Life Saving Philosophy

How mental vigor and newfound clarity can change how we view the world and our place in it

Natural Healing: Digging in the Dirt

Breath-giving benefits from reconnecting to our earthbound roots

When my grandmother died in 1999, little did I know what the gifts in lieu of flowers would come to mean to me and to so many. The garden planted in her memory burst into its tenth year of springtime glory this month.

In the fall of '99, my mother chose a spot at the College on a hillside with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and my students and I started to dig. And dig and dig some more. Long an admirer of gardens and a walker in the woods, this undertaking was a new experience for me. Quickly, the project took on its own life, its own rhythm; intuitively fledgling gardeners fell into step with the earth. We gathered soapstone from an abandoned quarry and philosopher/masons began a serpentine wall; my officemate traded a calculator and power point for chisel and straw hat and created two soapstone benches. We followed the land's lead...dogwood here, crape myrtle there, rosemary and oregano and creeping thyme...roses, rabbit's ear, columbine...tulips, daffodils, lily of the valley...poppies, redbud, and weeping cherry. And a namesake tree in the center to honor my grandmother, Plum. Ten years of riches reaped with loving dirty hands.

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Gardening with philosophy students of all ages sets me right again, every time. We celebrate homecoming together, on our knees tending to a simple patch, planting and weeding, watering and placing upturned rocks just so. The earth is our oldest relative; humans starve emotionally without confirmation of this kinship. Severing the human bond with nature does untold damage to all relationship: we lose our connection to our own bodies, to the spirit within us, and to each other. Isolation starts here, I think, set adrift when we lose anchor in our first home. Happily, as we reconnect with the dirt, all the other ties are much easier to bind. Paul, my gentle and wise student, put it this way in a recent paper: "Gardening in the suburbs seems imperative to me...a suburban garden should be plans for a garden plot, no building permit. Every suburban resident would then be insured of continued contact with deeply cultivated loamy wormy profuse fertility." It is this intimate contact that brings us back to ourselves once more and makes us comfortable in our bodies, returning us to the human community in good shape, with good will. The smell of mint lingers.

Classes held in the garden hum with accelerated energy. Lunching faculty, staff, and students find solitary seating on the hillside or lean against a tree; others perch together on benches or lie on stomachs facing the mountains. Some read. Some listen. Some meander about. It is always quiet and I have yet to see an electronic device. Buoyed by their ongoing regeneration as caretakers of Plum's Garden, my students have taken gardening on the road - to work with adults and children at city elementary schools to plant gardens and create outdoor classrooms. One former student helped schoolchildren in the heart of a major city clear a space for a small garden, a refuge where they wrote their first poems. Public parks and city markets beckon. Pansy faces pop up in pots. Morning glory seeds lie in wait in a dirt-filled basket.

Give Marge Piercy's poetic ode to the soil a read. In "The Common Living Dirt" she reminds us that, "We are walking trees, rooted in you." Sometimes we forget, such forgetfulness made easy by city and suburb. Student/ teacher Paul appeals to us earnestly: "But what if every suburban lot had just one tree planted on it, plus at least a small patch of berries or herbs...?" What if?  The earth can bring all her children home.


Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.


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