Gardening and the Blessings of the Soil, Guest Essay by Norman Wirzba*

two adult hands (race unknown) digging in the dirt of a gardenGardening is one of the most vital practices for teaching people the art of creaturely life. With this art people are asked to slow down and calibrate their desires to meet the needs and potential of the plants and animals under their care. Gardeners are invited to learn patience and to develop the sort of sympathy in which personal flourishing becomes tied to the flourishing of the many creatures that nurture them.

A garden, we might say, is a living laboratory in which we have the chance to grow into nurturers, protectors, and celebrators of life. This, I believe, is why the first command given to the first human being was to come alongside God the Gardener and “till and keep” the Garden of Paradise (Gen. 2:15). Gardening is hard and frustrating work, but it is not a punishment. To garden well – in the skillful modes of attention, patience, sensitivity, vigilance, and responsiveness – is to participate in the way God gardens the world…

From an agrarian point of view, one of humanity’s most important postures is looking down. Though plenty of spiritualities encourage people to look up and away to a better world beyond the blue, looking away causes us to forget that in fact the ground beneath our feet nurtures us. Scripture made the point inescapable (Gen. 2:7, 3:19): to say the word human (adam) is to be reminded of the ground (adamah) from which we come, by which we are fed, and to which, upon death, we return. To ignore the soil or, even worse, to despise it, is to cut oneself off from the love of God and the power of life that circulates through it….

It would be a mistake to dismiss this characterization as a poetic flight of speech. Hans Jenny, one of the great soil scientists of the twentieth century, noted that sixty years of study only reinforced his realization that soil is fundamentally a mystery. The border between life and death, the biotic and the abiotic, is nearly impossible to draw. Soil is constantly receiving massive quantities of plant and animal corpses, and so should be a stinking mass of death. But it isn’t. Somehow death, by circulating through soil, is transformed into the fertility and fecundity of life.

Soil, we could say, is the first earthly site of hospitality, because it makes room for death, welcomes and receives it, so that new life will germinate and grow. The more primordial power of hospitality, however, is God’s. For good reason, the Garden of Eden story presents God as the one who creates by kissing soil, breathing into it the life that is you and me and all the plants and animals.

In this gesture, God communicates that the divine nature is never to be far away or aloof. God is near, and stays intimately close as the breath within our own breath and as animate soil that circulates throughout all our eating. God’s creating, creative power is a hospitable power that constantly makes room for everything else to be and to flourish. God is the primordial host who prepares the beautiful, fragrant, and delectable feast at which all creatures are fed and find their true home.

*Excerpted from “The Ground of Hospitality,” Norman Wirzba, Plough, April 8, 2019. Used with permission of the author.