Every day, I go out and water my two gardens. Sometimes, if it’s been especially hot, I do that twice. I also handpick the beetles from my plants, cut off dead leaves, prop up things that need propping, and take care of whatever else needs taking care of. When there’s room, I’ll often head out specifically to plant new things.
It turns out that these interludes are the highlight of my days. I work from home, and taking a break to tend to the gardens makes for a lovely break from the hours of writing and researching that are the hallmark of my work. But more importantly, I see a huge amount of value in the gardens as constant reminders that there is a world apart from the academic work that I do, and that there is something useful, delightful, and very reassuring about actually working to produce something tangible.
Even when I “produce” something for work, it’s pretty intangible. A lecture or journal article doesn’t feel like it has a lot of physical substance in the end. There’s certainly value there – understanding problems and solutions can be a hugely important thing – but day to day, it doesn’t really feel like that much, especially for something that’s very temporal – as with a lecture or presentation that ends and then is done – or intangible – like an article that exists only online or in a journal. It’s easy, for me anyway, to feel distanced from the rest of the world and like the work that I do isn’t really doing all that much.
As a result, the further I’ve gone in academia, the more I’ve felt the need to do tangible, concrete things alongside my academic work. I certainly don’t feel like I have to replace one with the other, but I do thing that both are important to maintaining a balance between spending time in my own head and getting out into the world in a way that’s useful and productive. I’ve been cooking from scratch, baking, knitting, and sewing for awhile now. This is the first year I’ve had anything resembling a garden. So far, it feels like this is the best antidote to pure academic life that I’ve found.
I certainly think that having to take care of something a few times a day is helpful in and of itself. The daily garden tasks get me up and outside a few times a day, and focused on something other than theory or course design. But it goes well beyond this too. When I make or produce something, I feel connected to the world, and like I’m part of it. Simple materials become something else – a squash, a dinner, or a sweater. There’s an underlying history and sense of continuity, since people have been doing these tasks for ages. And it’s reassuring to be able to do fairly basic things for myself that are useful and practical.
Every pepper feels a bit like a miracle or a form of natural magic in it’s own right. But each is also a reminder that there is a whole world out there beyond my computer keyboard and classroom, and that it’s a place where things are made, food is produced, and the important elements of daily life happen in very tangible and often rewarding ways.