“Be a gardener. Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat. And turn the earth upside down. And seek the deepness. And water plants in time. Continue this labor. And make sweet floods to run, and noble and abundant fruits to spring. Take this food and drink, and carry it to God as your true worship.”
— Julian of Norwich, (1342-1416)
Once again, we were late planting our small garden of raised beds. For that matter, we were late preparing the beds: refilling them with layers of shredded leaves, aged manure, bits of dried grass and compost. It becomes rich soil.
Our land is so different from what my forebears knew. Flat (or reasonably so), rich, dark earth belonged to my grandparents, plowed time and again, stirring up that pungent smell of potential growing things. My uncle told of my great-grandmother planting rows of cabbages. At season’s end, she would pull up the cabbages, root and all, turning them upside down into the furrows, burying them once more in the dark earth. The soil insulated the cabbages so the family would have food in winter.
Without my partner’s effort, our dirt would be disappointing at best. Red clay, good only for growing sorry, green grass and dandelions, lies on this sloping, former dairy land. Our raised beds are a labor of love for my husband. He believes it is important to teach the children how to grow food, to feed themselves and others, to retain skills that many in our era are losing.
If our livelihoods depended on it, as it did for my forebears, we would have been more timely, sewing seeds and preparing the earth from its wintry rest. We supplement our food supply with homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, sweet peas, peppers, zucchini, potatoes, melons and more. I remember my grandparents had all of the above, along with winter squashes, pumpkins, green beans, rhubarb and endless rows of corn.
Tending the earth and producing food is a holy work, set apart in an age so deeply steeped in trying to escape from the world outside our doors. Sinking one’s fingers into the soil feels sacramental, as if breaking the bread and hearing the words of the celebrant: “This is my body, broken for you.” Carrying water from our rain barrels and pouring it out onto the soil surrounding our plants seems reminiscent of the words of Jesus: “This is my precious blood poured out for you.”
“Seek the deepness,” Dame Julian wrote. She was an anchorite, dwelling in a small chamber attached to the parish church in Norwich. As an anchorite, her work was spiritual: study, prayer, writing. I have wondered how she knew so deeply the truth of the earth and our interactions with it. She saw God in all things. Still, it remains so.
Dame Julian of Norwich wrote the oldest extant text, “The Revelations of Divine Love,” penned by a woman. Something powerful streams from God through her heart and onto the page. Something lasting, indeed, for most words of women from those days are long since gone.
“Continue this labor,” Julian wrote, “and carry it to God as your true worship.”