Gardening and the Sophistication of Life

Today, our social media editor Craig Katzenmiller shares some thoughts inspired by his small, 64-square-feet farm. My spouse and I relocated to Knoxville in mid-March, into our first home. Suddenly the strange  pools of water in the garage, the door that won’t close all the way, the out-of-place gutter drain are our responsibility. Gone are the assurances of having a landlord. Likewise, though, gone also are the fetters of having a landlord. And so, this past week, I bought six 2x8x8 pieces of lumber and turned the soil over in two 8x4 patches. Then I constructed two 8x4 boxes with the aforementioned lumber, filled them with garden soil and seeds and compost. I sowed my first garden.

Growing up, my father always had a garden. One of my fondest memories of his many gardens is the year, long ago when I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old, we finished planting and were left with various varieties of many extra bean seeds. Dad quickly made a final row in the bean section and we haphazardly sowed all the seeds together in that row. And, several months later, we had a crowded row of many different kinds of beans—all growing together in harmony.

Those were the proverbial good old days. Somewhere along the way though I got a little too big for those britches.

Will Campbell, the much revered Southern preacher and contrarian, speaks of entering his “sophisticated period” when he went off to Yale Divinity School. After leaving Yale, and returning to the South, he learned that much of the stuff he learned in Yale Divinity School didn’t communicate in rural churches. So he had to become unsophisticated again. Somewhere in his writings, he mentions gluing his “ordination papers”—the handwritten document his church drew up when he was a youngster, complete with typos, that said he was a minister in God’s church—over his degree from Yale. One of my friends who used to visit Will reports having seen those ordination papers glued over Will’s Yale degree. Through the years, Will learned how to be thoughtful without being “an Eastern shit”—a term Stanley Hauerwas uses when narrating his own story of gaining sophistication, incidentally, after attending Yale Divinity School.

At any rate, after those good old days mentioned above I entered my sophisticated period in college and grad school. I was not deemed smart enough to enter Yale Divinity School nor did I move eastward. But in my own way, I became an Eastern shit. Regrettably, I looked down my nose on many things—perceived lesser theologies, perceived lesser vocations, etc.

Thankfully, I met people like Lee Camp and Richard Goode while in that sophisticated phase, and they introduced me to people who recognized their so-called sophistication and abandoned it—the Will Campbells, the Stanley Hauerwases, the Zooey Glasses. Through introducing me to various authors as well as to the men who I now count among my friends at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, I was able to identify and abandon my pretense to sophistication—or at least, in my better moments I’m able to abandon that pretense.

And so, my tiny little garden out back. Gardening was one of those things I once thought myself too evolved for. I had Tyson chickens and Walmarts after all. All I needed to do was drive a couple of miles and pay for that stuff. Why go to the hassle of growing it? Well, I have since evolved to see that that consumeristic tendency is plain toxic.

So, having given up the pretense to being above it, I dug my hands into the dirt and buried some seeds. It is indeed a practice that is and will be good for me. Gardening, in a most concrete way, teaches the virtue of humility (for I cannot control the outcomes here) and it leads me to what Ragan Sutterfield calls “the agrarian mind” (Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, 31–35). According to Sutterfield, the agrarian mind has two components: first, becoming aware of the many dependencies we have—everything from grocery shopping to fuel consumption to clothes buying—and second, ridding ourselves of as many of those dependencies as we can. So we might sew together clothes instead of buying them; or we might ride our bicycles to nearby places instead of driving; or we might grow what’s needed for nourishment instead of relying on overly processed foods. These alternatives are, for Sutterfield, practices that inform virtues. As Sutterfield puts it, following Alisdair MacIntyre, “[W]e do not learn virtues through abstractions but through the concrete discipline and work of practices within a community and tradition. The intricate work of table-making is a better instructor in patience than a classroom dialogue and the discipline of a sport is a better instructor in self-denial than an abstract lesson in ‘virtue education’” (19). Sewing, cycling, and gardening are such community-based and tradition-involved practices.

Sutterfield goes on to identify gardening as a spiritual discipline precisely because it teaches us the virtue of humility, “the only sure path toward being fully human” (21), and forces us to slow down and to be aware of the gifts of God—for example, the gift of fallen leaves, which are ideal for composting. “We will have to beat the trash trucks through suburban neighborhoods to pick up bags of leaves we know are beyond value,” notes Sutterfield (39). "Gardens get in the way of progress. They start people thinking that maybe God gave us the means to feed ourselves without Tyson and Walmart getting in the mix." And that bit of subversion initiates the defeat of the "forces who are working against the arrival of something abundant and healthy in a world that thrives on scarcity and disease" (38).

Gardening, then, allows us the time and space to grow and to become more deeply rooted to our place in the world.

Gardening allows us time and space to reflect on the fact that just as plants come from the graced nothingness of seeds, so we humans come from the graced nothingness of seeds.

And gardening allows us the time and space to be what God created us to be, namely, co-creators with God of new life around tables where there is food for all.

Craig "Dusty" Katzenmiller is social media editor at Tokens and is a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.