As the Spring gradually turns into summer, and more of us are taking to our gardens, Mícheál Callaghan offers a reflection on the joy and mindfulness which can result from growing your own.
While I have written previously, in this column, and elsewhere, about the practical importance of being able to grow some of your own food, this time I focus on the joy that growing your own can bring, and the mindfulness that gardening can cultivate. Since moving home last summer, I have once again taken up growing some of my own vegetables. As I did not move home until mid-July, I was a bit late to the season, but nevertheless experimented with salads and carrots, to different levels of success. Through trial and error, attending courses and consultation with several YouTube videos, I have gradually started to get some of the basics right. However, as well as new knowledge, I have discovered something much deeper and infinitely more beneficial – the mindful joy of growing your own.
State of Flow
Psychologists tells us it is important to find an activity that can bring us into a state of flow, where we can be totally immersed in the activity, providing us some temporary respite from our usual external pressures and thoughts. Gardening is my own new found state of ‘flow’. During the final stages of my PhD, a stressful time for any doctoral candidate, I would find some solace and relaxation under my feet, in the soil. I recall numerous groggy Sunday mornings where lethargy and tiredness would want to keep me inside on the couch. However, I often found that the initial resistance and grumpiness would crumble away, after a few minutes of immersing my hands in the black gold. Research has shown that getting your hands dirty, in the soil, can release serotonin, the body’s natural anti-depressant. Indeed, doctors and psychologists now prescribe time in the garden, as horticultural therapy. I found my own horticultural therapy in the back garden, and within a few minutes of digging, sowing, or even weeding, I would find myself much calmer and more relaxed.
As someone who has practiced mindfulness and meditation over the last number of years, I am all too familiar with the attempts in vein to find elusive blissful and calm states from my mediation cushion. Mindfulness involves focusing our attention on an object, usually the breath, over a period of time, in order to bring about greater states of concentration and absorption – something which is seriously needed in our always on world of distractions and social media notifications! However, my time in the garden has opened up a whole new set of objects for my meditation. I often ground myself, by stepping out into the back garden, and focusing on the cacophony of birdsong, letting the sweet melodies transport me into a different realm, away from our human suffering. This has been a much welcomed tonic during these uncertain times.
The act of gardening itself is a form of meditation. Our attention needs to be focused and absorbed when undertaking the delicate act of sowing seeds, or transplanting seedlings. Indeed, even bringing our attention to the soil, examining what we see, can make us realise the abundance of life that is all around us, even if some of these life forms, like slugs, can be a gardeners nightmare. Even the horror of an early morning discovery of the damage caused by the previous night’s feasting slugs can in itself be turned into a lesson of mindfulness, that in fact there are many other life forms also competing for our food sources, that in turn sustain many more.
This humbling experience has greatly increased my appreciation for food production, for the work of our growers and farmers, and has also made me realise how much work is actually involved in converting seeds into produce to be eaten (by humans) on our plates. Just as on meditation retreats, when the natural world seems much more vivid and alive and you feel intricately connected with the web of life, so too can bringing a kind attention to our gardens, and the life within it, make us realise our place within a much wider and complicated web of life. Such connection and appreciation, I believe can not only provide great joy and relief during times of worry but can also help to sow the seeds of a much deeper appreciation for the natural world that we so urgently need to cultivate in the years ahead.
Nature Watch by Liam Murtagh
Oak before Ash, in for a Splash?
Although it already seems like summer, some of our native trees in County Monaghan are only now coming into leaf. Among them are the Oak and the Ash – trees regarded by the Celts as among the ‘noble’ trees of the wood. As a child I recall my father saying that the Ash was the ‘last to come and the first to go’. Elsewhere, I have often heard this piece of weather lore quoted at this time of year:
If the Oak before the Ash, Then we’ll only have a splash. If the Ash before the Oak, Then we’ll surely have a soak!
Although not one for weather lore, I decided to have a closer look at some trees locally to see which one would be last in this year’s race. I found that some Oaks were in leaf and other Oaks weren’t, and the same applied to the Ash. The experts say that this is due to genetic variation within a species. I would have needed to examine a larger number of trees in an area in order to come to a firm conclusion.
According to scientists, the Oak is almost always in leaf before the Ash and climate change will mean that Ash will in future never come before the Oak. Oak trees are leafing around two weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago, while Ash trees are leafing just 7-10 days earlier. The Oak responds to higher temperatures while it’s the day length that largely determines when the Ash comes into leaf. Later I had a look at the one of the majestic Oaks alongside Lough Muckno (pictured left) – their new leaves have a beautiful olive / lime colour with some russet coming through. Nearer home I saw stumps of coppiced Ash already sprouting fresh new stems and leaves (pictured middle). In the nearby field boundaries, spiked clusters of dark tipped flowers (pictured right) were visible on many mature Ash trees. As they are not ‘showy’, we seldom notice their beauty.
Unfortunately, many Ash trees in Ireland are dying due to Ash Dieback disease. It is caused by a fungus rather than a virus. Plant scientists are working to ensure that Ash trees planted in future will be resistant to the new disease. At this stage of the year our local Ash trees seem healthy. However, Ash trees, like us humans, will face a challenge this summer, regardless of whether we have a ‘splash’ or a ‘soak’.