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Garden Variety Healing

by Merry & Burl Hall


What ails you? Is it depression, allergies, obesity, chronic fatigue, or arthritis? Is it, perhaps, some other vague, nameless ailment for which the TV is constantly pushing pills so toxic that the manufacturer’s warnings at the end of the ad are enough to scare you to death? Perhaps, you are simply world-weary; or, perhaps, it is hard to fathom what witch’s brew of these common ailments is really at the root of your malaise. You just plain feel awful much of the time.

What if the therapy for much of what ails you is potentially as close at hand as your own backyard? Now that would be a Victory Garden! But we’re not proposing a return to nice, neat rows of vegetables lined up for you to weed, water and worry over daily. We’re talking about every inch of your property working in concert to create health for you, all the lifeforms that share your habitat, and the land herself. We’re talking about letting Mother Nature be your head gardener. Once you’ve helped Her re-establish a holistic, biodiverse and integrated garden, She will shoulder most of the maintenance Herself. Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden, introduced us to the idea of permaculture, a philosophy that stresses the maintenance of agriculture by relying on renewable resources, compatibility with the local ecosystem, and nature’s own way of nurturing healthy life. We are suggesting that permaculture can also provide an alternative therapy for most of what ails you.

Traveling the countryside of Maine, we notice fields of fruits and vegetables lined up in tidy rows. Sometimes, a field of one crop seems to march off into infinity. If you are a city dweller, you probably don’t think much about these rows of food. Some of them are used to feed animals, and some eventually wind up on our dining room tables, via an unknown route of processing, packaging, and distribution. God only knows what has been sprayed onto, inoculated into, or stripped out of these crops. It is even harder to divine what illnesses may result. No labeling is required to identify whether nature or genetic engineering has produced it. While we are fortunate in Maine that our local crops probably aren’t bioengineered, it will take a major focus, spearheaded by GE-Free Maine and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, to keep it that way.

When we venture even further beyond these farm fields, we often come to forests that appear to the acculturated eye to be thrown haphazardly about. You might find a pine tree nestling with a birch, with ferns growing underneath and squirrels flying from limb to limb above piles of deer feces that appear like tiny pellets from a toy pistol. One ad even suggests that the water from such “wilderness” is contaminated by the bio-functions of filthy animal life. Wouldn’t you rather have scientifically “purified” water? Unfortunately, many Americans buy into this view of wilderness as unproductive land that could be more usefully developed as agribusiness, housing. or, better yet, a Wal-Mart. That’s assuming, of course, that no valuable fossil fuels underlie it.

Many, including Theodore Roszak. see these “cultivated” ideas about productivity as being the roots of many social, planetary and individual ills (Roszak, 2001). For example, when we monoculture our fields, producing acres of a single product such as corn, we deplete the soil of nutrients and allow for the proliferation of predatory bugs and diseases. This process virtually requires the use of oil-based chemical fertilizers that further threaten our health. Moreover, we lay out an inviting feast for all the lifeforms that thrive on that particular crop. Then, of course, to control these bugs and microbes, we need to use pesticides that again get into the soil and are washed away into the watershed. What’s more. we wind up ingesting these bug killers in the foods we eat as well as the water we drink. All this poison directly affects our health. Recently, we have developed bioengineered mutations of the crop that are resistant to the common predators. Thus, more and more field goes to a single biological strain which Nature, ingenious as She is, will eventually wipe out with some new, unanticipated strain of predator. Meanwhile, those few who may be allergic to that particular strain of corn, wheat, soy or whatever…oh well, too bad for them.

This is an oversimplified explanation of the consequences of modern monoculture. The situation is much more complex and dangerous than there is room to elucidate here. As all spiritual traditions teach, our actions have consequences not only for the world, but also for ourselves. Our traditional economy and methods of food distribution are hurting ourselves, our children, our small family farmers, and people across the world. In our global economy that thrives on monoculture farming by big agribusiness, we have created an international mess. We have increased starvation by displacing those that once were independently farming diverse crops for family use and sale within their local economies. Now those that continue to farm are dependent on global trade that primarily functions to benefit the richest 2% of the world’s population. This is why there are such passionate displays of resistance as we recently saw at the World Trade meeting in Korea.

A whole book could be written on how permaculture gardening would help the world situation for small family farmers. Moreover, permaculture gardening is an avenue towards robust local economies that would solve many of our social ills, including some of our dependency on fossil fuels. In this paper, however, we are focusing on permaculture as an important component of a healthy lifestyle for ourselves and our families.

The psychological, spiritual and physical benefits of gardening have long been given attention in the healthy living literature such as the Rodale publications. Exercise, engagement, and accomplishment are important attributes of physical and psychological health. Not only are you working in relationship with the products you are growing, making sure you are ingesting healthy, unadulterated, fresh foods, you are also realizing your role in the ecosystem. If monetary worries contribute to your health-depleting stress level, such gardening will save enough money to lower your stress level at least a little. Plus hours of enjoyment spent in such a garden should lower it further. Insofar as alienation, purposelessness, and poor self image are an underlying part of what ails members of modern American society, permaculture is an important therapy. We are not, however, just arguing for gardening as therapeutic, but for added benefits from a particular form of gardening that is unusual, at least in our culture. Permaculture gardening fulfills and expands these ordinary gardening benefits.

If you were to go past a permaculture garden or farm, you would swear you had entered into a jungle, or that the people owning the land were pack rats. You would find fruits and vegetables strewn apparently haphazardly across the property with what appeared to your eyes as weeds taking over the landscape. Yet, as it is taught in chaos theory, what appears random is another kind of order. It is this kind of order that permaculture gardening thrives upon.

Permaculture gardening focuses on beneficial relationship among all elements of the garden. For example, fiddlehead ferns—a likely inhabitants of a Maine permaculture garden, because they are indigenous to our bioregion and a local delicacy--like shaded areas and would do well under trees placed strategically near damp areas such as streams and small ponds. Such “water features” do triple duty in the garden, moderating the microclimate, irrigating the soil, and providing pleasurable aesthetics. Permaculture takes “companion planting” to a new level of complexity. It invites beneficial birds and insects to do the gardener’s pollinating and seeding for her.

Furthermore, the natural emphasis on diversity within a permaculture garden reduces the risk of the proliferation of bugs that see rows and rows of the same crop as prime pickings. One can also lessen the risk of disease by the conscious utilization of relationship. For example, strategically placed garlic will help ward off disease as well as provide you with a blood builder. There may be more truth to the idea of garlic warding off vampires than meets the eyes. It truly does ward off blood feeding varmints. Various medicinal herbs would be easily at hand throughout the garden, allowing you to cultivate what you find most beneficial to your health. Everything in the garden is chosen to help sustain the soil, other plants,, beneficial birds and insects, the gardener, and the wildlife with which we share our habitat. Health for all involved is the primary product in a thriving, diversified bio-community.

One can also choose relations in a permaculture garden that further reduce the risks of predatory creatures such as fox or deer. For example, if you raised chickens for meat and eggs, as tools in turning the soil through pecking, and as a fertilizer through their droppings, a good dog can keep the foxes away from those chickens. That same dog can also keep the deer out of your corn. Like you, dogs and chickens have multiple functions. Meanwhile, on the outside edge of your surrounding hedge, you can provide food for the same beautiful wildlife that you would consider an invasive pest if it ate your crops. A well-planned permaculture garden uses all of those functions, calling the process “stacking”. Everything is intertwined in a permaculture garden! You help the dog by providing shelter and a loving home, and she helps the home be productive! These are prime examples of how relationships are seen in permaculture gardening. These complex relationships, in turn, helps reduce spiritual and psychological alienation because you start seeing yourself as part of the process! As much as you are using the garden for your benefit, the Garden is using you for hers! You begin to relate to Mother Nature, not as a metaphor, but as a living, breathing relative, essential to your family structure. She actively nurtures your health and well-being, as you do hers.

Another advantage of permaculture gardening is that it does not produce waste. Biological products such as dried out grass, vegetable clippings and peelings, or over-ripe, unharvested produce are used in the garden. Everything that doesn’t directly feed people or animals is returned to the soil to feed it. Indeed, if human and pet feces are properly composted, even they make excellent fertilizer. (See The Humanure Handbook by David Jenkins,1999.) Our experience, even as novice permaculturists, has allowed us to cut garbage back to one bag every two weeks. As we produce more of our own food, bringing in less packaging, that should reduce even further. This is not only beneficial to the reduction of harmful landfills but also serves as meditative value in seeing how nothing is wasted in Nature. Why, even death herself can be seen as a life-giving process in studying a Permaculture Garden. Everything gets composted to build the soil. Working a permaculture garden allows you to relate to it meaningfully and can lead to spiritual insight. Gardening leads to a sense of connection. This is what the term “religion” means, to connect!

Permaculture gardening further leads to a less labor-intensive lifestyle because you are co-operating with Nature’s own process. This does not mean it is easy at first. Getting a garden going is hard work. However, the right plants and animals in relationship to the whole garden and your bioregion will mean that Mother Nature will eventually do most of the work. Hence, the permaculture garden gets you closer to the lifestyle of the old hunting / gathering societies which scholars say worked an average of 4 hours per day. The rest of the time they spent telling stories, singing, and otherwise building strong human relations. Increased recreation, shared laughter, and music have long been acknowledged as good medicine. Of course, in this day and age, we probably have to continue working for pay. However, with the extra produce of the garden, perhaps that need too will lessen; and, if that lessens, so will the demand for gas and your time. More time with the wife / husband and kids is not counterproductive. The benefits are multiple.

In short, a permaculture garden has the potential for creating a positive cycle—the inverse of a vicious cycle--for you in terms of lessening your dependence on grocery stores, gas and a traditional job. Reduction in these stresses is bound to create greater mental health, lessening symptoms such as depression and, chronic fatigue. It provides intrinsic, purposeful exercise and healthy food, both of which should greatly mitigate obesity. You would eliminate much of your exposure to toxic additives and packaging, and allergies might just disappear. As a side-effect, your ingestion of refined carbohydrates and additives that activate arthritis and numerous other aches and pains should naturally reduce, as you enjoy the natural treats your garden offers you.

Permaculture also has the potential to expand your social life. It could increase community with some outreach and interested parties. What if some of your neighbors pitched in on an allotted piece of property and everyone worked together in making the garden happen? Again, perhaps you can reduce your dependence on the big chain stores, which, in turn, helps the environment and the social conditions created by monoculture farming.

At this point, the benefits of permaculture gardening transcend personal physical and mental health therapy. We are brought back full circle to the consideration of permaculture as a viable political answer to the social ills created by the global economy. Permaculture gardening is a sustainable way of life that creates robust local economies. Would slave labor in South America continue if we designed self-sustaining economies? Perhaps we would still import. After all, global trade has been around for a long time. Yet, if we were to become more sustainable at local levels, perhaps we could decrease and ultimately eliminate these kinds of acts where our farming brothers and sisters in our country and throughout the world are enslaved.

In conclusion, we would like to consider the spiritual benefits of permaculture by enticing the reader into a meditation on the Goddess Copia. Copia is an ancient Roman Goddess identified as Abundance. Her counterpart in the Orient is Lakshmi, identified as the creative power (Shakti) of the Absolute, offering her devotees wealth or abundance. Likewise, in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, Wisdom (called Sophia in Greek and by modern Orthodox Christians and seen by many ancient Christian and Jews as the Creativity of God) says that She is more precious than jewels. As permaculture gardening teaches, the diversity of Nature is indeed more precious than jewels for diversity is primal in developing healthy environments as well as people.

Interestingly, Copia’s symbol, the Cornucopia or horn of plenty, was overflowing with fruits, grains, and vegetables. Copia reflects the richness of diversity. It is this same richness of the Goddess that we can reclaim for ourselves through permaculture gardening. Combining permaculture gardening with learning to forage in the forests for food offers us the potential of learning about the world and, more importantly, ourselves. According to the words of many and diverse ancient wise teachers, we are reflections of that world and learning about one is learning about the other. So, the choice becomes: do we see ourselves as standardized, isolated productions of our biology and environment or do we reflect the rich diversity of Nature that thrives on relationship? Perhaps it is in that diversity that we will find the whole within ourselves. As some physicists now teach, the universe is akin to a holograph where each part mirrors the whole (Talbot, 1991). Alternatively and much more poetically, William Blake puts it:

To see the world in a grain of sand
and eternity in an hour. (Briggs and Peat, p. 112).

Perhaps in the end it truly will be in a return to the Garden where we will find our holiness by gazing into the face of a flower only to find ourselves gazing back. It is then that we see we have never left Paradise at all!

Briggs, John P. and Peat, F. David, The Looking Glass Universe: The Emerging Science of Wholeness, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1984)
Hemenway, Toby, Gaia’s Garden, (Chelsea Green, 2001)
Jenkins, David, The Humanure Handbook by David Jenkins, Jenkins Publishing, 1999.)
Roszak, Theodore, Voice of the Planet: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, (York Beach, ME: Phanes Press, 2001)
Talbot, Michael, The Holographic Universe, (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991)


Burl Hall, MA, and Merry Hall, PhD, are directors of Nature’s Wisdom, with a mission to develop community that fosters peaceful, sustainable lifestyles and promotes the unfolding of personal potential. They are beginning a one-acre permaculture garden in Bowdoinham that they will use as a teaching/meditation/gathering site. Burl Hall is a counselor, ordained minister, and author of Sophia’s Web: Understanding the Unity and Diversity of Religion, Science and Ourselves. Merry Hall, certified as a priestess, with a PhD in education, is an experienced teacher and leader of rituals that reconnect us with our health.

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