Thursday, May 30, 2024

An Ode to Gardening


After finishing planting my little vegetable garden, I feel great. The rototiller gave me a better workout than the gym, and my new kneeling pad with rails on each side is a godsend to help me get back on my feet. 

It was inspirational getting my hands dirty sowing seeds while breathing in the scent of lilacs on a sparkling spring day. For me, planting a dead-looking seed husk is a sacred ritual. After gestation in the dark soil, the seed resurrects itself, bursting forth as a green shoot, vibrantly alive, full of pulsating cells common to all of us, both plants and animals.

Of course, it is not just me who feels this way: Peck, a good friend of mine now sadly deceased, labored daily into his 80s, wearing his Birkenstocks,  joyfully tending his gardens big enough to feed a village. That’s despite the fact that he had survived 5 heart attacks, he said, leaving him with “only half a heart.”

Oliver Sacks, a well-known author and neurologist, was another true believer, as I learned by reading a just-published posthumous collection of his essays.⁠1 “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically.”⁠2

When I had my psychotherapy practice, my patients who were gardeners seemed to fare better than those who weren’t. It was even more pronounced with Sack’s neurologically impaired patients: He wrote that for them, gardens were “vitally important,” often more “powerful than any medication.⁠3

In one example, Sacks’ elderly patient with Parkinson’s disease often found herself frozen, unable to initiate movement. “But once we led her out into the garden, where plants and a rock garden provided a varied landscape, she …could rapidly, unaided, climb up the rocks and down again.⁠4

Above all that,  Sachs firmly believed that gardening greased the skids of the creative process. I know it works for me, helping me with my writing: detoxifying the trauma and heartbreak of the daily news, making room for new fresh thoughts to pop up like delicate new flowers in spring.

Maria Popova has collected quotes from artists from across the centuries who have written about the wisdom of gardening.⁠5 The great painter Joan Miro attributed his success to working at nature’s pace: “I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.”⁠6

The revered botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer extols gardening in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” while observing that children often dislike gardening. That passage resonated with me because my mother, like Kimmerer, grew extensive vegetable gardens that required my help, a task I often resisted.

Kimmerer writes, speaking of her children, “They complain about garden chores, as kids are supposed to do, but once they start they get caught up in the softness of the dirt and the smell of the day and it is hours later when they come back into the house. Seeds for this basket of beans were poked into the ground by their fingers back in May. Seeing them plant and harvest makes me feel like a good mother.”⁠7 –  just as my mother was, both personifications of Mother Earth.

That completes my ode to gardening except for this warning: When digging in your garden and planting your seeds, don’t wear gloves – particularly those hideous latex ones that doctors use –  because dirt has been found to be good for you. Research now shows “that people who grow up on farms, for instance, have lower rates of Crohn’s disease, asthma and allergies, likely because of their exposure to a diverse array of microbes.⁠8



1 Sacks, Oliver. Everything in Its Place Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


3 Ibid. p. 245

4 Ibid





Saturday, May 18, 2024

How many ways does wood heat warm, Let me count the ways


Fred and Faye guard our woodpile
CC Jean Stimmell

This essay is a continuation of last week’s piece questioning the value of new technology like Apple’s latest iPad. Yes, this cutting-edge technology makes life easier, but is it good for your body and soul? Depending on your sensibilities,  you may find the following either romantic or asinine. 

Sacasas, in his substack, “The Convivial Society,”⁠1 introduced me to the philosopher Albert Borgmann, whom I consider a kindred soul. Back in 1987, he wrote, “that technology has served us well by conquering hunger and disease, but when we turn to it for richer experiences, it leads instead to a life dominated by effortless and thoughtless consumption.” To make his case, he points out the advantages of heating with a wood stove, something near and dear to my heart.

While technology may make life easier, it doesn’t make for a good life. And that’s the essence of what we, of the sixties generation, were searching for. We found the answer in books like the one written by Scott and Helen Nearing: “Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World.” This couple had abandoned the city for a rural life with minimal cash, searching for self-reliance, good health, and community.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the wood stove loomed large in the lives of all of us engaged in the back-to-the-land movement, whether we already lived in New Hampshire or migrated here from elsewhere. While we had no money, we had lots of energy and enthusiasm.

We loved our wood heat:  not only could you physically feel the toasty rays soaking into your body as they radiated out from the stove, but the kinetic energy created a mellow feeling of community among all the folks present. 

This kind of energy was not immediate: it took time and community to create, as Borgmann notes: Wood heat “was not instantaneous because in the morning a fire first had to be built in the stove or fireplace. And before it could be built, trees had to be felled, logs had to be sawed and split, the wood had to be hauled and stacked.”⁠2 

That encapsulates the old Yankee saying: "Wood heats you up three times; when you drop the trees, when you cut it up, and when you burn it."

I know it is a stretch, but contrasting the experience of wood heat with modern central heating is, for me, similar to that infamous Apple ad crushing all the former instruments of creativity in favor of the new iPad Pro. 

Let me explain by again quoting Borgmann who stresses not only the physical involvement that wood heat requires but the social aspects.

“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”⁠3

The newest Apple iPad may be the thinnest ever, but can it warm your body and soul like wood can?




2 Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry by Albert Borgmann. University of Chicago Press: 1987

3 Ibid.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Entropy has been weighing on my mind

“Even the words that we are speaking now 

thieving time has stolen away, 

and nothing can return”

Horace's Odes. 23 BC

We are not  unitary selves but merely a reflection of everyone
 and everything with whom we have ever interacted*

Watching my body fall apart at the age of 78, I can no longer ignore the fact that entropy is taking over. 

Entropy, of course, is the scientific fact that everything in the cosmos winds down, the universal reality that order inevitably turns toward disorder. As Carlo Rovelli has written in “The Order of Time,”⁠1 entropy is special: as opposed to all the other laws of the universe, time is not reversible. You can’t go backward. 

How well I know! It’s a one-way street.

Rovelli writes that what’s special about time is that “the difference between past and future does not lie in the elementary laws of motion; it does not reside in the deep grammar of nature. Instead, it’s a natural disordering leading gradually to “less particular, less special situations.”

That’s exactly what my old body is feeling: Less particular and less special all the time.

Science tells us that at the beginning of time, the cosmos was in perfect order and has been unraveling ever since. Some say when the disorder is complete, everything will stop, just as it does for us as individuals at our death.

On the other hand, Buddhists and some rogue scientists claim that the cosmos’s trajectory from order to disorder is part of a cycle that repeats itself time and time again. Whatever it is, it’s beyond my grasp as a Northwood hermit to make that call.

The key for me is more immediate: the urgent need to find some branch to grasp – an anchor to hold onto against the uncertain demands ahead – as I am swept down this tempestuous river called life. For many folks, that anchor is established religion, something I don’t have. In lieu of that, I have pieced together two disparate strands that guide me and give me solace.

First, I know that I am made up of ancient and primordial atoms that have been here since the beginning of time and that these fundamental elements will live on, returning to the cosmos until called upon to return as part of some new life form.

Second, I believe in Complexity Theory, which, according to Neil Theise, is the most important theory of the 20th century after quantum physics and relativity. This notion makes the mind-blowing claim that the essence of the universe is not material things but consciousness itself.

These two components have become my anchor, transforming my understanding of who I am. They puncture the illusion that this person called Jean, who is writing this essay, actually exists. Instead, I become merely the composite of everything and everyone I have interacted with throughout my life. 


This notion is beautifully expressed in the Buddhist metaphor “Indra’s Net,” first referenced in India over 3000 years ago.

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe…

At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.

And every individual is a crystal bead.

And every crystal bead reflects

not only the light from every

other crystal in the net

but also every other reflection

throughout the entire universe⁠2

How wonderful if consciousness is, indeed, the pure truth of the universe, directly accessible to each of us and not filtered through the fallible beliefs of shamans, witch doctors, preachers, mullahs, and rabbis.

 I am fully aware that when I am recycled back into a new life form, it is not likely to be a homo sapien. I have no problem with that because in the world we now live in, I’m increasingly ashamed to be a human being and would rather come back as an earthworm or a mud turtle.



1 Rovelli, Carlo. The Order of Time (p. 1). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.



1 Rovelli, Carlo. The Order of Time (p. 1). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.