A Communion with the Earth: Gardening and Gratitude

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 6:31am
Photo by Remo Cassella

A Communion with the Earth: Gardening and Gratitude

It took me a long time and a good deal of sweat to understand it — just how much our Earth is a sanctuary for our souls. This awareness evolved only thanks to Signora Giuseppa.

Having worked the land for more than seventy years, Giuseppa quietly and wisely guided me towards this realization while we walked around her campo, her fields. Through her simple and daily vigil of being with, caring for, and depending upon the earth, she initiated me into the profound experience of gardening and growing what one eats. For it is through this deeply experiential reality that we are best able to integrate the sacredness of the Earth with our own humanity.

Signora Giuseppa is a round but sturdy widow whose hands are small, yet broad and strong. Whenever she stands before you, her feet are firmly planted and her eyes steady upon you. She is 77 years old, and one of the few people I have ever met that is really present to all that is around her. Every afternoon you can find her tending her two-acre campo in the Italian countryside north of Rome. Since she was five years old she has lived all her life (literally) off the fruits of her labor. From olive oil to fava beans to wine grapes and, of course, tomatoes, her harvest is as varied as it is delicious.

Whenever I visit, she chatters away in her Italian dialect as she heads out to feed her chickens with a bucket of soggy bread and milled corn in hand and an assortment of half-wild cats underfoot. She knows I don’t always understand, but what she seems to find more important is our time together. It is always a pleasure to visit her and see what she is sowing, planting, harvesting, gathering, drying, and feeding her chickens.

Giuseppa and the author, Catherine Lombard.

Only educated to the third grade (and thanks to Mussolini, she says, insisting that all Italian children learn to read and write), Giuseppa has managed to integrate life’s lessons. For some time now, I have declared her farm “The University of Gardening” and she la professoressa. Whenever I say this in front of the many visitors and relatives that often drop by, Giuseppa beams proudly and quickly adds, “I was never much educated, but I do have some esperienza.

It wasn’t until I too had this esperienza of hoeing, planting, composting, weeding, watering, and finally reaping the harvest of my own garden did I come to understand how holy the Earth really is. My education evolved mostly from my following Giuseppa around her campo and simply watching. She used to tease me by telling everyone that I liked to come by and steal her secrets. Yet, while she showed me how far apart to plant tomatoes, when to harvest the garlic, and how to recognize a cauliflower that wouldn’t produce fruit, Giuseppa was also teaching me how to relate to the land; how to observe, care, tend, and support its needs; how to appreciate its bounty, receive its gifts, and surrender that which doesn’t survive.

Oh sure, I had been ecologically aware for years: bicycling to work, recycling my plastics, picking up tossed garbage left along the roadside, hanging up wash instead of using a dryer, and buying a fuel-efficient car. All these small conscious acts of conservation are vital to the planet’s ultimate survival. Until one actually works the Earth, one cannot appreciate the lessons it holds nor how fundamentally attached we are to it, nor how much working on the land can actually help us to become fully human. As Gandhi once said, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

What makes gardening such a precise mirror for the soul? There are many biblical parables that invoke the imagery of the garden — the pruning of vines, sowing of seeds, and harvesting of grapes. Taoists believe that miniature gardens are the earthly copy of Paradise. In Islam, the four gardens of Paradise — Soul, Heart, Spirit, and Essence — symbolize the mystical journey of the soul.

And then there’s my retired neighbor Angelo who once told me that gardening was the most humble of tasks:

“Your head is always bowed and sometimes you have to go down on your knees.”

While poised in this most humble of postures, we begin to work in parallel with God in the creation of the greater world and universe. Although God’s dimension is infinite and eternal while ours is contained and immediate, we, nevertheless, enter into the same act of creation, the word actually coming from the Latin creare: to produce, to make life.

A greengrocery in Milan, Italy.

(Thomas Vilhelm / Cover/Getty Images.)

As the gardener creates, so does the garden transform the inner life of its creator. The garden’s cycle mirrors our own growth, complete with floods, heat, drought, infestation; dying, resurrecting, blossoming, blooming, maturing, rotting; bounty, beauty, miracles.

In our deeper psyche we tend to our life’s garden of sorrows and joys. We pull out, cut back, dig up, bury, sow, support, and nourish hoping one day to harvest our life’s experiences into wisdom. Without all this soul/gardening work, our spirits are swamped under the weeds, our creative gifts choked, our true selves unable to flourish.

When I first started my own small patch of vegetables, I found myself constantly moving plants. They would start as seedlings in small containers on my balcony from where I could keep an eye on them. Then, once big enough, they were transplanted into individual and bigger pots. Finally, they were carried to the garden and planted in the earth. Sometimes I’d catch myself moving a plant four or five times, fussing to find the best spot for it to thrive.

Upon reflection, I realized that this farming trait of mine was an outward manifestation of something deep within my own nature. I am a person who, when faced with a crisis, moves. I get in my car and drive off. My life has been shaped by a series of crisis and moving, moving and crisis. Since I was 15 years old, I have had 37 addresses in nine different countries on four different continents. Perhaps this is why I tend to move plants. There is a longing for safety, for finding the right place, for coming home.

One afternoon, after Giuseppa dug up 50 new lettuce plants and gave them to me to take home and plant in my own garden, she said, “You know what they say, Caterì? ‘Metti in terra, spera in Dio. Put them in the earth and hope in God.’” That felt like a strong message for me to stop moving. I needed, at least for a while, to plant myself firmly in the earth and place my hope and trust in God and the universe that I would receive the nourishment that I needed and all would be well.

As we interact with hoe, shovel, and watering can upon our Earth, She is ready to teach us about ourselves. Working the Earth is like dreaming, it can act as a medium between self and soul. When we take time to garden, we are allowing our souls to speak to our conscious selves, to display outwardly where in the soul process we really are. As we gain in awareness, we can equally influence the soul to move to its next necessary task by outwardly performing the chore in the garden.

There were days when I found myself tearing at weeds, only moments later to feel the fierce roots of long-buried anger and resentment clinging to my heart. Other days I was filled with joy, longing to spill seeds upon every patch of bare earth. By gardening we unearth a place where our inner and outer worlds can merge. In this space, with time and nourishment, we encourage the self closer to truth and ultimately closer to God.

Similarly, while the garden is a connection to our lives, it is also a connection to death. There must be a balance between the two. The time for each must be acknowledged, observed, and honored.

One summer afternoon while visiting Giuseppa, I heard the mew of a newborn kitten coming from under the pigeon coop. Its mother had abandoned it to die; it was blind and starving. I scooped it up and held it against me as it feebly sought mother’s milk. Distraught, I turned to Giuseppa and said, “Oh, Giuseppa, what should I do? What should I do with this kitten?”

I remembered Giuseppa telling me how as a young girl during and after the Second World War, her job was to take care of the beasts. “We had large bulls to pull the plow, goats, rabbits, pigs, and of course chickens,” she said. “My two brothers were afraid of the bulls, but I used to love to walk them around. They were really gentle creatures. You know, with animals, you can always tell how they’re going to behave. It’s with people that you can never be certain.”

But this time, Giuseppa looked at me as if I were a small child who had dropped all the fresh eggs. “What should you do, Caterì?” she asked. “Why, put it down.”

It was a direct and poignant reply. I instantly recognized the need to allow nature to take its own course, to trust that the mother cat’s instincts were better than mine, to recognize that with sacrifice comes strength and renewal. I put the cat down.

Giuseppa in the garden.

In fact, this cycle of life and death on our planet was once ritualized and celebrated by our ancestors. Today the remnants of such sacred rites are the play of children — dances around maypoles and parades in Halloween costumes. Even though we might rationally interact with our gardens — we logically know we need seeds, sun, water, and rich earth — still there remains a mystery as to how, when, why, and what really flourishes.

Then there is communion with our Earth, the holy connection between us and the planet. What better way to participate in this than by eating a cherry tomato or snap pea that we have grown in relationship with the Earth? This replenishment of our bodies with what the Earth offers us through our own labor aided by nature’s gifts of sun and rain creates a circular relationship of spiritual unity. Perhaps this is the true meaning of Eucharist, which comes from the Greek for gratitude. By receiving the garden’s bounty into our bodies, we gain the strength, energy, and respect to continue our lives in tandem with it.

Last August, when most Italians flee their homes for holidays in the countryside or al mare, Giuseppa was faithfully tending her rows of tomato plants. I passed by one cloudy afternoon to find her worried over the possibility of rain. “If it rains, Caterì, it will ruin all the ripe tomatoes.” She and her extended family spent two days peeling and canning these tomatoes for the winter months. I offered to help her pick them without realizing what I was actually getting into. She accepted my offer, grabbed some crates, and bounded out into the field, calling for me to follow with the wheelbarrow. We spent nearly four hours picking tomatoes that afternoon with her chatting the entire time.

“We used to work for a patrone,” she told me. “Half of what we harvested went to the landowner. One hot summer day, I carried a heavy basket of tomatoes the long road up to the landowner’s house. I used to carry everything on my head in those days, but the wet wash from the lavanderia was always the worst, especially in winter.

I arrived in the midday heat with those tomatoes. I had been working all morning in the fields and hadn’t eaten a thing. It was a 30-minute walk straight uphill. The sweat was pouring down me. Do you think that Signora offered me a glass of water or a shady place to rest for a moment?”

The harvest from the author's garden.

We hauled the crates onto the wheelbarrow. “Wait, Caterì, let me help you. These crates are too heavy.”

She worked like a 20-year-old and didn’t seem to tire. Visibly rejoicing in the summer harvest, she became more animated and energized as the number of crates of tomatoes grew and grew. Meanwhile, my back was killing me even as I marveled over the variety and seemingly endless number of tomatoes that lay hidden inside the masses of vines.

As we returned to the fields, Giuseppa lingered for a moment next to the tiny clusters of unripe grapes. “Do you remember last year?” my professoressa quizzed me. “The grapes were ruined with disease. This year the plants are green and lush with fruit. It will be a good year for wine.”

She brushed one hand tenderly over the grapes. “Every year has its own season. Just like our lives. One year there is fruit, another only ruin.”

“But at least here in the campo,” Giuseppa laughed, “there’s always something to eat.”

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Catherine Ann Lombard

is a psychosynthesis counselor, writer, and teacher. Her books include God is in Rosaleen’s Restaurant and From Culture Shock to Personal Transformation: Studying Abroad and the Search for Meaning. You can read more of her writing on her blog LoveAndWill.com.

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This was difficult for me--tolerance of American language deficit, praising Mussolini, letting the kitten go--to take the good with the bad and vice versa requires some shock, I gather, and I found it here.

Wonderful article. Looking forward to a yearly update!

Great message.

Beautifully done...great photos too! Thanks for articulating something I'm learning only slowly.

Quiet, lovely magnificence. Thank you so much for this.

I really enjoyed this blog. Simple but complicated, warm and real, spiritual and directional.

Lovely

Here is something for your gardening, enjoy Gene.

The photos are gorgeous and add to the vivid narrative. Gardening metaphors are nourishment for the soul. "By gardening we unearth a place where our inner and outer worlds can merge. In this space, with time and nourishment, we encourage the self closer to truth and ultimately closer to God." I loved the image of bowing and kneeling in the garden to work the soil and pull the weeds as acts of humble co-creation.

Simply wonderful, true and impactful. Our goal at EarthMatters is to get those most in need reconnected with the healing vibrations of the earth thru gardening and composting.

I live this life and grow for about 50 other families that share in our harvest. I also do computer, IT work, that actually pays the bills.Some of my people come weekly to help me in the fields, and without them, we would not be able to produce for 50. Our weeding is never done, but the group of us, have a connection with the earth that I would not ever want to give up. Each season, we try again new people show up to learn and help, old regulars seem to always come up the drive. Deer and Weeds are the enemies we face and only more fencing will help. Each year we sink our members money for weekly harvest into more fencing, maybe one day we will be able to actually sell some product, not just produce for our small group. We feed a lot of animals but we do eat very well ourselves. Sharing the harvest with man and beast! Well done, enjoyed the story.

It's wonderful that you engage so many people with your love of gardening (and eating). Thank you for creating such a wonderful space on Earth. Good luck with the fence!

Sounds like a great thing you are doing. If you want to make weeding a thing of the past permaculture is a great way to achieve it.

www.geofflawton.com/sq/15449-geoff-lawton

You cannot understand how perfect this is. Yesterday I released a baby rabbit into the wild after I read up on age appropriatness. Two minutes after I found the bunny I saw a turtle buried under my pines straw and wondered if it was the one I moved from the the road the morning before. That morning I picked it up from the road I noticed it was bleeding and I set it on the side of the road it was traveling to. I trusted in God. I let it go. I brushed back the pine straw and pulled the big fella out and inspected his underbelly and sure enough... There were bloodstains. But he survived-24 hrs at that point. Just sings music to my soul that Someone else feels the connection of their heart strings to earth and God through plants and dirt. Sigh, thanks for this beautiful note to freshen my already wonderful day.

I can't tell you how much this meant to me. I now understand my longing for God and for my earthly connection as one.

Yes, it can be so difficult to trust God and surrender in this way. Our ways are not God's ways, so we must continually learn how to live within life's mysteries. Wonderful that God is providing you with so many opportunities to deal with this understanding. Keep watch and listen...

At age 55 I have planted my first garden and it has been such an amazing experience. Your article brought tears to my eyes.

What a wonderful story. It made me very emotional because I share with Giuseppa my nationality and passion for gardening. I too like Giuseppa embrace the teaching message of Mother Earth, the cycling of life, the therapeutic power of gardening. Our link to Earth is biologically engraved in ourselves and denying it creates problems. I grew up in the south of Italy and worked for the family farm. My need to help others pushed my education toward the medical field. I have been a doctor and a scientist but I was unhappy with my career. Lately I understood I needed to return to Earthand so I did by becoming a horticultural therapist. Thank you Giuseppa for teaching us that respecting our link to Nature is respecting ourselves and others.

"Every year has its own season. Just like our lives. One year there is fruit, another only ruin."
A quote that has landed in my journal as way to reconcile the ups and downs of life and our interconnectedness with all things/people/events swirling around us. Thank you for this lovely post.

A beautiful read. Nourishing for the mind and heart and a great motivation to tend the garden.

You have somehow captured my thoughts! This is how I feel and think while I tend my garden Krista. Thank you for this beautiful glimpse into Giuseppa's life filled with God's grace. To be grateful for His abundance and accepting of His plan is such a marvelous life lesson. I would love to attend that University of Gardening with you and have the privilege of learning from such a wise professor!

such a beautifully written article that brought me to tears. gardening is such an important element of my being. one which i have passed down to my daughter, and continue to nurture in her as she grows.

Gorgeous, Catherine! xo

Thank you everyone for your life-affirming responses to my article. You are all nourishing me this week!

How appropriate that this was shared with me by my daughter, who has studied in Italy twice, who shares my deep connection with the earth and a philosophical nature. I so relate to your observations and Guiseppa's insights. Having grown up in rural Wisconsin living off my parents' gardens and what we raised or hunted, I then lived in cities most of my adult life. For years I was restless, depressed, and like you, I kept moving. Finally I closed the circle, coming "home" to the WI countryside and a passion for gardening. My efforts have paid off mostly with flowers. I am still learning to produce edible harvest. I cannot imagine living any other way now. Thank you both for the blessing of your selves and your "dirty,"holy, gardener's hands.

This article holds special meaning for me even though I'm not a gardener. I live in Florida and the heat is not my friend.My husband has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and I'm re-learning the meaning of "to everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven."

I have an elderly friend who tells the story of her 105 year old grandmother who had been raised and lived most of her life on a farm in rural Georgia. When asked by the nuns who cared for her what she wanted for her birthday, she said she wanted to touch the earth again. So they wheeled her outside under a big tree. They helped her out of the chair and let her put her hands in the soil. I don't know how long she stayed there but it was the perfect gift. She died a few months later.

Thank you for sharing this poignant story. We all come from the Earth and will return to it. This elderly woman's longing to touch the Earth once again is so moving. There is something about the feel of soil that brings us closer to our humanity, our life and death. I wish you well in your current challenging situation. I believe that there is meaning to be discovered in all of it...

We all need daily connection with the earth, and what better way than putting our fingers into the soil! Wonderful!

My 2 grandmothers were farm wives. They had the same first name. One was a tall, thin, red-haired Scot. The other was a short, round, dark Native American. One of them wrenched the food from the dirt. The other shared the earth with the plants she lovingly cultivated. They had equal yields of vegetables and they both had beautiful gardens, but one was tidy and technically correct while the other sprawled comfortably across the garden spot. One worked hard and fast. The other savored her moments with the plants. Gardening is hard work but with love and can be so enjoyable.

This is so beautiful. I made a copy so I can reflect again once more on
your magnificant journey with Giuseppa and the beautiful visuals that
accompanied it. Thanks so much for sharing.

My garden is only half the size of Signora Giuseppa's. Still I'm able relate to what you speak of in your beautifully written article. Rather than an old man's retirement luxury I sometimes wish the garden would have been a young man's prerequisite to learning about and understanding the meaning of life. Recently I was asked if I did not find it lonely spending entire days in the garden by myself. My reply was, "How can one be lonely when surrounded by hundreds, no make that thousands of living things?" In a world bent on destruction and unrest - it's good to know I have a peaceful sanctuary that is filled with goodness. It's called, "my garden". www.facebook.com/TheFarmTerreNoire

Yes! I often just sit in my garden and wonder at how alive it all is. You can almost feel the plants growing, filling with green viriditas, and in turn filling us with hope. Thank you for you sanctuary of peace and life...

You brought tears to my eyes and touched my soul. Thank you.

I have probably killed more animals then saving by trying to save them. I am now learning to "put the kitty down."

Thank you for the lovely article and photos, Caterina. My gardening professore’s name is Rudolfo. He’s deaf and communicates with his hands. The other day his hands dug down into the soil and showed me how, below the surface, the soil was parched. I was surprised. I’d watered until puddles formed around my chard. “You need to water more,” his hands said. “Until the water reaches the roots.”

Oh this is a wonderful metaphor! How parched we all are once we sincerely dig down to our roots! Thank you Marian and happy watering!

Thank you for a wonderful essay! My Italian grandmother had a poem on a stone in her garden that I always loved, and recently I found it on a garden sign that I had to buy: "The kiss of the sun for pardon/the song of the birds for mirth/One is nearer God's heart in a garden/than anywhere else on earth".

groetjes uit de Haan

A bountifully emotive piece of writing, showing connection, cycles, the loving concentration of attention to Earth, plants, climate and self. Thank you.

i grew up in an italian family in new york city and althought farming was not part of the picture except for the grape vines from the home land in plots of dirt probably a foot square...i also seem to remember roses and tomato plants i a slighltly larger bit of dirt in the front of the 2 family house. i visited the small rural town where the family came from. after that my perspective changed but remained dormant for many years. the cousins lived in the town on the second level. the first level was for the cow and chickens and pig and the cold cellar. they were the first in the town to have a refrig.. but the electricitiy was not reliable so they did not use it. they had it only because the dad would go to the usa and work for 10 yrs and come home and upgrade stay for a while then return to usa work 10 more years. he eventually became a citizen had a substantial retirement and ss. his famiy however could not seem to make the move, the oldest son did visit. he was put thru law school and became a judge. the middle daughter came and was going to do hairdressing but cried the entire 3 months she was here...she was close to my age and i tried to befriend her and help in adjusting. she went back to italy her dad put her thru business school...come to find out she owns several salons in florence.
anyway getting back to the earth....the family had a garden up a steep hill at the end of the street, every morning the cart the cow and the pig and chickens would trek up the hill to peck graze and root while the mother and younger son worked in the garden while i was there i helped reep the benefits of their labor, it was magnificant looking up was a beatiful view of the mountains and below was a view of the town and all those tile roofs, the fountain and the church. i can see why my cousin was so homesick. years later although not working in a productive garden but a decorative garden i reveled in the beauty God has given us in the flowers and trees butterflies and bees as i sat in the thick soft green of the lawn pulling vetch and dandelions out i found solace and communed with God...that time got me through rough decisions and divorce. reflecting back that inspirational time in the small garden in italy probably set the seed for my love of gardening. The family is gone from that small town and my beautiful butterfly garden and grass which i had to leave has reverted to weeds and churt. my house now i designed an small garden mainly with shade plants i sit and beat the mosquitos off but enjoy the cool greenness and the sounds of the birds especially in the unbearable heat of the south. i wish i could grow things to eat but i do the next best thing by supporting the farmers market in my town thank you for letting me share memories,

I also have issues around homelessness and moving. Between 1999 and 2011 I moved around 8 times. Not quite as much as you but it felt like alot. I'm glad now that I did the moving - I grew -and foxes have holes and birds nests etc - HOWEVER yesterday I spent three quarters of my day in my garden and found I actually ENJOYED it rather than feeling it was a chore. Today I feel refreshed and energised. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

Loved this article. Nature and gardening are the ultimate communion. It is the time to feel ne with the universe. As I nurture my garden, it heals me and frees me.

So beautiful.. wish I could share it with the world!

A few years ago my plants told me they were in the wrong place and needed to be moved, so I did. The next summer the government came in to do some work on the stream. Good thing the plants weren't there. They would have been ripped up. After a lifetime of gardening (including a toddler working in grandmas garden)I have learned to listen to my green friends. I can't go a day without them.

This matter is a teaching ... It's about the true relationship of man with nature through sa living experience with the ground, one can at every moment to do a self reflection .. I would love to get to know Ms. Giuseppa would be ... a great honor and learning ...
Gratitude for the wise matter ..

Wonderful!

This story made me cry because it is true. I, too am deeply bonded with the Earth and engage in spiritual gardening. Like you, I have moved often and seek roots through gardening. This time in the way "Back to Eden." Blessings for sharing this wonderful fruitful journey.

I cried with rejoice, because its is true. Nature heals the Soul malaise. I too, have moved too often and gardening soothes the Soul. I get attached to the land when I grow and create ecosystems for Nature. Finally, I am finding my roots with my new love partner and together will commune with Nature on 2 acres and live the sustainable life. I feel Blessed! Thank you

The weeds grow up in my gardens every time I glance away. When I notice how big they are getting I feel pressured, overloaded with my own intentions and commitments, and my focus begins to suffocate, strangled in the vines. When I just can't take it any more, I kill them with a sweaty sigh, and I feel lighter and organized and ready to move on.

The tall thick ones with the little ugly flowers are the most noxious, needing to go first as they are the the most negative of thoughts, the Icants that spring up overnight to haunt me. As they disappear I see the exuberant morning glories, tricky because they are ideas. I have too many ideas and have to husband the ones I want to grow, and the tangled masses I DON'T want to grow need to be pulled up by the roots. I planted some deliberately along the fence, seeds the gift from a gifted friend; magical. These I want to grow, and I must trim a lot of wood from the overhanging life-maintenance trees to get them some light. The trees are insidious, growing so slowly they cover the sun without my notice. Some serious limb-taking here!

I consider some of the bigger ones on the ground to see if there is beauty in leaving them. This time not; this time they all must go because I am full up with ideas and need to tend the right ones, the ones I planted on purpose. The vines mat and twist around my good intentions, and I gleefully pull them up by the handful. My oh my, three bags full. No wonder I was so confused!

Now I can see the brick borders I put in place, the shiny bushes I planted breathing their new sun, the ground mercifully uncluttered, and I stretch my back and feel satisfied that this was a productive morning.

Dearest Catherine, it was so lovely seeing your article as I prepare for my yoga class this evening. As spring returns to San Francisco & we celebrate the spring solstice & Easter, I am reminded each day of the beauty & bounty offered by this marvelous world.... Cherry blossoms, lilacs, tulips & freesia. Baby lettuce, red strawberries, and ripe avocados. So much for which to grateful. Thanks for sharing your inspiring message. Miss you! Marie

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