Wu Wei

Often I find myself standing in the garden, or near it, the shovel or hoe or rake or spade in my hand, or by my feet, unaware that I’ve long stopped pulling out the couch grass roots as I’ve promised to do and have in fact been standing stock-still quite awhile meditating on the horizon, until my wife, patiently mulching between rows, asks, “What are you thinking about?” As marriage is a form of translation, what I take this to mean is, “Why are you standing there doing nothing while I patiently mulch between these rows?” This gets me to the title of this post, a term from Taoism that refers to action through non-action, to do by not doing. It has to do with not resisting, not striving against all obstacles but, rather, going with the flow of events, with the cycles of nature, which an ecologist like herself would appreciate. I’ve always been drawn to eastern philosophy; its general requirement in its Americanized version is to sit for long periods of time, its major piece of equipment a meditation cushion. A good example of wu wei as I understand it would be our tomatoes. I was reminded of this on reading a blog post by the good folks at gettin’ fresh who noted that it is always the tomatoes that get people excited about a garden, and it’s true that I never feel ours is successful until I see those plump beauties on the vine, which offer an aromatic pat on the back as I pass them. But the fact is that our best tomato crop occurred last year when two varieties surprised us by seeding themselves in the rose bushes where we (and by we, I mean my wife) had placed an arbitrary shovel-full of compost. Wu wei in action, or I suppose that would be in non-action. Still, I can see my wife’s point (as I’ve interpreted it). Like, I suspect, many others, I’m torn between two approaches to the world. One is the idea (though it could well be called a deeply ingrained prejudice) that incisive, carefully premeditated action is the way forward, that to go boldly—and this of course entails fiercely resisting all obstacles—will produce worthy results so long as your heart is in the right place. The other is the idea that non-resistance will ultimately, if counter-intuitively, get you where you want to go. That is, I am torn between the so-tempting idea that technology and force (perhaps those are redundant terms) used appropriately will result in a benign interplanetary Star Trek-like federation (which, frankly, seems to me to cut against ecology, which suggests that all actions have multiple unpredicted and often unwanted reactions) and the appeal of monk-like practicing at patience, which is the passive version of persistence (and which practiced inexpertly simply results in a guy growing gray on an increasingly unappealing cushion). Gardening, I’m coming to see, is a tangible example of the terribly difficult balance one must so often seek between these elements, is the point to which I’d followed my meandering thoughts when my wife speaks up, and I should thank her for drawing my attention back to the present on such a beautiful morning, or I suppose I could respond, Just wu wei-ing as quickly as I can, but already I’m on my knees in the damp earth, reabsorbed, hacking after every persistent runner, this one, that one, not so fast, little ones, get off my piece of planet, resistance is futile.

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4 Responses to Wu Wei

  1. Sharon says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘wu wei’, but I’m starting to understand the concept of non-action, of action that doesn’t FEEL like action because it’s natural, unopposed, moving with the “energy of the universe.” It sounds a little woo-wooey, but I think it actually works.

    I’m so glad to read someone else who’s as philosophical about gardening as I am! 🙂

  2. bjwinnz says:

    Thanks. That sounds like a very good, useful description of wu wei to me….gardening does seem to call for philosphy…

  3. Bryan, you are mistaken. This is not prose. This is not a blog post. It is a poem. Pure and simple. Wonderful from go to whoa. I especially love the bit about marriage being a form of translation. I also love the bit about tomatoes being what makes a garden feel great – and the ones that self-seeded, isn’t it always the way? I would love to see your garden one day. Perhaps some photos up here in the meanwhile, just a few….

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