Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gardening and writing in China and Maine

I was in China between Oct. 31-Nov. 9 giving a series of invited lectures on music and sustainability, sponsored by the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing. I met several faculty members and students of university age. In the course of conversation they asked me what I did with my time in the US when I was not teaching. I said that I had a place in the country where I went in the summers to think and read and write and make music and grow apples and vegetables, and that working in the gardens and the orchard helped me think and write. I said I worked on restoring old violins and other stringed instruments and that also helped me think and write. I said that when I could get away in the fall I went there for long weekends to do the same.

My Chinese hosts found it difficult to understand how anyone would want to be a farmer. Farming is something that much of the population still does, in China, and they produce an abundance of food. At every meal there was much left over. The restaurants do not distribute it to the poor. Not even the cafeterias do that. Nor were students aware of organic farming and gardening, even though traditional small farming in China has been organic for many many centuries. One does not farm for pleasure, or to free the mind; one does it out of necessity to make a living. Farmers and scholars belong to different classes of people. Scholars (not only academics but anyone who writes, whether poets or accountants or scribes or philosophers) go back to Confucius' day.

For contemplation, scholars, like emperors, had gardens. And gardeners. Gnarled old cyprus trees, and ancient rock formations, were favored. These were not food gardens. These were contemplation gardens. Above is part of an emperor's garden in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

After sitting and thinking a scholar might go into a building and write a poem. Emperors went into temples like the one in the Forbidden City, above, to write theirs.

Contemplation sitting in a garden of stone and cyprus followed by inspiration to write a poem (in calligraphy) sitting in a temple gives me something to think about. Hoeing beans followed by writing an essay doesn't seem to belong to the same order of experience. Perhaps I would write better essays if I first contemplated in the forest back of my house in Maine, sitting on a moss-covered stone outcropping in a clearing, surrounded by spruce trees. I'm going to try it.

Probably if I had to be a farmer for a living I would not write about it as I do now. I'd like to think I'd still write about it--I know farmers who also are writers: Wendell Berry to take one prominent example. Or is he a writer who also is a farmer? I don't want to be cute about this. In Berry the two vocations are complementary.

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