Summer 2013

Toki Oshima drawing.

By Hildie J. Lipson

The challenges we face, such as peak oil, climate change and economic crises, can be overwhelming to us as individuals. Here in Wayne, a few of us have been meeting to talk about joining the Transition Towns Movement, an initiative that seeks to build community resilience to mitigate converging global crises through home-grown, local and citizen-led education, action and planning. With such huge concerns about sustainability, we didn’t know exactly what to do that will make a difference and would get others interested in the idea.

As we struggled to get our Transition Town off the ground, I realized I had been participating in one of the solutions all along.

The Garden Group is the best thing I do. Going on 17 years, a group of five families meets monthly at alternating members’ houses to help each other with seasonal chores. We clean chicken coops, plant gardens, create new garden beds, paint, stack firewood, rake leaves, eradicate invasive plants and, in the process, spend precious quality time with each other as we live our lives in our shared small town in Maine.

The Garden Group is one way that makes me feel like I belong in my community. In our town of 1,000 people, our group of families shares a set of values that include simple living, care for the earth, growing some of our own food, love of music and art, and sharing time together. We are teachers, librarians, counselors, nonprofit leaders and dental hygienists. We all have children and the kids have all grown up having this group in their lives. In this mobile culture when few of us live near immediate family, we have become each other’s family.

When we get together, we work. It is amazing the amount of work you can get done with 10 pairs of hands in a short amount of time. One group can easily stack 3 cords of wood (despite Dave’s run-by-run re-telling of the former evening’s Red Sox game), while another group weeds and clears underneath 60 blueberry bushes. None of us possess any special skills – we are just temp labor, and happy to be so. The pace is leisurely enough to complete a noticeable amount of work and still stop for the anticipated potluck lunch at noon. I often find myself wondering, at 11:45 a.m., if Jane brought one of her famous berry or apple pies. And who brought the salad? Consistently working together and sharing a meal are soothing and comforting rituals I have come to expect and anticipate in my life. And the hard work feels good on a body that mostly sits in front of a computer.

One of the best parts of our workday is solving the problems of the world right there in the garden. We discuss local, state, national and international politics and issues. Just about everyone in the group has served on at least one town committee over the years. Dennis remarks that we are all tired of board work these days. I agree. The work time is a good chance to catch up on what some would call gossip – others call necessary information – about who in town has been ill or who’s the young family that bought the old Beach farm. All the stuff one would hear if any of us attended church.

We began the group because we already gathered in January to compile our cooperative seed order to FEDCO. We all gardened and liked getting together. While drinking tea and coffee after brunch one year, we talked about ways to see more of each other on a regular basis.

Theresa and Jim recalled a group in their former home town in another state that met regularly to help each other with the big jobs that come with living in rural areas: shingling the side of the house, cutting firewood for the year, and putting up the annual garden produce. We all agreed that helping each other on a regular basis was a very good idea. We agreed on a schedule and, since 1995, haven’t wavered.

The Garden Group has survived the dissolution of one of the marriages. At the time, 8-year-old Carson said, “You can’t get divorced, it will break up the garden group.” Trust the young to speak our worst fears. But the group didn’t dissolve. We added another family and adjusted the schedule from each family having two workdays a year to one where we each got just one workday a year, but agreed to start 1/2 hour earlier to compensate.

The garden group has been the one consistent thing in my life for the past 17 years. Starting a group is easy. Maintaining the commitment is another. We have encouraged others to set up their own garden groups. I am not sure why our group has stayed together so long. I think initially we were all independently searching for more meaningful interaction in our daily lives. Now, the workdays are both a reliable source of labor for half a day as well as an anticipated social event. We have found a way to help each other and maintain those personal relationships researchers have found to be crucial to good health and well-being. We are not bowling alone.

Those connections were vital a few years ago when my partner of just 2-1/2 years suddenly died. David was a great addition to the group because he was a skilled carpenter. He would drive up in his truck, gracefully unload saw horses, tools and lumber, and in minutes build the frames for a couple of new raised beds. We did one garden group at David’s house, located on the Androscoggin River, on a beautiful October day. Many, many people enjoyed the benefits of David’s generosity over the years – he would be the first to call to fix that door that just wouldn’t close, or to help shovel and rake the roof of snow. I think it was a relief that all of us could partially pay back David for all the favors he did for others.

My favorite quote is from Paul Hawken, who, in addition to starting Smith & Hawken, a garden tools company, also wrote extensively on a new vision for business in America. He said, “Always leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy, satisfied, even joyous. That has more of an effect on economic well-being than any other single factor.” The Garden Group supports not just our economic position, but also the ways we look out for and help each other. Any committed group of people can create a group of their own.

With climate change, “superstorms” and uncertainty spoken in most conversation these days, strengthening community ties is more urgent than ever. We will be the ones taking care of each other when the oil begins to run out. The Garden Group helps me know my neighbors, encourages me to focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels, assists in producing our own food and allows me to be part of the solution. It also provides me immense joy and satisfaction – something many of us find in short supply.

The Garden Group gives me hope for the future. Hope gives me joy and happiness, and having a happy heart is the best thing I can do for the earth and for myself.

Hildie J. Lipson gardens in Wayne, Maine, has a 21-year-old daughter, and was most recently executive director of MaineShare.

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