By Michelle Vesser
The Gardens at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Sonoma County, California are a unique combination of abundance, wildness and spectacular beauty. These two decades-old hand-tilled gardens focus on growing living soil, honoring biodiversity and reconnecting the human world with the diversity of food, flowers and spirit.
When most people walk through the gardens, they are touched by a deeper knowing of what nourishes us, something so many of us yearn for today.
It is one of the joys of my life to share these gardens with others through a three-day workshop called Healing through Food, Gardening, Herbs and Ceremony: Remembering Our Way. We spend our time together exploring the wisdom the gardens holds.
I always start our time together by taking a moment to allow ourselves to arrive, arrive into these beautiful gardens. Even now as you are reading this, take a moment to connect with the Earth the surrounds you, the scent of the living world, the air that touches your skin, the sounds that are present, and the heat that warms you. In the gardens we sit under the Oak tree and hear the bees, hummingbirds, and the rustle of the wind and breathe in the scent of rich soil.
It is amazing to contemplate what it took each of us to get here. Born in the fast-paced modern world, we become accustomed to what we have grown up with — the house that shelters us; the food that we pick up in a grocery store or restaurants; the money we depend on to meet our needs. I grew up watching the natural world get paved over. I saw walnut groves I played in cut down and replaced with tract houses. Horse pastures now hold high rise business complexes. The last thing I was supposed to become was a farmer/gardener. However, the day in 1986 that I walked down the stone steps into these gardens, my life was forever changed.
As I have built a deeper relationship with the garden and the plant world, I have come to understand that we all evolved together. If I take the time to meet the plants around me, I will see that they are all our food and medicine, even the so-called “weeds.” Everything you see in the grocery store was once a wild plant that our ancestors saw potentiality in. They went back to them at just the right time to harvest their delightful taste, their nourishing quality, or their healing nature. Every plant, if you take the time to meet them, will reveal their gifts.
The plant world at first can be overwhelming. There are so many of them. Yet I have heard from a great herbalist that if you know ten plants well, they are all you need for your medicine bag.
During the workshop, I ask people to walk in the garden and connect with any plant that calls them and to then ask for a relationship, and sit quietly and listen. I also encourage participants to believe what they hear or see in whatever form that comes in. They are often amazed by what they discover. If you then take a year with that plant, interacting with it in a diverse ways, it will become an ally of significance, aiding you when most needed.
I also gather the “weeds of the garden” to show participants. I honor them in glass jars, thirty displayed on a table. I always choose one particular plant first. In its older stage, it is tall, spiny and not very enticing. I ask if anyone know what it is. I get different responses, yet most people are not familiar with it. This plant is one we all know and have eaten in its more developed form. It is wild lettuce. Everyone is surprised. Our ancestors first harvested it in the spring when it is mild, yet in it later form it is a wonderful nervine, a plant that cools us down and calms our nerves.
We also take more time with several plants to make infused medicinal oils, salves and salt scrubs. It is a simple and fun way to capture the healing constituents and retain their healing properties for later use. They can be used for cuts, bruises, and burns, and to stimulate your lymphatic system.
On the second day of the course, we spend the majority of time gardening, covering the practical, hand-till bio-intensive techniques of cultivation, composting, and planting. All of this is done ritually. We clear a garden bed, focusing on what no longer serves us in our lives, which we take to compost, so that we can transform and transmute it into nutrient-rich humus. We then cultivate the bed and prepare it for what we want to call in, and plant with that intention. In this way, as we work in the garden, we are always growing ourselves, too. The soil, the plants and what we harvest are not separate — they are deeply connected. Realizing this allows this sacred co-creation to reach a greater fruition.
Before we start using tools in the garden, we take time to connect with our most important tool — our own bodies. I feel very fortunate that when I started gardening, I also started studying Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a Chinese system of physical exercises designed for strengthening, meditation and self-defense. It has been an extraordinary partnering. Early on in my gardening career, I hurt my arm, and I thought to myself, If I am going to continue to garden, I have to find a way to use my body that avoids injury and cultivates strength and vitality.
We are often taught how to prepare a bed, plant and harvest, but seldom how to use our bodies in relationship to the tools we use.
In Tai Chi, you have a strong base with your lower body; moving Earth chi (“vital energy”) up through your feet, body and out your hands while your upper body moves in relaxed circular movements. Our bodies hold a lot of memory and emotions, so changing our habits of lifting with our back can at first be odd and challenging; however, in time as you see gardening as a practice, you will find a rhythm that makes the work fluid and easy.
Throughout the workshop, there is focus on understanding that the food with which we nurture ourselves is our most important medicine. If we act on the Chinese and Ayurvedic beliefs that our gut is the seat of our health, how we tend our inner landscape will not be separate from how we steward the outer landscape. All beings are made of the elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. There is a constitutional balance that we each come into the world with. This makes sense in the outer world. We can see the effects of drought, yet what does that lack of the water element do to our body systems? How does too much fire affect our body?
In the past, humans were not separated from the world around them, but held a relationship with the seasons, the animals, and the plants — all living and supporting each other; everything giving and receiving in a web of reciprocity. I have come to see all beings are luminous generosity. Each season offers what is best suited for that moment in time. There is a reason watermelon, cucumbers, and tomatoes are ripe in the summer — their watery goodness cools us down from the summer’s heat. And warming root crops and stews are perfect for winter. We have forgotten so much of the accrued food wisdom of our ancestors. Now there is everything imaginable in the grocery stores year round. Most of what we buy is not even in its original form but processed, altered in significant ways, including artificial ingredients. Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that the first principal of healthy eating is to just select foods from the edges of modern supermarkets, where the fresh, whole foods are located.
Another important component of the workshop is introducing participants to the amazing work of Weston A. Price, the first Research Director of the American Dental Association, who traveled the world studying indigenous peoples in the 1930’s to understand the causes of tooth decay and nutritional degeneration. He found that traditional people would eat for vitality and strength, unlike our habit today of eating for taste and energy. Men and women would plan for pregnancy and eat special foods three months before conception. In general, they would spend time gathering and storing nutrient-dense foods. Price found that the people he studied who still ate their traditional foods and had not incorporated the food of commerce (processed food, sugar, and sweetened preserves) had very little tooth decay and none of the degenerative diseases of their time. Their levels of Vitamin A, D, E and the X-factor (now known as Vitamin K), were 3 to 10 times higher than in people eating a modern commercial diet.
What would it be like if we really had to eat only what was in our foodshed — food grown in the region in which we live? What would we do to stay healthy?
These are the questions we try to answer in the workshop. Traditional people ate foods high in fat soluble vitamins found in fish, fish eggs, organ meat, raw grass fed milk and milk products. In addition, they would ferment foods to add both Vitamin C and probiotics — essential bacteria to the digestive systems. Traditional cultures all had fermented foods in the diet such as sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, kvass, kefir, bagoong (Philippines), etc. Grains were harvested and used within the year. They would soak grains whole to sprout them and make them more nutritious and easier to digest, whereas most commercially available flour today has the high nutrient germ removed to allow for a longer storage life.
During our time together in the Healing Through Food, Gardening, Herbs and Ceremony course, we honor this food wisdom in various ways. Offerings of herbal pestos, different fermentations, baked treats made without wheat or sugar, and herbal drinks are shared. Together we make sauerkraut, harvesting cabbage, scallions and herbs directly from the garden. Each of the nourishing and delicious meals made in the Center’s kitchen bring it all together, with our evening meal shared in the garden, the wooden tables becoming an alter to the food prepared for us. We take time to reflect on the day and our gratitude for this abundant earth.
What a generous planet we live on. It is time to remember all the ways the natural world is here to support us, and for us to give back as well. As another Spring approaches, I look forward to the gifts the garden holds and the abundance it offers. I hope you can come and join us.