My Gardening Mind
I recently read an article by Arthur Brooks which contends that cultivating multiple interests and doing different kinds of activities, rather than hyper-specializing within a single field, leads to greater personal satisfaction and happiness. Brooks further writes that “a commitment to multiple skills can make you better at each of them.”1 Is he right? Can variety in our work and hobbies lead not only to greater happiness, but to better work across entirely different fields? My own experience with gardening, born from therapeutic need amid the hyperspecialization of academia, suggests to me that it can.
I started gardening during a period of my life defined by specialization. I had just finished three years in my history PhD program at the University of Notre Dame––a grueling two years of intensive coursework followed by a third year of comprehensive exams and a dissertation proposal. During coursework, I would often work from early morning till dinner with minimal breaks, returning for an hour or two of additional study in the evening. My life seemed constituted almost entirely by reading and writing––not a bad gig for a bookish introvert. Yet I also found it exhausting. Not only was it difficult to maintain that kind of mental concentration for an entire day, but I also had to pare back so many other parts of my life which had been life-giving before. Playing guitar, for instance, had been a major hobby for me from middle school through the end of college, but the guitar mostly remained stored away in its case due to the demands of grad school. Aside from my marriage and limited involvement at church, I had no significant social interaction outside of the grad school bubble. Even on campus, I limited my social engagements due to what I perceived to be the academic demands. While some of my colleagues attended Fighting Irish football games together on fall Saturdays, I parked myself at a window desk on the silent twelfth floor of Hesburgh Library. I recall one Saturday when I sat there from early morning till evening, reading Perry Miller’s The New England Mind, distracted only occasionally by the dull roar of the crowd after touchdowns.
When I finally passed my comprehensive exams and received approval for my dissertation prospectus in the third year of the program, I basically collapsed. It wasn’t the PhD finish line, but it was enough of a transition that it felt like the immediate pressure dialed back a bit. My wife and I had also recently had our first child––she was born two weeks after I passed my oral exams––and we decided to move back to Nebraska to live close to our parents. We rented a house with a backyard, with plenty of space for a garden. During these days at home, spent caring for my infant daughter and struggling to figure out how exactly one does dissertation research, it seemed as good an opportunity as any to try my hand at growing vegetables.
That first garden was something of a wreck. I made the rookie mistake of planting a larger garden than I was ready for, and by July it was completely overgrown with weeds. The pole beans along the back fence quickly reached the top and grew into a tangled mass that flopped over the back into the neighbors’ yard. Mysterious diseases and pests attacked my plants, and I desperately funneled some of my grad student stipend into fungicides and pesticides, just trying to salvage any kind of harvest. I had no idea what I was doing and it was a terrible return on investment for the actual amount of produce I harvested. But it didn’t matter. The physical labor of cultivating and tending this small plot of land during that summer provided such a welcome reprieve from sitting at my desk reading and trying to make sense of my research. I punctuated hours of reading and writing with short trips outside to check on the plants and see how things were developing.
From that first experience as a gardener, I was hooked. Since then I’ve grown a garden every summer that I’ve had enough outdoor space to do so. When we finally bought our first house six years ago, one of the first things I did was build a couple of raised beds to start our vegetable garden. (A student from one of the first Anselm House Fellows Program cohorts helped me fill the beds with compost.) That vegetable garden has now grown into four 4x8-foot raised beds dedicated to vegetables, protected by covered low tunnels during the cooler “hinge season” months, plus several pepper and tomato pots on the patio during the heat of summer. Beyond that, we’ve planted apple, plum, and cherry trees in the yard, as well as a wide variety of ornamental landscaping, all packed into our small 1/5 acre urban lot.
The combination of knowledge and practiced technique means that parts of gardening are becoming instinctive and intuitive, the way that guitar chords––so unnatural and difficult for your fingers to form at first––eventually become second nature for your left hand.
A decade of gardening later, things feel very different than they did with that first garden. Since then, I’ve spent untold hours reading gardening books, researching different vegetable varieties and growing techniques, listening to gardening podcasts, and watching episode after episode of Monty Don’s Gardeners’ World (a sign, if ever there was one, that I’ve fully embraced middle age). The combination of knowledge and practiced technique means that parts of gardening are becoming instinctive and intuitive, the way that guitar chords––so unnatural and difficult for your fingers to form at first––eventually become second nature for your left hand.
One thing that has remained constant from that first garden onward is the variety and rhythm that gardening brings to my days and weeks. After a full day at work, coming home in the evening and harvesting a few things from the garden to use in a meal, or heading out after dinner to tend the garden, puts to work different parts of my mind and body than the highly relational and cerebral work that makes up most of my hours at Anselm House. During the days of working from home at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, walking out to the emerging garden for a quick break, seeing all of the new green growth, and hearing the hum of bumblebees on the flowers was a welcome respite from the hours spent working at a computer screen.
But (and here we return to Arthur Brooks’s point) gardening has not only helped my daily work by offering a different kind of labor and activity; I think it has actually improved that daily work by providing a different imagination with which to approach it. In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors not only help us think about the world, but they actually provide us with a conceptual framework with which we make choices and act.2 To use one of their classic examples: the metaphor of warfare pervades our language about arguments. “She attacked his argument.” “He demolished the opponent’s position.” “Her claims were indefensible.” Because of how common this structural metaphor has become for us, we often actually conduct our arguments according to this warlike imagination. To say it differently, the range of our available options for how we argue is both expanded and constrained by the metaphor that structures our imagination of it.3
In both business and non-profit work today, much of our metaphoric imagination seems to be derived from modern industry, with mechanistic processes, measured inputs and outputs, and linear chains of cause and effect. Logic models, commonly used in business and non-profit evaluation, are a good example: certain inputs are combined with and enable certain activities, which lead to a particular set of outputs, leading to an intended effect or outcome. It’s a linear, mechanistic if/then chain: if the identified inputs and procedures are provided, we can guarantee the anticipated outcomes in the causal chain.
This kind of scientific rationality makes sense in situations where we have high confidence that we understand the causes at work and have clarity regarding all the relevant factors that affect outcomes. In a factory setting, where we’ve designed and built the machines for a production line, we know exactly which causal processes are involved and can have high confidence that the process will produce the results we intend. So too in a lab setting: where variables can be carefully controlled and we can repeat an experiment multiple times, we achieve high confidence about the causal sequences at work. The common thread here is control: we have a high level of control in these situations and manipulate the variables carefully to achieve intended outcomes.
But the more complex an entity or system becomes, the less an industrial approach makes sense, and the more our efforts at control become problematic.
But the more complex an entity or system becomes, the less an industrial approach makes sense, and the more our efforts at control become problematic. One of the reasons I find organic approaches to agriculture compelling is that they seem to recognize our ignorance and limitations in the face of significant complexity. Because it’s highly unlikely that I’ve understood all of the myriad factors at play in my garden, it’s better to try to foster and augment naturally occurring processes than to reproduce or invent them synthetically. To think, for instance, that simply getting the right ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is all it takes to grow healthy, productive plants is reductive and naive to the complexities of the ecosystem that is my garden. This doesn’t mean that in the face of such complexity we stop trying to understand what’s going on. It just means that we know we haven’t fully fathomed it, and we’re more willing to defer to what we’ve seen work over long natural and historical durations.
To my mind, organic approaches to agriculture provide us with a better set of metaphors for thinking about human growth and education than do models and metaphors drawn from the industrial world. In fact, it’s an older way of thinking about the human world: our main meanings of the English word “culture” resulted from transferring this language from the context of agriculture to the realm of human development, beginning around the 16th century.4 Wendell Berry describes well the dangerous reductionism that has accompanied the shift from organic metaphors to industrial ones in how we think about people:
It may turn out that the most powerful and the most destructive change of modern times has been a change in language: the rise of the image, or metaphor, of the machine. Until the industrial revolution occurred in the minds of most of the people in the so-called developed countries, the dominant images were organic: They had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial. . . . Now we do not flinch to hear men and women referred to as ‘units’ as if they were as uniform and interchangeable as machine parts.5
Agricultural language is a better metaphor for human development because it better accounts for the complexities involved in human development. When it comes to the work of education and ministry––the growth and formation of minds, souls, and character––we should approach it with even greater humility than we do agriculture. Humans are not only complex biophysical beings, but spiritual and emotional beings as well. In addition to layers of mental and cognitive complexity, Christians believe there are spiritual dimensions to our lives, as well as other spiritual beings acting upon us. In such a context, it seems utterly naive to think that we can fully fathom and understand all of the factors and processes relevant to spiritual, moral, or intellectual growth.
If organic gardening and agriculture offer helpful metaphors for acknowledging the complexity and challenges of human formation, the same metaphors also suggest promising approaches to this work. The organic gardener does not so much focus on trying to deliver the right inputs to a specific plant at precisely the right moment, but rather focuses on building healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem that best fosters natural growth. In gardening, there are so many variables that lie beyond your control––weather, insect populations, soil composition, etc.––that you’re really only doing the best you can with the few variables that you can affect. And you know that even then, the final harvest may or may not accord with your intentions and plans. At best, you’ve managed to come alongside and augment a complex natural process through your interventions. And sometimes, the range of factors beyond your control still defeats those best efforts.
In organic gardening, then, one attempts not so much to control or micromanage natural processes as augment those processes by improving the conditions (e.g., soil) in which they occur. So in ministry and education we can focus on cultivating human cultures and relationships––the equivalent to soil in gardening––that are conducive to the growth and flourishing of people. We might contrast such an approach with one that tries to precisely understand and then control each person’s specific situation, or deliver highly targeted interventions to achieve immediate results.
If growth into the mind and character of Jesus Christ is our goal, are we patterning our relationships and communities on that image?
What does it mean for those working in education or ministry to think of themselves primarily as cultivators of natural (and supernatural) human growth and development? Because we know that there are countless factors affecting any one person’s growth, many of which we aren’t even aware, we focus on creating good conditions and engaging in activities that generally are conducive to growth, even if we know those conditions may not deliver the desired results in every single instance. As someone who loves books and ideas, it’s tempting to think that if I can just find the right content––the perfect book, lecture, or video––it will be the key to facilitating someone’s growth. But I’m more and more convinced that information is only one part of educational and spiritual growth. As important, and sometimes more important, are the relationships fostered among the participants and how they pursue their shared spiritual and educational goals together. Does this relational ecosystem, the culture of this community, actually embody and support the stated ideals and goals of the program or institution? If growth into the mind and character of Jesus Christ is our goal, are we patterning our relationships and communities on that image? Do the ways that we seek to educate and form people themselves embody a Christian view of what a human being is––a creature of extraordinary dignity and complexity that, even while broken, will someday become (in C. S. Lewis’s words) “a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare?”6 Attention to these kinds of concerns is the cultivation of the “soil” in which the work of healthy human development takes place.
After a decade of gardening, and all sorts of gardening failures, I’m more aware than ever that I’m not in a position of control in my garden. The more clearly that I grasp the limits of my knowledge and agency amid these biological processes, the more effectively I can contribute in my limited ways to the garden’s growth and fruitfulness. In the formation of Christians, the Holy Spirit is working, often among and through his people in ways that I can only begin to discern and fathom. By identifying as best I can what those beneficial relationships and contexts are, and seeking to support and encourage them where possible, I might––perhaps––be fortunate enough to call myself a partner in that work.
References: 1. Arthur Brooks, “Here’s 10,000 Hours. Don’t Spend It All in One Place,” The Atlantic, March 18, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/03/having-dual-career-can-make-you-happier/618311/. 2. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 3. Ibid., 4-5. 4. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, revised edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 87. 5. Wendell Berry, “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems,” in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2009), 24. 6. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 2001).