Sprouting in Soil
Illustration by Lotte Verstappen

Weeding by hand is an endless task in a tropical garden where herbicides are not used and burning is not carried out to clear the land. It forces us to slow down. And it is the first task that participants – who come to the Garden of L.E.A.H. to experience the simple life of growing food, building a mud shelter, and living together in a mindful way – undertake.

As the sun and temperature rise in the quiet morning, some questions guide us to be attentive as we pull weeds from the soil: How often do we notice the call of the birds? Are we too absorbed in our thoughts to be aware? How present are we in each moment? How do we feel as we continue with this physical task while the heat increases and our clothes get wetter with perspiration? How patient and resilient are we in the face of these persistent weeds growing in the garden? What are the thoughts or habit patterns we want to weed out from our lives? How might we align our inner values and outer actions in our daily choices? 

Garden of L.E.A.H. started out in late 2016 as a personal project. Inspired by Japanese natural farmer and philospher Masanobu Fukuoka, I wanted to learn to grow my own food and build my own natural shelter. I saw reconnecting with the most basic needs in life as an extension of my yoga and meditation practice. 

The intention behind engaging participants in the mindless task of weeding is to allow the practice of observation: outwardly, by learning to identify the plants in the garden and inwardly, by observing the way our bodies and minds respond to this physical task. In the process, we become aware of our thoughts, feelings as well as our responses to these thoughts and feelings. 

Working with the land to recuperate from years of industrial farming, which had left the soil barren, has been an adventurous healing journey. The remedy: a natural green manure and time.

HEALING WITH TIME

The weeds that are pulled up are piled up on the ground, preventing the soil from drying out in the heat of the sun and eroding on days of heavy rainfall, especially during the rainy season. With time, the weeds turn into organic matter and return to the soil. This allows the microorganisms in the soil to continue growing, eventually increasing in biodiversity and immunity. 

Transforming weeds into green manure process is part of a series of soil amendment practices I had initiated to nurture Garden of L.E.A.H. into better health when the project began. 

Over two seasons, sunn hemp seeds were broadcasted and left to grow for about sixty days before the young plants were chopped up and dropped onto the land to return as organic matter to replenish the soil. A member of the legume family, sunn hemp fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, reduces the build-up of root-knot nematode populations and is an excellent soil-improving crop. 

With soil healing comes personal healing. As the land is given the opportunity to rest and recover, I learn to embrace the wildness of the ‘weeds’ growing, and humbly discover the biological intelligence of each plant in Mother Nature. 

In practicing patience while observing the slow seasonal changes of life of the trees and plants, I began to lean into the flow of the rhythmic cycle of life, realizing interbeingness: that we breathe the same air as the trees and plants around us, that the sun that feeds the plants also nourishes us, that the water, the air and the earth that make up all living beings connect one and all. 

Working on the land physically, I experience with my body this sense of biological unity with Mother Nature – that which we are all a part of. With this understanding, we practice mindfulness and balance to come into more self-awareness. 

Using our hands to working with the soil has been an enjoyable and gratifying experience. It has been more than a decade since scientists found that the bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, in soil stimulates the brain cells to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter – also known as the ‘happy chemical’ – that is a natural antidepressant that also strengthens our immune systems. 

More recently, a new strain of bacteria, Streptomyces sp. myrophorea, that is found in the soil in Northern Ireland, has been reported to be effective against four of six top superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics. Working with soil is an inner healing journey, strengthening our emotional, mental and physical well-being so that we may approach life more positively and healthily.

NOURISHING NATURE

Harvesting and eating fresh from the garden also facilitates an inner healing process by reconnecting us to the most basic elements that nourish our being. This can be an empowering experience, given the consumer culture, where many in the city do not have access to locally-grown, chemical-free fresh produce. 

It is a very humbling experience when we learn about the abundance of nature and adapt our palette to what is available locally and seasonally. This way of eating connects us to the natural elements of where and how our food is grown as compared to eating food from the supermarket – disconnected from time and place, with no awareness of when, where and how the food is produced. 

In the plant-based kitchen at the Garden, there is a lot of room for creativity. Participants from different parts of the world have adapted their cultural dishes to be prepared with locally-available ingredients. They also enjoy tasting local food using fresh produce harvested or foraged from the garden and around the village. 

Each meal begins with a short and simple ritual prior to eating, honouring the energies that went into manifesting the meals that nourish us. This simple ritual sets the tone for us to eat mindfully and share conversations that support our personal and communal growth. The daily meals, taken in gratitude for the abundance of Nature, celebrate the spirit that is also alive in every moment that we are in awareness of life itself. 

Text by Vivian Lee, initiator & activator of Garden of L.E.A.H..

Illustration by Lotte Verstappen of createalot.nl.