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Allotment as Practice

Here’s a lovely piece by Sarah Thwaites – Zen in daily life and one pointed attention both perfectly captured:

’21 years ago when I first heard that there were places called allotments I suddenly knew that was what I wanted to do with my spare time,  I had no idea that it would become so important in my life. It is only in retrospect that I can see that and to spot the parallels between time on the allotment and time in the zendo. Back then, before allotments hit their current popularity, they were a very unusual place for a woman in her 20s and the first allotment site I approached flatly rejected the idea of me having a plot. My patch of wilderness, surrounded by other plots held mainly by men many decades older than me, seemed an unlikely place for me to hang out and I couldn’t have predicted that it would become such a place of refuge for me.

Back then I lived in a chaos of overlapping thoughts, few of them helpful, caught up in so many ways of making life difficult for myself and most of the time pushing life away as fast and as hard as I could. Needless to say, that approach didn’t work too well and only created more tension. I really wasn’t comfortable with myself, with others or with life. Although as a teenager my compulsive searching of the library for answers to my never ending questions, had led to a ‘decision’ that, if I needed a religion when I was older (in those rare moments when I could envisage ever being ‘old’) that it would be Buddhism, the idea of meditating wasn’t one that occurred to me. But in retrospect it seems that to something similar happened at the allotment. I arrived, got on with whatever needed doing and in doing so I began, almost imperceptibly to thaw out.

My allotment, when I first took it on, was a wild and overgrown place and I had plans to tame it quickly. In my first weeks I copied those around me and dosed part of the plot in weedkillers before feeling guilty at the consequences for wildlife and deciding that a slower, gentler approach was needed. Ideas of rapid transformation gave way to slow, hard, repeated effort.

And as my allotment gradually changed so did I. Whether I was vigorously forking over the soil or sitting pulling weeds one by one, thoughts in my head subsided, and I could settle into my body, into life. Resentment or dismay at the passing of the seasons, dark nights and at the weather faded away – instead they were just part of the reassuring ebb and flow of life. I spent time nurturing life, feeding the soil, feeling the soil on my hands. The allotment allowed me some space from my head to just be.

Although the allotment has the feel of a haven, the real world can never be excluded. Whereas at the zendo we sit to the backdrop of traffic splashing through the wet street outside, cathedral bells and the shrieks of the Shiverpool tours, at the allotment there is birdsong, passing cars, park events and the thwack of leather on willow from the nearby cricket club. Each a reminder that life is going on in every minute and calling us to take part in it in our own way. Like in the zendo there is a companionable silence on an allotment site. People say greet each other and exchange conversation on arriving and departing and are ready to offer support if needed, but otherwise people get on with their own stuff, knowing that nearby others are also getting on with theirs.  A perfect environment it seems for gradually thawing out my life-acquired introversion.

Nothing stays the same for long. While my children were young and the allotment provided them a space and freedom to explore nature, their attempts to make friends with snails and worms and their excited shrieks and wails added another dimension to the silence that isn’t ever really silence. Now that my children are grown and see the allotment only as a source of nostalgia, the allotment is again a place for solitude.

Looking back the allotment has seen me in just about every emotional state possible – I’ve sat weeding with tears dripping into the soil, mused over work and family dilemmas, leapt around in jubilation, nursed hostile thoughts and come to let them be. I’ve had sudden brainwaves (a few of which even turned out not to be entire nonsense) and moments where life just seemed to make sense.

Over the years as I became more comfortable with life, I began spending more of my outdoor time further afield, exploring hills, mountains and moorland, enjoying the same solitude there that I’d first discovered at the allotment. I ‘need’ my plot less I think than I did back in my 20s and it gets a bit neglected at times. But I have good reason to be grateful to it, to be very glad that I persisted when I was first told that I couldn’t have an allotment. I had a lot of opening up to life to do and looking back, sitting still on a cushion probably wouldn’t have been the right place for me to start that process. For many years it seems, I was practicing without knowing it with the plot as my substitute zendo. Without it I’m not sure I’d have been ready to enter into the actual zendo.

Even after all these years with a better balance now established on my allotment and in my life, it takes time and effort to keep a balance between chaos and order, not to control life but not retreat back from it either. My allotment will never be tidy, ordered and perfect just as my life won’t. And I’ve realised that I like it like that.’

Sarah Kokai Thwaites