What was I thinking to leave Colorado and take my 9 and 12-year-old to live abroad? As a widow I was leaving my home state of 38 years, my family and friends. My home town of Boulder where I knew everything like the back of my hand.
But move we did. First to Argentina and then to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a total of three years before settling in DeLand, Florida. I realized what a difficult undertaking it was since I had left behind my community, support system and comfort zone in favor of adventure and the unknown. The isolation of being in a foreign country or on an island with few services was daunting. and it was too easy for me to withdraw and disconnect from the world, despite making some good close friends over time, which I left each time our family travelled on.
Back in DeLand, it took me a year to even really leave the house much and meet people. As a self-employed writer and online yoga teacher, I worked out of the house and hung out in the garden. It was hard raising kids alone, as I was their only connection for a long time. I felt I needed to return to the world and build community. Back home in Colorado I didn’t have any family to really help me with my kids. There was my elderly father who on weekends I’d drop the kids off after much preparation, which could be exhausting. The kids had friends to hang with and play with back in Colorado and had made friends again in St. Croix and Florida over time. But for me it was different.
For all my storytelling and public peaking, I’m actually a very shy and private person. Now when I was in elementary school back in Boulder in the 1970s I was extremely shy and barely spoke. I was the kid in the back of the room who and fell behind in math and other subjects, so they put me in with other “slow kids.” I’m sure I’d have been diagnosed as autistic or something today, but this was the 1970s. So it takes me awhile to get to know people before I open up my real self.
Now I love gardening and did it passionately in St. Croix and Colorado much of my life. Trees, plants, flowers, gardens – they connect us. They connect family, neighbors, communities. They connect our bodies that are made of earth and is an actual food sheath that returns to the earth and becomes food – the manomaya kosha in yoga philosophy. Our bodies and hearts and minds are then connected to the food we grow and put in our mouths and children’s mouths. There is no greater satisfaction in life than to be in rhythm with this cycle of life – from garden to table, body to earth. Self to community. It is of enormous healing. I love to help others realize this and be in service through plants and the soil that my hands are in contact with, for it keeps me in contact with something deep and real - the true self. That's where the union, the yoga, happens, as well as the healing.
I decided to join Florida Master Gardeners to get me out of the house and do something I’d wanted to do for years, as well as connect with others who are just as passionate about gardening as I am. Plus I’d realize my dreams to farm and have food security in a very precarious economic situation that the world is in. Florida is basically a giant beach and its soil is sand! Hard to deal with!
As a volunteer with Master Gardens I decided it would be my karma yoga and seva, service. Doing action to unite me with the divine; connecting and sharing with others the power of plants and sustainable living. The karma yoga goes both ways, as I twice nearly didn’t finish. It is people like the Master Gardener teachers and leaders who cared enough to help me still be a part of the group, part of the community. The support team was fabulous to help me through. I had cancelled my interview the day of, saying I have test anxiety and wouldn’t be able to take the final exam! But the Master Gardener leaders, Joe and Linda, called me back and said, not to worry! Please come! So I did interview and started the course.
Then, it was hard for me, despite field trips and other outdoor activities, to sit Tuesdays and Thursdays for six weeks in a classroom under fluorescent lights,taking up so much of my time and being some place strange when I was used to working at and being at home for the past 17 years! It was overwhelming the amount of information, and I found myself making notes of things I had to do while class was in session. I stopped coming and dropped out again. Again, the Joe and Linda coaxed me back, telling me not to worry. I was needed! So I continued and I finally finished.
After graduation, I volunteered to help plant the new children’s sensory garden at the Volusia County Extension. About 20 Master Gardeners turned out. It was a beautiful day, and I was overjoyed to just dig and help plant shrubs and trees in the company of others. To me I felt like I belonged again finally, and it was like the 21st century equivalent of a barn raising. I had found my tribe – people passionate enough about the earth, food, children, family, community and sustainability. I was home.
Back at my own house, I regularly putz around the garden. Because of my training I saw every plant and tree with new eyes. Newly armed with knowledge and information from Master Gardeners, I’d share it with the neighbors and friends. It was a delight to hear people’s questions about plants. I’d say, “I will find the answer for you!” And in finding the answer for them, learned something new for myself. In serving others, I was serving myself and having a joyful time at it.
My two teenagers didn't want to garden with me, and that, of course, is another story. But a single mother Kerrin and her 5-year-old daughter Lucia were living with me temporarily. Lucia liked to hang out in the garden with me. We started taking out some invasive Mexican Petunias with the clippers. Kerrin came out and started helping. Next thing you know another neighbor Michael was out helping dig out weeds from the azalea bush, and his father-in-law, Vlado from Bulgaria, showed up with big tree pruners. We were all together in the garden and it was a neighborhood affair! We do live in DeLand's Garden District after all!
As a Master Gardener volunteer I also attended a Spanish-language presentation at a church in Deltona that another volunteer had prepared. The church wanted to start a community garden. The group toured the Volusia County extension demonstration garden too for ideas and information. It reminded me of my reporter days back in the Central Valley, California where I met migrant workers and more in this huge farming community where so much of America’s food supply comes from. Hispanics are automatically dialed into gardening as they still have a cultural relationship to the Earth and understand the value of frugality and sustainability as well as health. I was connected again with people and a language that I adored and loved: people who love the earth and still know the meaning of good food, family and community. My heart was full and it was because of service in the garden and finding community once again after such a long journey of nearly five years.
I showed Joe around the Garden District at one point. We walked around this non-gentrified, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. By walking around, identifying the trees and plants, it felt a deeper connection to the house and the occupants, many who are lower-income African-Americans. Walking slows things down so that you may see a neighbor and strike up a friendly conversation over the plants or food. I loved living in St. Croix for this reason. Gardens and plants connect me to my neighbor of different cultures and races because of the connection I have with nature. Don't need a freaking Starbucks to tell me that!
It is a karma yoga of love to work at Master Gardeners in Florida and be in community. I hope you are able to find union and community via the garden with all walks of people. To connect deeply to our bodies and selves and planet. It’s the action of joy. An action – karma – of yoga! Master Gardener programs are in every state! Find one near you and connect with karma yoga and the garden!
A beloved book for young people about connecting with community gardening I recommend is Seed Folks by Paul Fleischman. Naturally I devour the magazine Mother Earth News, and another influential book for me was Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front by Sharon Astyk, for those of you who want to live meaningful, sustainable lives. Also, for those of you interested in economics and sustainability for a new world I recommend The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg as well as the classic Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher. Great reading by Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Beautiful book, one of my all-time favorites for anthropology junkies:Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians by Gilbert Wilson.