Thursday, February 11, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" echo the charmingly primitive second creation narrative in Genesis. "A mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground--then the LORD God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being."

A metaphorical potter fashioning the man from clay points to a human rootedness in the process of nature, a reality often forgot in the modern emphasis on cognition. The Hebrew word for man as an individual, 'adham, is closely related to the Hebrew word for red earth, 'adama. Modern psychotherapy attempts to understand human beings by exploring their pasts as if they were locked in an historical time-line. Theologians claim that human beings, imprinted with the divine image, are more than the dust of the earth. As the narrative in Genesis points out, human beings are mud pies infused with the breath of life. It may, also, be time to understand human beings in their earthiness, as in digging down in the dirt.

Years ago, as a graduate student floating around in the world of ideas, an old-time physician told me, "You've got to remember, Dana, that you're 99% animal." As the ancient (1350 B.C.) prophetic narrative indicates, we began as mud pies. At heart, we are primitives with a very thin veneer of sophistication, and if we don't get that, we're in trouble. 99% primitive.

The closer we are to the natural process, the more efficiently we function, the psychological corollary of sustainability. A recent study placed 90 highly stressed adults in one of three different contexts: a window facing a meadow and trees, a 50 inch plasma television screen of the same scene, and blank wall. The heart rate of those looking through the window decreased faster than the other two who fared the same which doesn't say much for television. Staring at the nihilism of a blank wall can be unnerving. If the study had added lying in the grass, looking up at the sky through the trees, or sitting at a monitor checking the Dow Jones, the differences would've been even more marked.

The further removed we are from the natural process, the more inefficient we become because, encapsulated within ourselves, like snails coiling upon themselves, we are ill-nourished. Experiencing the natural process technologically second-hand impoverishes human beings by cutting them off from their origins. Without the connective tissues of touch, smell, sound, or taste, human beings experience only themselves, a solipsism of the spirit.

While "getting back to our roots" can mean an age regression or an ancestral time-line, it can also mean digging in the dirt which is the heart of gardening. Digging allows gardeners to connect to their primitive origins, being "of the earth, earthy."

Gregory Bateson, the famous anthropologist, former husband of Margaret Mead, and underrated genius of the last half of the 20th century, wrote in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) that one of the greatest flaws in western thinking is the separation of the mind from the body as though they were separate entities. The brain is not the same things as the mind. Indeed, a baseball pitcher doesn't calculate wind, velocity, trajectory, and thrust in his brain. The mind in his shoulder and arm does it. He's connected to his flesh, often shaking out the stress before he hurls the ball.

Rather than a distinction between body and mind, we are a continuum from the dust to the mind, and it is those sensory connective tissues that keep it all together, especially touch, smell, and taste. We cannot feel or smell the grass through a window, much less a television screen. Gardening allows us to use all of our senses to the fullest, connecting us to the natural process, keeping us in contact with the dusty sub-stratum of our lives, as the mind is enriched. The imagination is free to soar in lovely gardens filled with life. Cicero wrote, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

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