I maintain an evolving mental list of the top ten books I would keep if I could only have one shelf’s worth. These are the books I would want to memorize in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, the ones I would want to imprint onto my soul as all the other written knowledge burned. The ones I want around me now, as the world burns, as our global temperature rises only 1.5 collective degrees and in that shift changes everything. I want to know which books were worth the trees cut down to print them, and which ones tell me how to plant trees in a way that reverses the damage.
Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World (2008) is one of those books. I’ve carried this book with me for over a decade, through countless regional and cross-country moves. I’ve eyed it fondly from across the room in many a rental home, secure in the knowledge that my living space was new but Wendy Johnson’s words were right there with me. (This book is on my top-ten list, and yet I haven’t even finished reading it all the way through!)
Last night, I took it off the shelf again and started from the beginning. It’s pure poetry. It’s a novel. It’s a gardening how-to book. It’s a course in meditation. It’s a memoir. It contains my absolute favorite zucchini bread recipe, the one I modified with oat flour and made as often as I could while working on a farm (with rampant zucchini) in 2008.
It contains lines, like this one, that seem as familiar as family, ring as true as the bell in a meditation hall, and yet open up the world anew:
“It is wise to remember that this delicate skin of the earth that we spend our life cultivating will also one day sink down and become a thin stripe in the stacks of time.”
It’s like a zen koan. The earth could literally or metaphorically be shaken from beneath your feet at any moment, and yet you are forever. Living in earthquake country, this is a real thing I think about every day, but it’s true for everyone in some part of our lives. When that shaking inevitably happens, when we each return to dust, we can be secure in knowing that we are irrevocably part of the grand planetary story.
I, for one, plan to be buried in a mushroom suit, which greatly reduces the chances of my body becoming a fossil but greatly increases my delight about living, and also transforms my fear of death into a brilliant curiosity. It even gives me a sense of peace with my inevitable demise, knowing that it will be a delightful experiment in mycology, as well as an intentional gift to the earth. The mushrooms will eat my delicate skin and integrate it into the delicate skin of the earth and I will become a thin stripe in the stacks of time and I will continue as part of the web of life without missing a beat. Human to hummus.
We need this. Once, on a long road trip through wheat fields, a past boyfriend and I concocted an elaborate plan for a business that allowed baby boomers to donate their bodies as compost to rehabilitate the decimated, over-harvested, pesticide-ravaged lands that we call “farms.” We figured that, since that generation started the “green” revolution, they could posthumously help to fix it.
The reality is, we don’t have time for all that, and I imagine there would be a wave of religious and moral objection (though ya’ll now know where to get mushroom suits if you feel inspired). What’s also real, though, is that this transition from taking from the earth to collaborating with the earth needs to happen real fast.
What I love about Ms. Johnson’s quote is that it is final and infinite in its acknowledgement of death, yet shines a bright and unflinching light on the exquisite, momentary beauty of our lives and also on our inextricable relationship with this planet from which we emerged, and to which our bodies will return.
With inspirations like these, I’m ready to get down to finishing this book before I end up in a mushroom suit!
(Featured image: Vardan Harutyunyan/Unsplash)
Jeanell is the Founder and CEO of The EcoSpiritual Education Center, LLC. She helps individuals, groups, and organizations realize personal healing for global impact.
She holds an MA in Process Oriented Facilitation and Conflict Studies, a BA in Environmental Studies/Sustainable Agriculture, and a box of over 50 journals full of recorded nighttime dreams. She is also a Licensed Massage Therapist.