By: Judith Toy
The earth is our mother. Whatever we pour upon her, she absorbs without complaint. Even as we strain her to the break-point with oil-infested waters and toxic chemicals; strip her of deeply rooted, oxygen-giving forests; blowup her water table; take away her grasslands and dirty her rivers and seas; she continues giving back to us. How do we access the gentle life-giving and forgiving power that she models for us? How do we find a way to give back to her?
One man learned her power to save lives. Warren Grossman, Ph.D., a graduate of Kent State University and The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, practiced conventional psychotherapy until a trip to Brazil left him hopelessly ill. Only at his desperation point, when he believed that he was dying, did Grossman begin, on instinct, entering his Cleveland, Ohio, backyard and stretching out upon the earth for at least an hour. Day by day, he gained strength. Daily, he continued drawing energy from Mother Earth until he fully recovered. Thus Grossman healed and has taught earth healing for the last 23 years, as a scholar and adherent of nature’s regenerative powers. See the Seventh Edition of his book To Be Healed By the Earth.
An amazing community grew up around the earth last year at the Black Mountain Community Garden where we tended organic veggies to donate to local food banks during the growing season. We arrived at the garden on our own time, and whoever happened to be on hand would have just the advice we needed to improve our plots. Our numbered plots on a few acres of fertile bottomland on the Swannanoa River measured five by forty feet each. With cardboard and woodchips we built our pathways. Abundant organic compost, woodchips, plant starts, and fertilizer were available to gardeners.
As I write this article during the winter, I miss our green garden. I always looked forward to my hour or two of hard work. My breaks were magical. I stood up, breathed hard, looked around me, and listened to the traffic hum faraway on I-40 under the cloud-strewn Appalachians. I marveled at what our community quietly brought forth from the earth—enormous sunflowers; wild, frowsy tomato plants; an explosion of blooms; plump berries; fuzzy pumpkin and gourd leaves strolling into other gardens with no regard for boundaries; healing herbs; the row of compost bins; and the crazy hats people wore.
We were mostly women gardeners, led by the capable Diana McCall, who dream of garden-to-table collaborative summer feasts and a fruit orchard. Our children rode their bikes on the surrounding greenway or plunged their tender hands into the soil, discovering what kind of work gardening requires and the source of their dinner peas. We brewed tea and made pesto from this garden. And we blessed our plants and work. The Blessing of the Garden, a ritual about fifty of us undertook in the early summer, followed by a potluck meal moved me to tears for its old-fashioned sweetness. Afterwards, we provided more food for scrumptious feasts at the Welcome Table at St. James Church.
Every day, the natural world, in all its particular glory, throws itself at our feet. The upswept limbs of the Rose of Sharon in our yard dance out their pure blooms with bright yellow centers folding into rose or violet whorls and falling to earth without regret. According to a song we sing:
When I rise, let me rise like a bird, gracefully.
And when I fall, let me fall like a leaf, silently, without regret.**
The murders of three family members—my first husband’s sister and her two teenage sons—finally brought me to Zen’s mindfulness where I stopped, calmed myself and began the practice of paying attention. The murders taught me that I can live simply, gratefully, in the moment.
It is possible to live without TV, to take a month off for a rainy season retreat, to write the book that is burning inside you. It is possible to listen. How will you spend your one wild and precious life, asks poet Mary Oliver. I did not read enough poetry, I did not spend enough time with my kids; I did not, as Thoreau wrote . . . live my life with wide margins.
Through five years of practicing daily meditation and listening to the earth, I was able to forgive the 19-year-old latchkey kid who turned into a monster, stabbing and bludgeoning my sister-in-law and two teenage nephews to death.
The grace of mercy came unbidden out of hopelessness because I let someone teach me to quiet my body and mind. The earth can do that for us. Silence leads to deep seeing, which leads to understanding which gives rise to clarity and compassion—a shared sense of suffering.
I realized that Charles, the murderer, and I were in the same boat. There is no self and other. Like the petals and leaves that life throws at our feet, life constantly offers the gift of one that we need to forgive or one who needs our attention or protection. As we find ourselves in distress, we learn to gauge our pain regarding others as a spiritual stop sign.
Our pain is a bell, the voice of the earth, stopping us long enough to return to our true selves. Once we start moving on the path of joy, everything—the spent blooms, the sound of sirens, a crying child, a Mozart sonata, even a war— reminds us to stop and connect with an earth that, while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with us.
** Quote from Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Vegetable, Miracle: We wanted to live in a place that would feed us.
Judith Toy is the author of Murder as a Call to Love: A True Story of Transformation, and Forgiveness. Ordained by renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, she is a mindfulness teacher who lives in Black Mountain. She and her husband run a small publishing company and lead mindfulness practice at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living and at retreats in the U.S. and abroad.