Life, Education and a Garden

The following is adapted from “A Sweet and Sublime Enigma” by Martin Ogle, 2006. Xlibris.   It is offered here to encourage discussion on the philosophy underlying educational gardening.  The essay was originally written as an article in the Potomac Overlook Regional Park newsletter in 1995, as schoolyard gardening was becoming popular in Arlington.

“Why, mommy . . . why?” asked the little boy as he tugged on his mother’s sleeve. He seemed to have a hundred questions as they meandered through the garden that day, but almost always his questions ended up in the form of “why?” “Why do the bees fly to all the flowers?” “Why are those people digging in that brown stuff?” “Why did the snake have to eat the baby wrens?” (He’d heard of the scary event in the garden’s nest box the day before.) “Why do we have to go home now?”

“Why” questions are profound and far-reaching. They try to answer what it means to be alive and what our place as human beings is in the living system of nature. They probe into the very core of our humanity. Children show the most open and unashamed curiosity into these matters and children are the most comfortable discovering the answers. Why then, do children seem to slowly lose this inquisitiveness into the “why’s” of the world? Could the atrophy of this part of innate human curiosity have any bearing on education or on the wellbeing of individuals or communities?

I believe there is a strong link between our ability to nurture and explore (not necessarily answer) the “why’s of life” with children and the overall health of individuals and communities. The paths we follow by asking “why?” open a door to a world that is richer and more soulful than what we encounter in the realm of efficiency and bottom lines. In this world we find ourselves bound to others and to the rest of nature by heart-strings rather than purse-strings; by sensations and feelings rather than wheelings and dealings. In this “world of why,” we discover compelling myths and stories that add meaning and happiness to our lives. It is wise to ask why.

E.F. Schumacher, writing about education in 1973, observed: “All subjects, no matter how specialized, are connected with a center; they are like rays emanating from a sun. The center is constituted by our most basic convictions; by those ideas which really have the power to move us.”* It is those basic convictions and powerful ideas that we eventually uncover with “why?” questions. And, as Schumacher also noted, the real value of our educational process is dependent on the attention we pay to those basics. When we neglect the exploration of our basic convictions and ideas, other parts of the educational process become fragmented and meaningless and/or driven by someone else’s values and (sometimes false) assumptions.

In a word, what we are in need of in education is a worthy context . . . something that helps make sense of the world, something to nurture our “why questions,” and to link the various subjects together in a cohesive manner. Where can we find such a context?

If only for a few minutes, the inquisitive little boy had found it in the garden. The context we are looking for is as broad as life itself, but a garden is a physical place to sense the larger context as well as a metaphysical symbol of it. A microcosm of the cosmos lives and flourishes in the garden. The seasons, the moon and sun, life and death, balance and imbalance, growth and limits, cooperation and competition all mesh together in an intimate and observable setting. And because it is cultivated, human culture is also woven into the tapestry of this microcosm. The garden is an obvious interface between people and the rest of nature; its lessons re-link humus and humans, Earth and Earthlings. As one delves into the “whys” of the garden, one explores the “whys” of men and women, for in the garden we become aware of the common substance and energy of all life. In effect, our basic convictions and ideas start to take root in the very Earth that we run our fingers through and become driven by the sun’s warmth that sustains us. And when we begin to synchronize with the time scales of the garden, our minds are freed to dance, play and contemplate. If given a chance, a garden can serve as a powerful place that can help restore meaning and depth to education and to our lives in general.

Once a worthy context – like a garden – is identified, the more “practical” questions flow. So long as they are connected to the center, these “how?” “what?” and “when?” questions contribute to a holistic understanding of the world. Separated from the center, they yield only trivial, fragmented data that clutter and confuse. What kinds of practical questions, then, flow from the life and time cycles we experience in the garden?

A garden certainly cultivates inquiry into the renewable energy of the sun. An aspiring engineer or architect can learn to reconnect human energy systems to those of the rest of nature by studying the flow of the sun’s energy through the plants, animals, and soil. A biologist will find fertile ground for ideas on human food supplies, recycling of wastes, and the values of diversity. Many thoughts on human economics can stem from observing the economy of the garden with its cycles of growth and decline. The artist or writer experiencing cyclical time and limits to growth amongst the vegetables can create the images and words necessary to calm human minds and grow contentedness. Insights and wisdom passed from the old generation to the young, so necessary in the successful cultivation of a garden, can serve as the model for meaningful interchange between generations in all aspects of a community. We can discover new meaning and satisfaction in these and other “practical” aspects of everyday life when we thoughtfully consider how they reconnect to our basic convictions and ideas.

E.F. Schumacher concluded his chapter on education with the following thoughts:

” . . . any society can afford to look after its land and keep it healthy and beautiful in perpetuity. There are no technical difficulties and there is no lack of relevant knowledge. There is no need to consult the economic experts when the question is one of priorities. We know too much about ecology today to have any excuse for the many abuses that are currently going on in the management of the land, in the management of animals, in food storage, food processing, and in heedless urbanization. If we permit them, this is not due to poverty, as if we could not afford to stop them; it is due to the fact that as a society, we have no firm basis of belief in any meta-economic values, and when there is no such belief the economic calculus takes over. This is quite inevitable. How could it be otherwise? Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, and when the available “spiritual space” is not filled with some higher motivation, then it will necessarily be filled by something lower – by the small, mean calculating attitude to life which is rationalized in the economic calculus.”*

In a society that is dominated by “economic calculus,” our natural human tendency to want to ask the deep and profound questions is both subtly and severely discouraged. I hope that the little boy in the garden will never lose his ability to and love of asking “why questions.” I hope his mother and father continue to take part in his inquiry.

Our modern pace of life allows little time for thoughtful contemplation, our educational system all but ignores questions of philosophy or values, and in most businesses and professional circles, basic human convictions and ideas take second fiddle to the profit imperative. Our minds need a refuge; a place or state that affords us time, presents a holistic view of the world, and reconnects us to the cycles of life. A garden can be such a refuge. Anyone who has a little plot of sunny land can start a garden, and if they can share it with a child, so much the better. If you do not have any land at your disposal, you can still grow vegetables and flowers in pots and planters, rent a community garden plot or help in a schoolyard garden. In the context of a garden, we can cultivate a more holistic and meaningful approach to life. We can rediscover that human life is inextricably tied to the living Earth.

* Schumacher, E.F. 1973. Small is Beautiful; Economics as if People Mattered. Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., New York.