Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cheerleader turned gardener

If this former 80's material girl can become a professional gardener, then just about anyone can have fun in the dirt.

My friends are often surprised when they discover I was a cheerleader in high school. I guess a gardener's earthy persona doesn't mesh with the images they associate with cheerleaders.

Indulge me for a second, as I feel compelled to first say that not all cheerleaders fit the typical Glee Cheerio stereotype. Most of the girls on my squad were the responsible honors students, and not necessarily "popular" or "unpopular." Our peers teased us just as much as they did the other kids, picking on us for not being true "athletes."

My entire high school had no more than 500 students and couldn't offer alternative sports like dance or tennis or swimming. If I'd gone to a larger school, I'm sure I would have ended up in one of those clubs. But I'm not complaining too much because cheerleading taught me about teamwork, coordination and stage presence.

The key benefit of cheerleading for me was the physical movement—I needed some way to get into my body and out of my busy mind. Which, not so coincidentally, is exactly what gardening does for me today.

That all said, my surprised friends have a point. I have indeed changed a lot since high school, at least in some ways. At that time, I had the 1980's-style poof of hair created with the painstaking craft of the curling iron and an hour in front of the mirror every morning. (I was actually in high school in the early 90's, but in rural Ohio, styles tended to carry over into the next decade). The poof was preserved in perpetuity (or at least through any major wind storm or cheerleader toe-touch jump) with Rave hairspray, which could have easily been called "Cement Spray."

While I may have loved the outdoors as a grade school student—biking, climbing trees and jumping out of barn windows—by the time I hit middle school, I was way too much into shopping malls to care about nature. At that time, I never would have fathomed the concept that I was part of nature—it was very much outside, not a part of me.

These days, so wrapped up in my garden or in designing other people's landscapes, I'll easily forget what it was like to think of myself as separate from the Earth. But then something will make me flashback to my teenage years. The gnats will surround me when I'm trying to plant; the rain will pour too hard or dry up completely; the wind will irritate me; or the weeds will grow too fast. And then I'll remember when I was the girl who thought nature—or anything I couldn't control with a flip of a switch—was just annoying.

My niece at 6. I wish I could claim that I was into gardening when I was her age.
When I was a teen, my parents didn't even bother to involve me in caring for the landscape, probably because they figured they'd only hear gripes in return. They must have arrived at that conclusion the notorious rock-picking summer. A family story that is retold over and again is how my sister and I were asked to spend a summer removing rocks from the dirt around our family's recently built house so my parents could plant a lawn. I think from that summer forward, I spent most of my free time in the air conditioning or by my friends' pools.

So what happened to that teenager? How is it that five years after high school graduation I was dreaming about my own farm and incorporating sustainable agriculture into my graduate studies? Well, I was lucky to fall into educational experiences where I backpacked across mountains and coasts, fell asleep under skies full of stars, submerged myself in the depths of the ocean for nearly an hour at a time, sat in the desert with no one else in sight for days in a row, and called a tent my home for nearly two years.

During that time, it dawned on me how I was a part of nature and nature was a part of me. I not only understood this connection, but I felt it. And that's why I'm good at what I do. I feel what my plants need. The garden tells me what to do, not the other way around.

Perhaps I have a natural affinity to the land because I grew up in a rural area and my extended family and ancestors are farmers. But I like to think we all have an innate ability to nurture ourselves by caring for plants and animals, tuning into the needs of the systems that sustain us. To refuse to explore this nurturing side is robbing ourselves of a crucial piece of human existence. My hope is that my garden coaching program can help alleviate the intimidation for newcomers so that more people can uncover these abilities.

I may have gotten into the sustainable agriculture field because I felt it was the most tangible and practical way I could help an ailing Earth. But I stayed because gardening is so rewarding and fulfilling.

In discussing my changing interests, I'm not insinuating that gardeners can't be fashionable. While my artistic outlet is my garden rather than my fingernails these days, I suspect that once I am further along with my farming and landscaping goals, my interest in shopping (at stores with locally made clothes, of course) will return. Thankfully, several of my friends channel their creativity into clothes and have ample hand-me-downs to pass onto me. Anyone can be a gardener, even fashionistas who like to keep their fingernails clean and hands free of calluses.

So, there's hope. If this classic 80's material girl can become a professional gardener, then just about anyone can have fun digging in the dirt, including our technology-addicted youth. I often think that if we all spent as much time discovering the natural world as we do learning new software and phones and apps, how much further along we'd be in healing the Earth and ourselves. (Not that I don't love the apps on my phone that help me plan gardening activities or spend hours on the Internet researching plant species.)

Just one hint to parents who want to involve their kids in the garden: there are lots of fun gardening tasks, and monotonous or laborious ones may not be the best way to initiate them. If we allow experiences in our lives where we develop a connection with the land, our perspective on hard work changes. We're motivated instead of burdened. Thankfully, my parents incorporated many canoe trips and park excursions into my life, and the more fun picking up rocks eventually became.