Weeding the garden might just save your life

Kenneth Wayman

Markus Spiske on Unsplash

August 5, 2019

If you spend most of your life sitting at a computer, weeding the garden is a profound way to reconnect with nature.

Until a few months ago, I worked as a computer programmer for a well-respected software company. I lived in a lovely apartment in the sprawling exurbs of Northern Virginia. My hobbies included side programming projects, reading, and going to the gym. With a sedentary job and indoor hobbies, I did not get outside a lot.

This mode of living was not much different from the way I grew up. Before I was a computer programmer, I was an aspiring engineer and video-game enthusiast. As a kid, my favorite hobby was reading science fiction. At no point in my history would I have been considered “active”. I have spent most of my life sitting down indoors.

A few years ago, though, something began to shift. Seemingly overnight I went from a denizen of the air-conditioned structure to someone who couldn’t go a day without spending an hour outside. Being a well-read adult, I had heard of studies asserting that being out in nature relieves stress; but for me, outside time was a biological imperative. I struggle with anxiety, and some days missing my after-work walk would trigger a minor panic attack. By the fall of 2017, there were days when I would just spend hours hiking the trails at a local park. I felt a need to escape, and leaving the built environment for the woods was the best way to do that.

Despite my discomfort, I kept my job for another two years. I needed the money, and the work itself was pretty enjoyable. Then a few months ago I quit my job as a full-time programmer to start a company with my best friend. Having no place to live, I moved back to my parents’ house in rural Maryland. Although my growing disenchantment with the indoor life did not influence my decision to leave, my relocation was the perfect answer. It was gardening season back home, and my parents had a lot of work for me. Soon enough I had been enlisted for all sorts of tasks around the yard, including weeding the vegetables.

Growing up, weeding was a chore for me. I hated getting dirty. I didn’t really like being sweaty. And in a Maryland garden in July, dirt and sweat are non-negotiable. Even moving back as an adult, both of those objections occurred to me. But since I was living rent-free I felt like I ought to “earn my keep”, so I consented to help out. I’m glad I did.

When I wrote code full-time, even my hours outside felt unnatural. It was as if nature was far away (I had to travel to get to it), whereas “life” was in the city. But on my parents’ property, nature and life were neighbors. Within minutes of assuming the role of vegetable defender, I could tell that weeding was no longer something to be dreaded. I pulled up goosegrass with gusto, making extra sure not to damage the delicate early growth. When the starweed suffocated the spring onions, I carefully replanted them, ensuring that the fragile young onions stood up straight. I felt like I had found my bliss.

For a long time I believed that being comfortable is a noble goal, and that comfort was to be found inside. Years of my life have passed making lights dance on a computer screen. Yet the great indoors gave me more anxiety than lasting peace and provided no connection to nature. My only opportunities to get outside involved either carefully manicured lawns or a literal commute to the woods. When I weed the family plot, though, I am connected. I am growing the food my family will enjoy throughout the winter. I am no longer a passive observer of nature; I am an active participant in her cycles. Weeding has become a spiritual experience.

So why am I saying all of this? I have a hunch that I’m not the only person who has spent years living at arm’s length from the natural world. In my former life, I knew dozens of people whose interaction with the Earth began and ended with rolling their windows down on the drive home. Nowadays, humanity spends a lot of time trying to insulate itself from nature. We rage against the vagaries of weather, mutter about the inconvenience of seasonal temperature variations, and so on. But I think there’s something valuable in intentionally taking part in these “inconveniences”, at least on occasion. If we only ever see the natural world as a backdrop, we never take part in the systems that support our continued existence. I know exactly how painful it was for me to find this out, and weeding saved my sanity. Maybe it can do the same for you.

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