Zen and the art of weed whacking


(Cross-posted from The Jew and the Carrot)

Caught in a rainstorm in Guatemala, with only chafing rain boots to tackle the wet, muddy miles ahead, Joe Gorin is about to give in to misery. Then he remembers a Buddhist practice: walking meditation. The scene begins to change as he uses this tool for enhanced awareness and thought to smooth the journey. This scene comes from Gorin’s memoir “Choose Love: A Jewish Buddhist Human Rights Activist in Central America,” and illustrates how well his spiritual practice entwined with his human rights work in 1980s Latin America. The author, who is a psychotherapist and I just call Joe, works the plot next to mine in a community garden in Northwest D.C. Joe gave me his book this spring, after I shared that I write.

Though I’ve never trudged around Central America in the rain, and am only a neophyte meditator, I have developed a similar penchant for spotting lessons — I’ll call it metaphor meditation. It is a similar concept to the one that made Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” an international bestseller. Usually used for a variety of reasons in literature, from foreshadowing (gathering storm clouds) to character development (the corset of a restricted aristocrat), metaphor can lend insight for a sustainable life as well.

My latest metaphor for meditation is weeds, those uninvited guests who have become so familiar to me in the very garden I share with Joe.

I count anything that I didn’t plant intentionally as a weed, so that of course includes the crab grass that constantly sends runners into my beds, but also wild callaloo and purslane, and even the volunteer dill growing where last year’s seeds dropped.

Weeds give you only three options: 1) Ignore them, 2) Trim them, or 3) Eradicate the damn things. The path I take with a given weed at a certain time means more than the fate of a bundle of cellulose. The decisions and ramifications help me to meditate on life challenges.

While I don’t condone ignoring most problems, I usually ignore purslane until it is a full-grown plant. Then I harvest and eat it. Yes, the low-growing red stems and waxy leaves do grow large quickly, but the plants don’t seem to disturb anything. What’s more, I learned a few years ago that those oily leaves are packed with Omega 3s. This year I blended one batch into a smoothie, while I ground another with an equal volume of fresh basil, along with garlic, olive oil, and walnuts to make a lemony pesto. Those red stalks come to mind when I sense that a problem may take care of itself and even benefit me in the end.

Much of that crab grass grows to the side, and this is a case for trimming. If I turned the other way, the stuff would crawl over my clean beds and take over everything. On the other hand, if I set to digging up the whole root system, I would spend the whole day hacking at nuisances without a chance to enjoy the vegetables and flowers. Once again, I see parallel problems that, to stay manageable, require some attention — just not too much, if you intend to keep your sanity.

Nearly every other weed is bothersome enough to fall into the extraction category. From a feathery weed that grows into a small forest between my plot and Joe’s, to vines that crawl over my squash and pole beans, the only way to confront this type is the tear them out.

Callaloo is a tough case. I’ve written about its virtues, but like a friend who sometimes comes to your rescue but otherwise just sinks in her roots, these leafy plants can be a mixed blessing. They often nestle next to plants I have actually cultivated, without seeming to suck away much moisture or nutrients. This makes them a good candidate for Approach #1 — just letting them go. Yet I admit that I enjoy pulling the rigid callaloo stalks and tender, pine-colored leaves, savoring the clean rip of the roots and the smell of soil that comes up with them. Like purslane, this weed is also edible and nutritious. I often see not an intruder in those plants, but a serving of sautéed greens, brimming with calcium and potassium and garnished with minced garlic, plumped raisins and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Unfortunately, as I pulled up a callaloo stalk the other day, I took a small onion with it. Weigh your options, the yellow victim seemed to say, before you take metaphorical advice into the concrete world out there.

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