“[Soil] is where the dead are brought back to life.” –Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden
Look up the Law of Conservation of Energy and you’ll get a long pile of words. Within all those words is the infamous idea of the ultimate circle –matter is never created or destroyed. Matter goes about in a continuous loop, firing the will of movement into suns and animal bodies and small green plants pushing up form the black earth. Is energy another form of matter? I go ahead with my wondering.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist, Catholic priest and beloved edge-walking mystic of the atomic midcentury once said, “matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen.” I walk out to the modest garden, observing each day the tiny green sprouts of my beginner gardener’s hope and frustration and awe. And I see in my mind’s eye their delicate stipules as so many shimmering stars all compacted together unhurriedly, taking time to taste the water seeping gratefully into the breathless soil, now pushing upwards as if to reach back again into the celestial abyss without gravity.
A tiny plant is compacted energy. It must draw up from the dirt and down from the sun all the food it needs to live and survive the test of uncertain Nature. My species has taken steps to comfort the baby sprouts, sheltering them in greenhouses, within copper wire to fend off the slug beasts, befriended by the aphid-eating cotton-balled Green Lacewings, watered conveniently, bred for battle and pampered in domestic luxury. It can be argued that domestication preserves energy on both ends: the plants get to not die so often while we get to eat them reliably.
And yet gardening takes a tremendous exertion of energy, especially in the beginning, when mistakes are more abundant than edibles. It takes my vital energy, that which I am programmed to want to preserve, and which I have fought battles with myself to have more of. But it has also surprised me with a sweet delight: gardening is a kind of labor which, though it necessarily takes energy from me, it gives back in return. Here I do not need or desire to cut corners in defense of my lifeblood as we sometimes do in the parade of other jobs worked for survival’s sake. Already I have found this labor to be an effort of returning rewards in a generous circle. Long before a crop of edibles, I bring in the freely given health that is putting my actual head to the big solid earth when I need to quiet the anxieties of a human life. There, in the crepuscular light of a summer’s eve, beside the sleeping dust of dirt as yet unactivated by tilling or by compost, I go down on my knees and put the crown of my head to the ground. It is where the vital energy of stars and sprouts and animals are kept, and awoken.