-mail at



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