The literature on millennials is extensive. And I have not read it. But as a college professor, I have lived and worked with them day in and day out for many years. More and more I realize that I face the same challenges they do.
I offer no precise diagnosis of the problems millennials face. It is obvious that the current cultural climate has serious consequences for all of us—though often more serious for those who have known nothing else. We experience disintegration and disconnection; we are distracted and bored. We form addictions. We are often not at peace.
For years I have suggested to my students that they start a garden over the summer. This year I am going to be more insistent. Gardening is not, in my judgment, just one healthy hobby among many others. Rather, I am convinced that this is the strong medicine directly fitted to address our worsening ailment.
WE NEED THE EARTH
We need to turn to the earth from which we were formed, and which we were commanded to tend. There we can seek reintegration and reconnection; we can seek healing.
At risk of oversimplifying, I think there are three things that make this medicine so fit for all of us suffering, in varying ways, from the challenges of contemporary culture. Gardening calls us to work, to wait, and to worship.
One does not have to look far to find an employer who says: I am just trying to find people who are actually willing to work. In one of those deep ironies in the demise of a human culture, the general rejection of the non-work realities in life, such as true leisure and worship, has led to the demise of work itself. Now work, often both over-emphasized and under-appreciated, has lost its rightful place in human life. A lack of the habits of good, hard work is one of the most glaring features of the millennial generation. Indeed many of us suffer from a dearth of good work, the kind of work that can strengthen the body, nourish the spirit, and connect people to one another, even while producing things useful for life.
THE VALUE OF WORK
Gardening invites and even beckons us to good, hard work. And it always rewards it—sometimes even with edible fruits. But first of all the work itself is a reward. The pleasure of this work is palpable: the scents of soil and plants, the visual pleasingness of tilled rows, the fresh air and sunshine, and sometimes the comradery of the person or persons working next to you. I cannot think of another work that is both so wonderfully solitary and so profoundly communal.
The plants are not unreasonably demanding, but simply insistent: they will need regular tending. A visual check serves both as a reminder of what needs be done and as a proof that your work is having an effect. While short cuts are not rewarded, ingenuity is. Gardening is an art, and the attentive gardener grows in knowledge, skill and satisfaction even as his plants are growing.
And he learns to wait. It really seems as if the earth knows just how to time things, for our sake. If the plants took much longer, we might despair; if they came much quicker, we wouldn’t learn to hope. Putting seeds in the almost-cold spring earth can seem like folly, as the brisk wind blows. It is hard to picture this effort bearing fruit; warmer days and their fruits seem so far off. But the sun rises and it sets, rises and sets, as we go about our other daily labors. Then from causes unknown—unknown but not unaided by our own necessary labor—plants of wondrous beauty appear.
To learn to wait is to learn to be human. What else in life today so gently, so firmly, and so invitingly teaches us to wait? On the other hand technologies of labor-reduction and of immediate gratification are constantly placed before us. Press this button, or use this app, we are invited, and be amazed at what happens right away. Why wait, if you don’t have to, we are told in countless ways and contexts. And if you can skip the work, by all means do so.
Meanwhile seeds grow at their own pace, requiring patience, and on-going work. Indeed, even if we are patient and persevering in our work, sometimes the much anticipated fruits do not come. Contrary forces intervene: bad weather, insects, disease, roving rodents, and the list goes on. The art of the gardener is subject to so many factors beyond our control.
CULT AND CULTIVATION
With good reason agri-culture has always been closely connected to the cult of the divine. Cultivators of fields experience a need to worship. “Sensible farmers, I can assure you,” writes Xenophon, “worship and pray to the gods about their fruits and grain…” Cato prescribes: “Offer a sow to Ceres before harvesting…and address a prayer, with incense and wine, to Janus, Jupiter, and Juno, before offering the sow.” And of course the Psalmist writes, “Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth.”
Growing food acts as a constant reminder that the most basic things in life are simultaneously the work of human hands and a gift from super-human hands. So gardening acts as a call to worship, to turn out eyes upward, whence comes our help.
I do not mean to imply that gardening is an automatic cure-all. It might be a cure-all, but it is not automatic. Indeed, it is not a push-button solution to our pushing-buttons problem. But it is a very potent medicine, the instructions for which are very straightforward: self-application with patience and perseverance. And this medicine has neither a foul taste, nor a phony cherry flavor. It tastes like real food, for it is real food. It is the food which has nourished the human body, psyche, character and community for as long as there has been human life. It is never just a fad, though remarkably it can go out of style.
But it is never out of reach; you cannot possibly be very far from soil. The simplest of tools will suffice. And the connection that we perhaps didn’t know had been sundered, though we felt it, can even now be restored.