Growing Food and Spiritual PracticeOn Sat, 24 July, 2021 - 14:17
Learning to grow my own food has led to a big shift in consciousness – from the detachment of living exclusively on restaurant-served or shop-bought produce to the grounding intimacy of eating home-grown fruit and veg – and helped me greatly on the path toward veganism.
In 2015 I got involved in a community garden in inner city Dublin, not far from the Dublin Buddhist Centre (DBC). At the time I was living in a first floor flat with no outside space and found myself pining for a little garden to grow a few vegetables in.
As the community garden didn’t have many volunteers (a common story for such gardens in Dublin at the time), I didn’t have many opportunities to learn from others and most of the time was spent in maintenance mode: trying to keep the unruly space under something resembling control. Ultimately, I didn’t progress much further than weeding and watering over the course of the two years or so that I was involved. But, while planting was done in a haphazard way, there was always something (usually green and leafy) to eat and in the summer and autumn there were gluts of delicious strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, plums, apples and pears.
Coming home from the garden on a Saturday afternoon armed with an assortment of mismatched vegetables and fruit made me a more adventurous eater, and cook. And while the food was objectively tastier for having been organically grown, its flavour was also enhanced by the effort of the small group of garden enthusiasts who had brought it into being.
The community garden was also the site of some ‘meitheal’ events I organised with the DBC sangha, where a team of volunteers came along to help in the garden for the day to help us get on top of the big jobs: painting the walls, shed and benches, laying wood chip paths, cutting back the overgrowth. Meitheal is a beautiful Irish word describing when groups of neighbours come together to help each other with farming work, such as harvesting crops.
When I finally moved to a house with a garden, I began my urban growing career in earnest: converting a neglected 48 ft by 15ft tangle of overgrowth into a pleasant space with a bountiful vegetable plot. Over three growing seasons there, I made all the rookie mistakes: let ‘pests’ take off whole crops, had far too little of the crops I wanted and far too much of the ones I wasn’t that keen on, and learned a huge amount along the way. Not least the satisfaction of cooking a complete meal with food you’ve grown yourself and learning how to build a larder frugally and efficiently so those sometimes mismatched ingredients can be transformed into something tasty and filling.
Though not in quantities anywhere close to self-sufficiency, growing food has had a profound impact on my daily life, on my views and on my practice. My desire to scale up my growing endeavours expedited a move to a small town in the west of Ireland, where housing is more affordable, gardens bigger and rainfall abundant – which in turn has greatly simplified my life and created conditions for a more spacious Buddhist practice.
Through nurturing plants from seeds (bought from small Irish organic enterprises), I have become aware of the inputs required to grow them, and the potential for ethical missteps on my own micro-level (around water use, artificial inputs that could damage the soil and wildlife, dealing with ‘pests’, use of animal manure etc), never mind the frequent agricultural and environmental travesties involved in producing our supermarket food at the macro level. Standing in the vegetable aisle of a supermarket, I now have a much keener sense of the frequently poor working conditions for the labourers who produced the cheap bounty on the shelves, the tonnes of polluting carbon emitted to ship much of it around the world so we can have access to off-season or exotic fruits and vegetables, the dangerous degradation of soil and water supplies which is part and parcel of industrial monocropping. Also glaring is the fact that so much of what lines the shelves could be grown responsibly within Ireland, but instead is expensively shipped in to the island from elsewhere while in their stead our agribusinesses ship out vast quantities of animal products, whose production is economically unsustainable and has to be heavily subsidised.
Because of this increased awareness of our broken food system, I have come to value and appreciate food in a way I never had before. Working with fresh, home-grown ingredients with different combinations of produce available at different times, has challenged me to be an inventive cook, rather than relying on dairy-based foods as the centre-piece of meals.
From a Dharmic perspective, growing food has brought up ethical challenges that had otherwise been hidden away behind the packaging of shop-bought goods. I have used organic growing methods from the outset, and use only rainwater to feed crops, as well as trying to co-exist as best I can with all the creatures who naturally want to share my bounty. But home growing can often be a brutal business, and in establishing my garden I will have doubtless destroyed whole civilisations of insect and microbial life.
The garden does, however, frequently provide the opportunity to practice generosity: in sharing food with friends, family and neighbours, as well as giving help to other gardeners, along with spare seed. It also provides a living exposition of conditioned co-production (that things arise in dependence on conditions/the existence of other things). When I plant my seed potatoes, I think of the millennia of their cultivation in South America, then conditions that gave rise to the age of ‘exploration’, with all its terrible implications, that brought those ancient tubers West, and then around the world. Then the hundreds of years more recently during which new varieties of potato were bred for growth in different climates zones and for different tastes. Then the logistics of acquiring the varieties for my current conditions, and all of the people and other unseen beings involved in getting them to this spot in north Roscommon. Then there is the soil they are placed in, composted from a broad range of organic matter, home to billions upon billions of microbial life forms and insects evolved for infinitesimal time periods to thrive in those conditions, each feeding off some element of the soil or the other life forms within it, including the specific plant or seeds placed there, and whose activities are vital to the good health of the soil and the flora growing there. Then inputs of rain, of enrichment, my stewardship of the plants to fruition… All of the myriad conditions that bring that tasty potato to my plate… There is a lot to be grateful for!
And there is a lot to be cognisant of within that gratitude. The life force of plants cannot be denied, their ‘will’ to grow. As food, each is a gift of incredible value. And seeing them thus, I cannot deny the yet more tangible suffering of our closer relations in the animal world. Living in ‘dairy country’ brings this home daily. And so, for me, the necessity of veganism is now undeniable (but yet the cognitive dissonance persists, I have still not committed fully, but it is close).
Of course, for many people growing food is out of reach. If you do not have access to a garden, a community garden or allotment, even growing cress on a windowsill is a worthwhile endeavour. It’ll be the tastiest cress you’ve ever eaten, and it might just lead you on a path to greater food awareness, with all its related spiritual benefits.
Liz Evers is a member of the Buddhist Centre Online team. She is the author of a number of non-fiction reference books, and currently specialises in biographical research.