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Notes From a Gentleman Farmer

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

September. Here, at 8000 feet, any night a freeze may come. One late snowpea plant is still blossoming. The rest are going brown, and heavy seed pods hang from the vines. The spinach has gone to seed, but the zucchini and yellow squash are crawling across the potato stalks, even sneaking through the deer fence to escape into the wilderness. If Weather Underground predicts a freeze, I’ll have to decide whether and what to cover. Gardening at high altitude is a challenge.

O-Sensei’s passion for farming may have been as deep as his love for martial arts. He was born into a Japanese farming family in Tanabe, south of Osaka. When he was 29, he led a group of settlers to Hokkaido on Japan’s northernmost island to set up a farming colony. At the age of 37, he moved his family to Ayabe to join the Omoto-kyo religious community. He became heavily involved in farming work there, attempting to make the community self-sufficient. Before retiring to Iwama, where he spent the last years of his life, he purchased 17 acres of farmland so he could continue his dedication to agriculture. He must have been inspired by his love of farming when he said, “Nature is our greatest teacher.”

Indeed, gardening teaches something profound. In a single growing season I see the parabolic bloom and decay of a lifetime. My garden has somehow taught me an acceptance of death. (At least it feels that way now. You might ask me again when I see the Grim Reaper closing in).

Carl Jung thought that our existence might be like the rhizome, plants whose subterranean rootstalks grow horizontally, sending up shoots into the sunlit world. Perhaps our conscious life, blooming in the light of awareness, is sustained by a deeper unconscious continuance.

I suppose the skeptics among us would say that we’re more like annuals than perennials, and all that survives our brief existence is that which gets passed on in seeds to the next generation. No matter what the truth of our individual being is, I find that spending time outside digging in my garden tends to infuse in me a deep peace, to make me feel a connection to everything.

Meanwhile, outside of the fenced rectangle of my vegetable garden, I’ve been doing battle with the spotted knapweed. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be an “invasive species” (being a member of one myself), and have decided to confront those plant varieties that don’t play well with others, those that choke out all other growth.

I’ve been walking the land with my gaze down, and so am becoming intimately acquainted with my local ecology. Searching for the weed I’m attempting to eradicate has made me aware of the tremendous variety of flora surrounding me.

I haven't bothered to learn the Latin names (at least not so far). I love the homespun names more.

Leadplant, downy indigo bush, prairie shoestring, and buffalo bellows are all different names for the same plant. Never a fan of the manicured lawn, I wander my five acres, stumbling upon mariposa lily, lamb’s ear, Siberian catmint, scarlet gilia…

My favorite name among them all is “foxglove beardtongue,” a plant that sends up a single vertical stem with lovely flowers that look like penstemon, only white.

It’s not the name, but the act of naming that matters. I can’t remember where I read that, but I immediately saw it as a brilliant insight. To name something means to pay attention to it, to look at it intently, to distinguish it from everything that surrounds it.

At times I envision O-Sensei having done something like this in his martial art studies: trekking through Daito-Ryu, judo, Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu jujutsu, the Shinkage-ryu school of swordsmanship, looking for the rare blossoms—the forms that no one else could see—and combining them into an art that he named “aikido”.

Stalking the spotted knapweed allows me to wander about in nature while appeasing my neurotic need to always be achieving some end. Our five acres seem to be a metaphor for my unruly mind. I don’t think the jungle of my awareness will ever be tamed, but maybe I can pick out one weed to eradicate. How about that one that needs me to always be accomplishing something? It’s an old ailment for me, always needing to be doing, always staying busy, attempting to justify my existence.

I notice that just a tiny shift of intention can change everything. I can perform the exact same action in two completely different ways. Either I’m doing some project to realize some outcome, to accomplish some future state where I will finally achieve perfect satisfaction—or I’m doing the same thing for the pure doing of it, attentive and present. Sometimes I can feel that I’m right on the cusp of the moment, right there where everything is arising out of the frisky void.

My first aikido sensei used to say, “You can sweep the dojo to make it clean, or you can sweep the dojo just to sweep the dojo. Do you see the difference?”

I once read that O-Sensei saw martial arts and farming as two aspects of the same thing. I’ve often wondered, in what way were they the same to him? Maybe this is the answer: that both activities brought him into the state of shin-shin ichinyo where mind and body are one, that place where the weeds of remorse and speculation are ripped up by their roots and one moves freely in the present moment.

All photographs by Philip Riffe

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