For three years I lived in a house with a giant back yard and plenty of gardening space, and the only things I got around to planting were rosemary, sage, and some tomato bushes that were immediately chomped to death by local deer.
I moved in December (down the street, wheeee) and inherited a garden plot that was essentially all set up for me. The ground had been tilled, enriched and even had some plants leftover from the previous year that popped up as pleasant little gifts when the snow melted. As a reluctant gardener, no one has been more surprised than me at my sudden enthusiasm for this mucking around in the dirt. Maybe it’s because I’m visual and needed to have space laid out for me, a sort of paint-by-numbers for gardeners, or maybe it’s just because this year I have a much more boring life – regardless of reason, I have jumped in to the gardening life with vim et vigor. That said, it’s a learning curve, and learning curves are humbling. The fostering of things from the ground, the choices you have to make about where to plant things and whether or not something is a weed – surely I’m not the only one that finds it all kind of a big deal? I’ve taken to tasting things, in spite of my terror that something might be a potato plant, and what if I die of gardening-related poisoning? I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie.
Being a gardener is something I’ve always felt I should be – in the same way I’ve always been certain (against all evidence ever) that deep down I’m a runner who just hasn’t started yet. I relish the sore muscles and the rough patches on my hands, taking them as badges – identifiers, the way a runner might point to calluses where blisters used to be. I take such satisfaction because the older I get, the more I fear that I will get into the groove of not being things I want to be, whether it’s a gardener/runner/potter/person who can keep a beat/speaks French, etc and so forth and so on. Having taken stock of 2012, and realizing that I hadn’t gotten more interesting in any single way, this year has unexpectedly turned into a year focused on exposing myself to new things, learning new skills and trying to be a more interesting person. Note here that I did not say “better” person. Goals need to be realistic. “Learning” has become my mantra.
Everything I’ve read about learning and the brain (and you’d be surprised at how much I have read) leads me to believe that the great gift and curse of being human is how we learn. Could I be anymore dramatic? In the most reductive way possible, it works roughly like this: you learn something by constant exposure, building a neural bridge of responses and synapses. There are times in your life when it’s easier to build these bridges (or pathways, or grooves) because your whole brain is devoted to growing and learning new things. Toddlers learning to walk, talk, and hold spoons are constantly learning new things, and this continues up through the teenage years and into early adulthood, topping off at about 19 – 21. After that, the brain gets a little lazier, probably figuring that whatever you really need to know to survive, you should have learned by then – and people settle into their grooves, doing things the same way over and over again. This is why languages are harder to learn when you’re older, and why habits can be harder to break or form. In fact, people can become so settled into their grooves that the brain actually loses function – consider dementia and Alzheimer’s - the literal dying off of parts of the brain. Now it used to be that when the brain was damaged, stroke or other injury, and say for example, the patient lost function of part of the body – e.g. the left arm, it was just accepted, and worked around. A patient would be treated with deference, and someone else would do for them what the left side couldn’t. (I’m getting to my point, I swear.) But as time has passed and more research done, it’s become evident that the brain can continue to build new neural pathways – even around injuries. So the new way of dealing with the patient would be the same way a toddler learns to walk – trying over and over and over again – small attempts at first and then building up to things like brushing their hair with the left hand, for example. And thus the brain is capable of change, of learning new things – even against tremendous odds. It would then follow that if the brain can work around traumatic injury, it can also fend off the slower deterioration, by preemptively and constantly building new neural pathways. In other words, don’t get complacent.
And so, as I age, I think about these things. I’m 32, and I realize this is not considered aged by people outside of Provo, Utah, but if I’m preemptively using wrinkle creams – and you know I am – surely I can do the same for my brain. And so my year continues, and the theme (whether or not it started out this way) of learning goes on.
All of this is to say I’ve been digging in the dirt, futzing about with seeds and seedlings, and getting a whole lot dirtier than usual. Imagine how insufferable I’ll be if/when I actually start harvesting things.
Note: I also fixed the lawn mower, but I’m just saying that to brag, because I’ve got to do it somewhere, and if I’m paying for this domain space, I can talk about fixing a lawn mower if I want to.