Growing up in Long Island, New York, I spent most of my leisure time exploring the outdoors, fascinated by the beauty and mystery of the natural world. My idea of paradise was raw nature - woods, fields, ponds and swamps, teeming with life. Living in Suffolk County, which was at that time the fastest growing county in the United States for over five years in a row, it became increasingly more difficult for me to witness the horrors of urbanization. I dreaded seeing pockets of nature destroyed in the name of progress. It didn't seem progressive to see many natural habitats I had grown up with turned into housing subdivisions and shopping centers.
As far back as I can remember, my love for nature has been mixed with growing dismay about humanity's social problems and our runaway destruction of the environment. I always hope that humankind will eventually come to its senses and live peacefully, preserve what remains of the natural world and restore what we have damaged. But the trends always seemed more worrisome than reassuring. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my concern for nature would lead me on a life-long spiritual quest.
After obtaining a masters degree in biology, I was three weeks away from becoming a high school biology teacher when I felt that if I left home and traveled I would find the answers to two questions that burned in my mind, "What is the root cause of humanity's problems, and how can they be stopped?" I bicycled cross country and back-packed around the world for three years. As I studied religions along the way, it dawned on me that there is only one religion - to love God and all living beings.
What does religion say about solving humanity's problems? I didn't have to look far. Everywhere I went, from jungles in South East Asia where I lived with indigenous people struggling to preserve their traditions, to villages and cities, I observed the stark contrast between what remains of the ancient spiritual cultures of the Old World, and the influence of the materialistic-minded Western world. Spiritual-minded people appeared to live more harmoniously then most Westerners. Gradually I understood that God-realization is the ultimate purpose of human life and the answer to the world's human-made problems.
In 1975, shortly after traveling around India for six months searching for the truth, I joined the Hare Krishna Movement in Geneva, Switzerland. Their philosophy, based on the ancient teachings of the Vedas (books of spiritual knowledge compiled some 5,000 years ago), resonates with my soul. Even though I have more faults then you could shake a stick at, I want to see God in everyone and everything. Whether I work with people or nature, I try to find some measure of God in what I do by training myself to behold the presence and activity of God in my life. So, instead of merely loving the "appearance" of nature, like I did before I knew the purpose of human life, I am developing my love for Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Who created, sustains and animates the natural world.
Gardening, for me, is a God-given activity that can help us develop our love for God. Surely, we can not improve on nature - God's "outer garment" - but gardening can be a means for us to co-create with God. What I mean by "co-create" is to work with the consciousness of pleasing God by helping to facilitate His will. In his book, The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman says, "The secret to success in agriculture is to remove the limiting factors to plant growth." He continues, "Drop a seed in the ground and it wants to grow. The common wisdom possessed by successful farmers is that they understand how to help the seed do what it is already determined to do." This principle applies equally to our human condition, for the secret to our success in spiritual life is to remove the limiting barriers to our spiritual growth. In truth, everything about gardening has a spiritual analogy, everything from preparing fertile soil, to planting and nurturing seeds, to pulling weeds, to bearing spiritual fruits.
From the perspective of self-realization, whatever I do is meaningful only if it invokes within me an attraction for God. Looked at in this light, I've found that gardening helps me stay my mind on God. For instance, having practiced vegetarianism for forty-six years, I often marvel at how God provides us with an astonishing plant-based diet so that we don't have to kill and eat animals for food. Indeed, by His grace, a reasonably well-balanced diet of whole plant-based foods is guaranteed to give us all the essential nutrients we need. And when I see how God provides for the plant and animal kingdoms without any worry on their part, I can't help but think about how God takes care of our human needs, whether we worry or not.
Fantastic as it may sound, for over ninety-five percent of our existence on this planet, we were termed hunter-gatherers, with much more emphasize on gathering than hunting. Before we humans worked by the sweat of our brows, we collected fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, shoots, blossoms and greens from a smorgasbord of God-given foodstuffs. Knowing this, I weed begrudgingly. Although I don't want them to overtake our gardens, I also know God made these "wild edibles" more nutritious than most of the vegetables we grow. Granted, Nancy will add a few pounds of lambs-quarters, dandelions and purslane to our green smoothies each season, and she freezes them for the winter, but in my mind I see weeds feeding and healing the masses.
Vibrant green hues remind me that dark green, leafy plants are the most important food group, by far. Why? Because God designed chlorophyll molecules (the green pigment in plants) to be so similar to hemoglobin molecules that they purify our blood and help keep our bodies fit for God-realization. In fact, the only difference between the two molecules is that hemoglobin has one central atom of iron, whereas chlorophyll has one of magnesium.
For me, gardening can be humbling. It's no wonder much of it is done on one's knees. Indeed, the root of the word "humility" comes from the Latin humus, which means "earth" or "ground." Although working on one's knees may be humbling, what I find most humbling is knowing that God planted within us the desire to tend to His Garden so that we may come to know Him.