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Giving Thanks for the Garden

November 23, 2011

The back garden in summer (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) This is the week when those of us in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving, a favorite holiday for many. Although the story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in the new world includes a gloss of American exceptionalism that masks the darker side of European colonialism, Thanksgiving is at heart a harvest festival. When I think of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, I think not of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song about victory in battle, but of “America the Beautiful,” whose opening lines celebrate nature’s beauty and bounty:

Oh beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties,  Above the fruited plain.

As I think about nature’s beauty and bounty in my own life this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the local farmers whose bounty feeds me. They have provided the apples for the apple pie and the whole wheat flour and buttermilk for the dinner rolls that will be my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house. But I am also thankful for my garden. Although I don’t grow food there, the garden is an important source of nature’s beauty and bounty in my life.

Long ago, I came to understand that my psychological well-being rests on four legs: connection with nature, connection with self, connection with others, and meaningful work. When I have all four of these elements present and balanced in my life, I feel the euphoria of overflowing joy. With any three of the four in place, I am happy and healthy. But if I have only two, my well-being is wobbly; and if one comes to dominate, I am unhappy and stressed. Although I am lucky to do work (college teaching) that I find meaningful and fulfilling, work is the element that is most likely to take over my life, especially during those times of the school year when doing the work well requires long hours of class preparation and grading. My commitment to walking to and from work most days (even though it takes almost an hour round trip) is a way to keep two of the other elements present. My walking time is time for personal reflection and connection with self. But it is also time for connection with nature, as I notice a particularly beautiful maple leaf that has fallen onto the sidewalk or gaze at gardens along the way .

The gardening season is often a time of great happiness in my life because my garden can provide all four elements of well-being for me. The garden literally grounds me. I am a person who lives alone, has strong needs for solitude, and usually gardens alone, so gardening time is almost always time for connection with self. Gardening is creative work that helps me connect with a creative, artistic self that for many years I didn’t know existed. Gardening is also physical work that connects me with the capabilities and limitations of my body. And whether I am doing routine garden chores or relaxing in the garden, I am able to use the time to reflect on my life and relationships or just to let my mind wander into new pathways of thought.

Pink platycodon opening (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Of course, the garden always connects me with nature. In my daily walks around the garden, I peer closely at plants and become attuned to their life cycles. Trying to provide for the needs of the plants I grow connects me with the complex relationships of plant life, insect life, animal life, soil, rain, and sunshine. Even on a snowy day like today, when much of my garden is hidden from view under its white blanket and I am staying indoors, I am aware of the natural world outside my windows – of the stark beauty of trees limbs traced in white, of the more voluptuous beauty of evergreen boughs wearing thick white stoles, of the rhododendron leaves fully open beneath their white caps (telling me that the temperature is near or above freezing).

Winter woods on a snowy day (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)The garden also connects me with others. Like all gardeners, I want to share the beauty and bounty of my garden. During the summer months, I have friends over for meals in the garden. In spring and fall, I make connections with other gardeners and would-be gardeners at work by giving away divisions of my plants. Garden photography provides another way to share my garden with others, especially through the garden calendars that have become a favorite gift for family and friends. And writing a garden blog has connected me with a wonderful and  unexpected virtual community.

2010 calendar cover (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) 2011 calendar cover (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

As I grow older, I find the work of gardening more and more meaningful. Gardening is no longer something I do just to create beauty and pleasure in my own life. I now do it more mindfully, hoping to make an ecological contribution through my gardening practices. Gardening has become an activity imbued with meaning and a source of fulfillment – and this is particularly important to me as I move toward retirement and away from the work that has defined my life for almost forty years. I expect gardening to provide meaning in my life for many years to come. I am hoping to do more garden writing after I retire from teaching. I am also planning to get certified as a Master Gardener, and I am looking forward to new kinds of meaningful work as a Master Gardener volunteer.

Tomorrow is  Thanksgiving, and I am giving thanks for the garden.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 2:59 pm

    What a thoughtful and wise post, Jean. I really like what you said about your psychological well-being resting on the four legs. When I read through them it occurred to me that garden designers must have it easy! Okay, aside from how hard their work is anyway. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. November 23, 2011 3:21 pm

    Jean how beautiful…I can so relate to those 4 legs. While I have an hour drive to work, I look for the beautiful sunrise and sunset and the critters that show themselves along the landscape…I hope to retire soon as well and gardening will be a force in my life to sustain me in the next phase of that life…the connection with nature that gardening provides is essential and has made me think differently about my garden too!! Happy Thanksgiving Jean!!!

  3. November 23, 2011 3:23 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving, Jean!

  4. November 23, 2011 4:35 pm

    I can see you as a gifted Master Gardener!

  5. November 23, 2011 4:53 pm

    Jean, what a lovely, lyrical post–full of sage wisdom, too. I think one of the most beautiful things about gardening is the way that it grows into other parts of life, coloring attitudes and relationships and values and self-awareness, just as you describe here. It’s also lovely how you apply the same thought and care to your own life that you give to a new garden bed. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  6. November 23, 2011 9:16 pm

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    • December 2, 2011 10:30 pm

      Chad, Good thought about garden design as a career!

      Donna, Your comment brought back memories of my years in graduate school, when I commuted more than an hour each way and used the driving time as time to connect with both myself and nature.

      Sandra, It’s always nice to hear from you; thanks for visiting.

      Diana, Thanks for the vote of confidence; I hope you are right.

      Stacey and Karen, Thank you for the kind words.

  7. November 24, 2011 9:43 am

    Jean, your words beautifully describe how so many of us feel about gardening. It, indeed, keeps us grounded and, while providing amazing beauty, is also humbling with constant reminders that we are not in charge. Thoughtful gardeners understand and embrace this reality. Happy Thanksgiving.

  8. November 24, 2011 12:31 pm

    Jean, What a beautiful and thoughtful Thanksgiving essay and so uplifting. I had never thought expressly of the four connections you mention, but that is definitely what it is all about for me. I am blessed that three of them come as a package because my meaningful work brings connection to nature and others both in PA and ME. So the harder I work the more I connect to nature and others making me mostly happy and healthy. I guess I could work harder on the connection to self—that’s my weak leg. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving at your friend’s house. Carolyn

  9. November 26, 2011 8:32 pm

    What a lovely piece of writing. I like how in tune you are to your needs, not only does it affect you but if you’re out of balance those around you will be affected to. How wonderful Jean to hear that you’re going to become a master gardener. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that immensely.

  10. November 27, 2011 2:10 am

    This is a beautifully written article, Jean; thank you for sharing it. The Master Gardener programme is a wonderful idea. I wish we had something like that here.

  11. November 27, 2011 10:02 am

    Jean, such an intriguing post which gives me food for thought. My search for well being has spanned many decades. I reckon I have failed on the third leg and have concentrated only on my immediate family’s needs.

    • December 2, 2011 10:40 pm

      Joene, I really appreciate your point that being connected with nature means being part of something much larger than yourself and knowing that you are not in charge.

      Carolyn, How wonderful to have work that connects you in all those ways. It’s probably part of the difference between your family life and my single life that connection to others is the element of well-being that I have to really work at. I can easily turn into a hermit and this year have been making a special effort to do something strictly social with others at least once a month.

      Marguerite, I think being single makes it much easier to be in tune with my own needs.

      Lyn, I agree that the Master Gardener program is wonderful. I only learned about it when a good friend took the course a few years ago.

      Alistair, It pleases me very much to have given you food for thought. The third leg is the weak one for me, too — the one I have to make a special effort at and the first one to give way when I am feeling stressed.

  12. November 28, 2011 2:04 pm

    Beautifully written, Jean. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  13. November 28, 2011 5:57 pm

    A beautiful, and meaningful Thanksgiving post, Jean. I also tend to crave solitude, and find I’m most comfortable out of doors, immersed in nature, or the garden. When I can’t be outside I often feel that something is missing. I also enjoy sharing, not just my garden, but sharing in the gardens of others too. Thank you for sharing your garden with us.

  14. November 28, 2011 11:04 pm

    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! I am definitely going to download your book recommendation as an audiobook to listen to on my long xmas drive to my parents house. It sounds perfect, and I’ve been search for something for the trip. I really enjoyed his “La’s Orchestra Saves The World” but I haven’t read any of his others.

  15. November 29, 2011 12:53 pm

    What a wonderful and meaningful posting Jean. It is amazing how being out in nature grounds us so much. It is when we release all of the worldly concerns going on about us and we can reflect and release all of the stress and useless things that try to weigh us down. I love your plans for the future of writing and getting a Master Gardeners degree.
    Thank you for sharing your garden and thoughts with us. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  16. November 29, 2011 4:43 pm

    Beautifully written. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  17. December 2, 2011 2:10 am

    Jean, you write beautifully and I loved this post. I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful.

    I can relate to “feeling grounded” in the garden. I began gardening as an outlet to relieve stress and fell in love immediately.

    Thank you for your words. I will return to your blog often.

    • December 2, 2011 11:01 pm

      Grace, Thank you for the kind words. I did have a wonderful Thanksgiving. (It provided a brief respite from grading papers, the bane of my existence at this time in the semester.)

      Clare, I share your love of being outdoors (although my work often keeps me indoors for long days). In the past, I’ve done a lot of solo camping, and I found that an intensely wonderful way to connect with both nature and self.

      Jess, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, too. I also enjoyed La’s Orchestra Saves the World. If you enjoy the Sunday Philosophy Club books, you might also want to check out the 44 Scotland Street series. (A new book by Alexander McCall Smith always makes me smile in anticipation.)

      Lona, LOL, It’s such a typical academic response to a big life change to deal with it by going back to school! (I’ve been in school almost continuously since I was four years old; why stop now? :-))

      Kevin, Thanks for the good wishes; I hope your Thanksgiving was happy and healthy.

      Debra, Thanks so much for visiting and for your kind words. I go hooked on blogging for the same stress-relief reasons.

  18. December 5, 2011 5:12 am

    Hello Jean,
    Thank you for such a beautiful personal reflection on Thanksgiving and the sense of connectedness gardening provides. Hmm. I’ve tried a few ways to write it without sounding trite, but I really did find this a wonderfully thoughtful and evocative post and am very happy that you shared it with us.

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