Remembering Chinese Wisdom Gardening as Engaged Education
by Haiyan Huang 黄海燕 with help from Jay McDaniel
I am from China.
Many of us in China come to universities in the United States in order to gain credentials for getting a job after we graduate. Some of us go to large state universities and some go to smaller liberal arts colleges. The majority of us majore in business and economics, in mathematics, or in one of the natural sciences. I am an environmental studies major.
When I came to Hendrix College I expected to find a traditional school which emphasized classroom experience: reading books, writing papers, taking exams. I did find this. The courses I am taking are challenging, and I have to work very hard.
Learning Outside the Classroom
But I quickly discovered that many American students are interested in applying what they learn in the classroom to real-life settings, and that Hendrix College emphasizes "engaged learning" or "hands-on learning." At Hendrix the teachers believe that we learn by doing things, and not just by thinking about things. They have a requirement that, in order to graduate, we must do three special projects outside the classroom.
When you hear the phrase "outside" the classroom, you might think of a student doing an internship in a business or working in a laboratory, or perhaps tutoring a young child. At Hendrix College many students do these things. They occur inside buildings but outside the classroom. But there is another kind of "outside" that is important to many Hendrix students. But some of them take "outside" more literally. They mean spending time under the sun with the wind blowing against your skin and your hands in the soil. They mean, for example, gardening.
People in my own country know about gardening. For five thousand years most of us lived close to the land and they grew their own food. We Chinese have been a farming people. We also developed philosophical and spiritual traditions which emphasized living in harmony with nature. We assumed that we needed to garden with the rhythms of the earth if the earth was to grow food for us. One of these traditions is philosophical Taoism.
It is only with the rise of the industrial revolution in the West, and the industrialization of farming itself, that people in China left the land in large numbers, moved to cities, and forgot the arts of gardening. Somehow we accepted an idea that it is "modern" to live in cities and "old fashioned" to live in the countyside. Where did we get this idea? Perhaps we got it from the Western englightenment, with its prioritization of urban life as the seat of high civilization and progress. In any case, today most Chinese do not want to farm; they associate farming with a poverty. They want to modernize and, for them, modernization means urbanization.
Thus many Chinese, like many people in other parts of the world, lack any knowledge of where their food comes from or even how to garden. In this forgetfulness they have lost a precious gift: namely that of learning from the earth, learning from nature, learning from the soil, and learning with the hands. They have lost a practical yet spiritual skill which Taoists call harmony with nature.
A Postmodern China
There are some students at Hendrix College who remind me what we lost. Having grown up in cities themselves, they suffer from what some call nature deficit disorder, and they want to overcome that be relearning the arts of gardening. There are also some students who take courses in philosophy and religion, some of whom learn about a philosopher named Alfred North Whitehead, whose way of seeing the world is close to that of traditional China. Apparently there are seventeen centers for Whiteheadian Studies in China today, where scholars in China are developing Whiteheadian or East-West visions of the future. They are doing a lot of work in argriculture and exploring possibilities for what they call postmodern agriculture.
For them postmodern agriculture moves beyond the modern spit between body and mind, reason and feeling, humanity and nature, helping people recover the forgotten arts of learning with the natural world and from the natural world. It is postmodern, not in the sense of being antimodern, but in drawing from the wisdom of the earth as well as the wisdom of modern science. The students at Hendrix who are influenced by Whitehead find themselves naturally wanting to remember the lost arts of harmony with nature. Implicitly they become Taoist in spirit, even if they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or, like many of us Chinese, non-religious.
But let me be clear. The students at Hendrix College who have taken up gardening are not all philosophy majors. Nor are they all interested in such "big questions." They are postmodern, not in the sense of being caught up with broad historicl questions, but rather in remembering where their food comes from, and recovering the wisdom of nutrition, and reclaiming traditional insights, also found in the West, that we humans are creatures among creature, living beings among the Ten Thousand Things, whose lives depend on living in harmony with the rest of the earth. It is from them that I learn something as a Chinese student in the United States. In the vernacular of my generation, it is "cool" to garden. Let me give you a case in point.
The Postmodern Garden
Six students from Hendrix College have built an edible forest garden on our campus. It sits next to a house in which environmentally interested students lived, call eco-house. The garden is a form of permanent agriculture, which involves different layers of vines, trees, shrubs, and groundcovers.
Katherine Roehm, pictured on the right, is one of the six students in charge of the garden in 2010-2011. She explains that building this garden not brings benefits for people who can eat the the fresh fruits and vegetables, but also turns a barren Bermuda grass lawn to a more productive landscape and enhances the sustainability of the land itself.
These students have included 22 species of edible perennial in the garden and 15 of them are native to North America. When talking about why they mainly use perennial plants, Roehm says the perennial plants will form a self-maintaining and self-fertilizing ecosystem by themselves, while they will not take too much maintenance and will only grow better as time passes. In addition, perennials will help develop the health of the soil in that area, and attract more insects to pollinate the plants in the garden.
After having undertaken a soil test, she discovered that the soil lacks some organic matter and important nutrients. Accordingly the students are adding soil amendments.
They use two natural ways to add the special nutrition for the soil. One is reuse the left-over food in the garden; and the other way is to plant a kind of plant that can fixed nitrogen to ascends the nutrients.
In the different layers of plants, there are two pawpaw trees which provide shadows for the plants they grow up. Some shrubs perform better under shadows. The garden also includes two hardy kiwis.
The female part will grow over the arch in the garden and is more convenientt for people to pick up the mature fruits. There are also some ostrich ferns which have fronds in the spring.
There is a separate section for the annual vegetables. According to Roehm, the purpose for having this special section is to breed heritage seeds from these annuals after several years with less chemical input. With these heritage seeds, people will no longer have to use the patent hybrid seed. They will not need to worry about the unexpected mutation of the seeds for next year.
In short, the Hendrix garden is a composite of annual, perennial fruits and vegetables, which serve as multifunctional plants. The students had gain site analysis and design skills through this project and practiced their knowledge from the fields of art and science.
Egyptian Walking Onion
Whole View of the Garden
Mustard Greens, which taste like Horseradish
The Kiwi Vine
The Great Wall in China
The Taoist Ideal: Human Beings are Part of Nature
The Modern Approach: Nature is an Object to be Observed. Humans not really a part of Nature.
In truth, we are small but included in the larger Web of Life.