“Why are we here on Earth, except to grow?” — Robert Browning
“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.” — Alfred d’ Souza
As I recently described, I have been working on many levels intensively and non-stop for the last 40 years. In February of this year, I completed a new essay and a new book (entitled Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century, to be published in German, Italian, and English). And then I stopped. I was, and am, exhausted and spent. Every cell of my body told me what burnout is and means. For the last few months, I have not written anything and I have hardly been able even to read. My mind and body won’t let me. I had to find something new, healing, and regenerative for my soul, something radically different from reading and writing, and I found it – in gardening. I have become the constant gardener.
I reside in Anthony, New Mexico, just over the El Paso Texas border. With my family of rescue cats, I live in a ranch house, set on an acre and a half of land, surrounded by alfalfa fields and pecan groves. I have massive front and back yards, and the front yard spills into the green fields and I see the majestic Franklin Mountain range on the horizon. The sun rises over those mountains like a catapulted fireball every morning and pours light into my house. Too many times, working through the night, I have witnessed its fiery climb, as it throws a spotlight on a life out of balance.
New Fruit Trees, Alfalfa Fields, and the Franklin Mountains
In the obtuse, punishing loads of work I imposed on myself, such that I can now count 13 books and over 200 essays and reviews, and the first seven years in which I resided in my peaceful rural ambience, my land was completely neglected, nothing but fields of weeds as tall as summer corn stalks. After finishing my last book, in need of new stimulation, I decided to clear these fields. After a arduous month of chopping and burning forests of weeds, I beheld the clear ground, and saw that it was good. I then decided to start planting vegetables, flowers, bushes, and trees, and to learn how to garden. And not just on a small scale, but rather on a massive scale, to transform the land into something living and beautiful.
And thus I threw myself solely into planting and growing. I planted and transplanted a cornucopia of seeds (peas, beans, beets, corn, carrots, peppers, herbs, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, and more). I dug up massive patches of hard, sandy ground, enriched the soil, and planted vegetables into the ground. With awe I watched the seedlings grow and begin to bear fruit.
Jalepenos and Tomatoes
I planted hedges and rows of bushes. I created two large groves of fruit trees (apple, pear, orange, tangerine, lemon, lime, peach, plum, and cherry). I approached it all as a massive sculpture of form and function, of color and soil.
The labor was as satisfying as it was backbreaking. You can find me on any given day working in the yard from dawn to dusk. Everything I plant and grow is veganic – no synthetic chemicals and no manure (few people including vegans ever think about the animal shit in their food, even if “organic”!).
It is amazing how ignorant I was, and still am, about the food I eat, the basic elements of nature, and the process of life and growth. I never grew a seedling, never ate anything I myself nourished and cultivated until this late in my life. I knew nothing about the basics – seeds, soil, fertilizer, mulching, sunlight, and water – until I was forced to grow myself in new ways. I am learning a lot now, but am certainly no Picasso of plants. Yet the mistakes I have made this year will not be repeated next year.
To Plant …
It is hard to avoid the easy clichés inherent in the rich metaphor of gardening. Yes, one is “getting back to the land” and “getting in touch with nature,” but it is not as romantic as it sounds. It is sweat-pouring, back-breaking labor, especially in the hot spring and summer of the American Southwest. A lot of what I am “getting in touch” with are blisters, sore muscles, sunburn, and insect bites.
Sun Parasols Climbing the Cat Cage
That said, I have found it to be true that gardening is soul-enriching, life-nourishing, and spiritually satisfying. In cultivating the sun-baked fields, I am cultivating myself in new ways; in planting seeds that will sprout into nourishing foods, I am also seeding a new future for myself.
I can hear the critics mock this as a retreat from politics into a new-age lifestyle parochialism. But that is hardly fair or accurate. After 4 decades of compulsive, pedal-to-the-metal work, I am finally allowing my body and soul the rest and balance I long denied myself. When we reach a crisis point of deep burnout we have to stop and rest, or we will never return. Burnout is not just fatigue, it is losing the will and motivation to pursue the projects and causes that propel our lives and give them meaning. We are no good to others if we are no good to ourselves, and the personal and political are deeply intermeshed in many ways.
I doubt that when French existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre urged the politicization of knowledge, imploring intellectuals to acquire “dirty hands,” or when Italian Marxist theorist emphasized the important role of “organic intellectuals” in a revolutionary movement, they had community gardening, food sharing, veganics, and sustainable agriculture in mind. But these concepts — and the knowledge and practice — must become part of the radical politics relevant to the impending crises of the 21st century. And where, in the ending of his satirical masterpiece, Candide, Voltaire writes, “let us tend to our own garden,” these words, properly framed, can be seen as sage advice not merely a satirical barb aimed at fatuous idealism or bourgeois individualism.
I am easing back into reading, writing, and speaking (I will undertake a short European speaking tour this fall). I am feeling the urge to return to old hobbies and passions, including jazz guitar, martial arts, and yoga. But for now, I am gardening, mostly gardening, constantly gardening.
Asian Jack Lilies
Though I am currently anything but, I may aspire to the level of “master gardener,” for which one can become schooled and certified in Texas. If I become skilled enough, the surplus food I could produce would be donated to food banks for the needy, along with vegan recipes.
In the past, I have advocated a concept of “deep veganism,” which involves a much more effective type of “vegan outreach” than currently practiced today. Among other things, deep veganism involves community projects of producing and sharing nourishing plant foods, and politically organizing in many directions — human rights, animal rights, veganism, health, and ecology — from this basis. And producing one’s own food from seeds without chemicals is not only profoundly important for physical health, emancipating oneself from synthetic chemicals, genetic engineering, and global agribusiness, it is directly connected to the project of autonomy.
And thus, I have had to hit the pause and reset button on my life. I have been forced to stop, change, diversify, and reinvent myself yet again. At this existential crossroads I now stand before, I haven’t a clue what the future holds for me and I can again feel the angst of uncertainly and the challenge of self-overcoming.
I know one thing for certain, though: as I persist in struggle, I continue to grow…