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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”