Cultura: Cultivating Food, Art & Life
Jesse Wolf Hardin



True prosperity is dependent on our finding sustainable sources — and sustainable means — for providing sufficient amounts of nourishing foods... but also on the satisfying of a personal aesthetic.

The rapid and seemingly endless rise in food prices since 2007 have driven home the need to reevaluate the modern agricultural system, including which species we plant and whether fertile heritage varieties or infertile patented strains, how we fertilize and harvest, and how much we import from far away.

The potentially positive results of food shortages — and the skyrocketing cost of farm equipment fuel and oil-based fertilizers — include a deeper appreciation by the average consumer for this truly essential element of our survival, the localizing of food production and subsequent greater regional self sufficiency, an upswing in backyard gardens and community-run plots, heightened opposition to infertile seeds and the preservation of farm lands, increased awareness of our precarious place in the food chain and the need to give back to the earth and soil that provides for us.

The traumatic disruption of “business as usual” is in fact both a much needed wake-up call and a chance to do it all completely differently... not even the “old way” per se, but the honorific approach of ancient times melded with new methods of cultivation and the added perspective of advanced scientific understandings.

Due to the practical and essential nature of food, conscious gardeners usually cite the benefits to self, society and the planet whole whenever asked why we do what we do. We may explain the ways we garden in terms of what plants grow best next to, or in rotation with another, with references to natural pest control, increased nutritional content, or one species’ need for lots of drainage and another’s sensitivity to the sun.

We surely refer to sustainability, in recognition of all the approaches that are decidedly not. But all too seldom do we cite art as a reason for our technique and design, for the sculptural shovel work, the deft painting of landscape with seedings of color and form... nor do we often respond to our questioners in ways that help them understand beauty as a criteria, an aim, and an important harvestable crop.

Likewise, when asked about the reasons for the ways we live our lives, we generally talk about benefits like better health and living longer, rather than how satisfying it is to daily feed an aesthetic inclination. “Because it is beautiful,” we might just as well answer, as we each contribute to the wonderful shapes, dynamics and colors already existing around and within us.

In modern, so-called “Western” cultures there’s a stark distinction made between the practical growing of food crops and the raising of ornamentals such as flowers, as well as between the supposed florid artist’s life and the sober existence and more practical priorities of the common woman or man. It is different in many ancient and contemporary tribal societies, as it is in the attractive land-informed cultures that we are together working to create.

For us, all of life — from birth to death, planting to harvest — is an opportunity to meld ritual and necessity, substance and gesture, artfulness and practicality, working to make every act and result not only productive but evermore beauteous!

It can be helpful to look at the “roots” of our language, to find where ideas and terms “stem” from. This word “culture,” for example, comes from the Latin “cultura” meaning “to cultivate.” It refers to the human cultivation of both shared food crops and common values. But it also speaks for the ways in which we are in turn ourselves cultivated... by the natural world and natural systems that we are each an intrinsic and inseparable part of.

We are but one of the latest flawed yet wondrous blossomings of evolution, as much a product and child of the ground as the plants we eat. We are fruit birthed of fermenting compost, dependent on nutritive soil, water and air... no less amazing of designs than the stunning twists of skyward vines, the wild berry with its perfect glowing nodes, the mandala-like patterns in a prickly-pear slice.

One thing that distinguishes us from other fruits of the earth is that we are equipped with a consciousness that allows us to partly choose or create our particular means of expression, our methods for “feeding” — contributing to — the planet we are intrinsic extensions of. And not like plums simply waiting to be picked, but instead, picking unique and personal ways of giving back.

All too much of human history has involved destruction, destroying neighboring cities or an enemy’s fields of wheat, and whole forests leveled for carpenters’ wood, profit or heat. But of even more consequential and lasting impact may be what we construct, develop, create.

It is our products as much as anything else, that hurt or help the world we care about, that contribute either to the ugliness and degradation or the beauty and honoring.

In terms of architecture, it is the difference between soulless square tenement housing and homes oriented to feast on the sun, reflecting regional or native custom, artistically designed to be an engross and delight the eye of the observer. We see some buildings made entirely of materials foreign to the bioregion, while others enlist combinations of local wood and stone, utilizing and highlighting natural colors, shapes and grains.

Likewise, one is taken aback by the contrast — and the implied choice — between geometric fields packed with rows of single-species crops like soldiers in uniform, and the seductive Zen gardens, swirling Andes mountain terraces, or the floral-laced vegetable spirals of San Francisco’s urban cooperatives. In the latter cases, there is no contradiction between growing for food and growing for beauty, or tending the land and nourishing the self.

Art is a marriage of symbol and context, of earth and spirit fostered by our own loving hands, with a palette of earthen pigment and dancing leaves, of rain and sun, struggle and reward. For the artful gardener, every act is the seeding of a story, not unlike ancient tribal dances to the sacred animal quarry, chants to the rain gods, magical paintings on mats of bark, or the myths told and retold over the proverbial tribal fire.

Synergistic gardens are essentially edible and attractive tales that help bind us to our values and beliefs, to our joyful participatory place within the food chain, to earth source and artful solution, and to the fullest experience of home and place.

The gardening that some call permaculture is essentially the art of conscious, responsive, celebratory relationship. The implied assignment is not only to make that relationship work, but to make it lovely as well. It is not only meeting needs but delighting in our means for doing so.

In our relationship to the land, the care we give it includes our attentiveness, love, protection, and celebration of shared being. The result can be a further dissolving of boundaries between us and the land, the creator and the created, the artist and the art.

In the craftsman’s vernacular, our attention to form is called “style.” Once we have made art into a way of being, an activity, a verb, we see the ways in which it corresponds to the word “grace”... meaning “seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement,” “an excellence bestowed by God” and “a prayer of thanksgiving.”  

It is in this sense of motive beauty, beneficence and gratitude that we impart grace to our acts, and are in turn graced by the inspirited world we act upon and within.

Gardening requires our time, focus, labor, commitment and devotion — but repetitive chores turn into art whenever they are executed with intention and style, then become ritual with our conscious acknowledgment of their meaning and importance. Recognizing that most of our lives are spent cultivating one thing or another, we can choose to be aware of and particular about what we seed, water and feed in life, and about how and why we cultivate and create.

One result of such purposefulness and ritual care is deeper connection, as our efforts weave us back into the material, spirit and essence of our experiential lives. Together with the intentional, artful efforts of others, we co-create the living fabric of a greener culture. And with every design, every effort, every planting, we jointly paint on that fabric the story of our dreams and knowings, of our devotion and talent... of our beautiful, growing hope.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Animá nature-informed practice and the author of seven inspiring books. He and his partners offer empowering online Medicine Woman, Shaman Path and Path of Heart correspondence courses, as well online counsel and healing consultations. Awareness readers are invited for wilderness retreats, vision quests, student internships and events at the Animá Sanctuary, a wild river canyon and ancient place of power in the enchanted Southwest: Animá Learning & Retreat Center, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830. Visit:

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