You never know what’s going to be that sweet spot of your wonderus entry point. You could have fooled me on this one.
Last summer I was a volunteer gleaner at Apple Field Farm in Stow, MA. The owner, Farmer Ray, began our glean with one of his spontaneous quick talks. One image permeated my attention. He mentioned how he enjoyed going out to his field at dawn to weed, accompanied by a cup of coffee. Was it the coffee? (undeniably I do live for that first cup) Or was it the weeding? (I had recently been rather intrigued by the understanding of a weed as “a plant that is considered undesirable in a particular location as is defined by the gardener or farmer”.)
Whatever the explanation, I knew right away I needed to do it.
So I did. I asked Ray if he might allow me to weed at dawn. He was indeed surprised by my atypical request. He readily agreed even offering to compensate me.
The next day I drove the requisite 45 minute drive in darkness and arrived at his vegetable field, coffee cup in hand just as the sun began to rise.
With a 2 minute tutorial on what to weed, Ray showed me where to start a row of newly planted seeds of red lettuces, hopped onto his tractor and sped off.
Worry set in about whether I was doing it right; what if I couldn’t identify a weed from the microscopic seedling? Would he be upset if I pulled out the seedling? Should I sit, kneel or stand? An hour into it, I looked down the row… and I was only a quarter of the way finished…
No bliss had befallen me… No quitting I firmly told myself.
With a full cup of cold coffee beside me I continued.
Truthfully something strange happened. Not only was my anxious mood lifting, but I realized I was creating new ideas for a project I was working on. I was feeling calm, a bit tired and gently invigorated. Was this coincidental? I completed the row.
Certain this would be a one shot deal, Farmer Ray jokingly asked if I was coming back that week? Yes…on Friday, as soon as I completed my mandatory work “to do” list.
On my second foray, I hoped that same light sense of well- being would be there as I began. No such thing; the same anxious tone manifested as I began to weed. But this time, even a bit sooner, the same quiet, imperceptible transformation happened – as I meandered my way through a new subject matter. Having completed the row of dinosaur kale after 3 hours, I left with the same calm ebullience I felt leaving the first day.
Still just a coincidence?
Many dawns and weeding journeys later, Farmer Ray began to joke with me I seemed to be exhibiting some kind of addiction to weeding. I had indeed found weeding as an entry point into a meditative, “spiritual state of positivity” that with some patience I could repeatedly count on.
And the truth was besides enjoying the seeming psyche-physical benefits from my new volunteer activity, I noticed I was actually becoming rather attached to each one of the seedlings I was introduced to. Each seedling had its own unique interaction with its nearby weeds. Some weeds necessitated my freeing the seedlings from their grasp like using the jaws of life. Others required my disentanglement with the gentleness required in freeing matted locks of hair on a young child. Some days I actually experienced pain from my failure to rescue. Literally each sprout of potential food mattered to me despite knowing there were probably 150 other opportunities down that same row for a search and rescue mission.
But really??? Weeding!? The “stepchild“ of farming and gardening? The job no one wants to do. A necessary evil. As time went on, my internal dialogue began to challenge these inherited assumptions. I developed a depth of appreciation and deepened respect for the value of the weeder. I believe it aligns with the importance of fertile soil, water and sun for the development of each seed to food. And now I would argue it is one of the most critical parts of growing and sustaining our food security.
The reality was if I or someone else did not rescue each seedling from the voracious weeds, the vegetable had little to no chance of sustaining itself. Sooner than later the weed would have without trepidation won the competition for the finite amount of nutrients both desired. Death would have befallen the youthful seed scheduled to be food sooner than later. In Judaism we are continuously taught and reminded of our purpose of protecting the most vulnerable- these most vulnerable plants were intended to feed recipients of food pantries throughout the area.
But what about the fact that I was choosing to bring harm to the weeds, even cause death to one of G-d’s creations over another. What kind of person was I to be doing this? I have tried in recent years to not kill the most vulnerable bugs (escorting flies and insects out of our house) and here I was proudly weeding away without awareness of the implication of my choices. Yes, some might say this concern was ridiculous and insignificant, but the attachment I began to feel to the soil and the weeds and the plants and the insects was not allowing me to experience this so lightly.
I decided to ask my Tibetan Buddist friend what he thought about this conflict; what his teachers and practice would think of this. He didn’t reply immediately. Yet when he did, I was calmed by his response. “It is the motivation of the do-er in this situation rather than the act itself,” he said. “Yes regrettable, but a necessity for the greater good. Sometimes we must make harder choices for the greater good.” Certainly we hear much of this in our Jewish teachings and Torah studies.
And what about the question I have asked myself of late… Should I allow myself to weed on Shabbat knowing the pleasure it gives me – the enhanced knowing of my closeness to the energies of Creation. The joy I feel in seeing the little veggie grow a day larger from yesterday’s weeding. Despite finding myself in uncomfortable positions, the sun a little too hot, the row a little longer than it was on Friday, is this work? Am I defying the rules of Shabbat?
I would argue for myself “no.” Early in the fields on Shabbat morning – yes with a strong French roast and a piece of challah and peach jam, accompanied by a good long patch of weeding, I have the promise of an extraordinary day of rest!
Addendum: Jeanie Gruber along with Farmer Ray created a group for potential weeders named The Boston Area Weeders. Please let Jeanie know at email@example.com or 617-834-5846 if you’d like to see if this could be a wonderus “spot of entry” for you too. Coffee or your favorite beverage will be provided!
JVGB Mentor and
Beantown Jewish Gardens Board of Directors