Self-Sufficiency and Idleness – A match made in Heaven

Our first session in the new year was aptly on January 1st. The first thing that greeted me when I opened the garden gate was a dead pigeon. I hope that’s no bad omen. Later that day four of us sat together sheltering from the heavy rain, enjoying a cup of tea and some of last year’s pickled beetroot, just chatting and enjoying the garden, or more precisely, enjoying being outdoors, in spite of the rain. As for last Sunday we mainly made some more pumpkin soup. Apart from a bit of weeding, replanting and other little pottering activities, there hasn’t been much to do in the garden lately (though there will be very soon); you can only stare at plants growing for a certain amount of time before your mind starts turning to other things. But after the excesses of the Christmas season, it felt good to be idle.

I can only apologise to anyone who has ever been disappointed at turning up to the garden to find there isn’t much work to do. In my defence, I will say that this is quite normal in the winter, and I hope to see them in the Spring when things get busy. But I would also invite them to turn up on such a idle days while they have the chance, to take the time to just appreciate being in the garden, taking a seat, having a cup of tea and just being in the moment.

There is a good yin and yang element to gardening: You get to know when there is a lot of work to do, but also understand that when the work is done it is a good opportunity to sit back and do nothing. In today’s busy world this is almost seen as a crime or an abnormality. Too often, when faced with a free moment, we try or feel forced to fill it with something, be it extra work, social events, going to the gym, etc. For some people with busy jobs and/or family lives it is hard not to do these things, sometimes impossible, as the demands of modern life as well as our responsibilities continue to hound us. Still, one shouldn’t confuse idleness with laziness or distraction.

Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler magazine may or may not agree with me on this, but being lazy is when you can’t be bothered to do something, often shirking your responsibilities in the process, whereas being idle is when you give yourself the time to do nothing in particular, knowing there is nothing else you need to do just then. I do mean doing ‘nothing in particular’, as opposed to just sitting in a chair staring at a blank wall, although one shouldn’t completely discount that activity either. Doing nothing in particular is the very time when you let your mind wander and discover things and surprise yourself. It is a surprisingly non-passive activity, as that is when you out of the blue read War and Peace, learn to knit a scarf or play poker, or turn over a little soil in the garden to plant some onions. You do it not because you have to, but just because you can and suddenly feel like trying it.

Then again, neither should idleness be confused with distraction. In this world of bells and whistles it is easy to amuse ourselves at the touch of a button, with calls, texting, games, streaming news and television on our phones, rarely knowing what boredom is. I’ve never been one to listen to music while on the move outdoors with an Ipod or similar gadget. Not only do I not feel comfortable not being aware of the sounds around me, but I think those gadgets also make people using them look like mindless zombies. I’ve met people barely able to walk fifty yards on their own without resorting to ‘plugging up’ into their music. This is not idleness, but more like switching off your brain and going into standby mode. Mind you it’s easy to judge others, but I’m certainly not immune to distraction either. I love watching TV so much I don’t have one at home, to stop myself wasting too much time watching it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some distractions, but to rely on them as a desperate means of avoiding little moments of emptiness seems to take it to unnatural extremes.  Are we that afraid of being left alone with our own minds?

Although I am no expert, my times tarp-camping in the wild have taught me that the daytime is often a long period of furious activity, gathering wood for the fire, constantly purifying water from a stream by boiling it, foraging for food, shelter building, etc., using every minute of daylight available to prepare you for a cold and dark night ahead. But once night falls, and you have your shelter, fire, water and food, then all there is left to do is to just sit there and enjoy the warmth and light of the campfire. This, however, is more than just a romantic notion, it is also an important aspect of both self-sufficiency and survival. In many less developed parts of the world, people who don’t have our luxuries of mass distraction still know the importance of being idle when the moment asks for it. We in the affluent West should all ask ourselves how would we cope if we were stuck somewhere without our phones and Ipods to keep us occupied?

So while there is still time in the garden, I like to enjoy such idle moments, giving respite from my studies, but also from the pressures of everyday life. But every yin needs a yang, and so too much idleness becomes devalued – that really is just being a lazy bastard. But no worries of that in the garden, as when the plants start to thrive in the spring, they will suddenly keep us very busy.


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