Being at one with your garden

October 11, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Wendy Johnson responded to the craziness of the Vietnam era the way a number of young people in my generation did.

She withdrew from the world and retreated to a communal life in the hills above San Francisco, where she learned to live off the land and to nurture her soul with chanting and meditation and the teachings of Buddha.

Many of those who dropped out during those tumultuous years would eventually return to the world, to one degree or another, but Johnson stayed, and she is still there.

She and her husband joined the Green Dragon Zen Temple in Marin County, Calif., and spent 25 years there, learning to meditate, learning to garden and raising two children. They stayed until 1998, when an inheritance allowed them to buy a farm of their own not far away.

It was while working at Green Gulch Farm Center that Johnson helped lay the groundwork for the organic gardening, locovore and stewardship of the Earth movements that are mainstream now.

She has written a book about her years learning about the deep and rhythmic connections between the Earth and the soul. It's titled Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.

It is part memoir, part Buddhist primer, part gardening how-to and part cookbook, and it conveys her core belief: If you work to know the ground on which you live and from which your food comes, you will also learn to know yourself. It took her 10 years to write - long-hand - because she never wanted to leave the garden long enough to write about it.

The book tells the story of the formative years of the community in the valley of Green Gulch, "which uncoils between high, dry hills like an ancient green dragon with its tail stirring the sea and its fire-breathing head held high in the mysterious clouds that rise like primordial vapor from the coastal mountains."

Green Gulch was first and foremost a Zen retreat, but it came to sustain itself and its residents through the abundance of the gardens. The farm provided much of the produce that sustained San Francisco's restaurants and farmers' markets during the early days, when hardly anyone had heard the term "organic" to describe food.

Now nearly 60, Johnson teaches Zen meditation and organic gardening and helps gardeners like me understand how irrevocably the garden and the soul of the gardener are connected.

She tells us to listen to our gardens, to pay attention, to slow down, to take cues from the land instead of trying to impose our will on it.

"Working in the garden is also meditation, though not in the conventional sense of calming down, moving slowly and deliberately and dwelling in stillness," she writes.

"On the contrary, I am often most alert and settled in the garden when I am working hard, hip-deep in a succulent snarl of spring weeds. My body and mind drop away then, far below wild radish and bull thistle, and I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work."

Johnson is a lover of the untamed as well as the tamed, and she honors the wildness by leaving a random corner of the garden untended.

"I let it go into a neglected tangle ... and it feeds my somewhat fierce soul," she writes.

Like Johnson, I would rather garden than write about gardening or read about gardening. And as fall settles into my neighborhood, I have a great deal to do before I can put my gardens to bed.

But soon the cold rains of early winter will come and the garden will not be such an inviting place. It will be then that I will be grateful for the companionship of Wendy Johnson and her luminous book.

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