I’m not really sure what an intellectual life truly is. I’ve no intention of sitting in an ivory tower, pondering the movement of the stars while life carries on below. With all that is going in the world at the moment, however, there is many I time I simply want to shut the front gate and banish the influence of all that happens beyond it from my own little world.
Gardening is a start. For many philosophers, manual labour was seen as a way to clear the mind. (I first learnt this reading Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, through Larry Darrell who rejects a conventional life in search of existential meaning.) For me, literature has introduced me not only to great stories and characters, but also led me into the expansive world of ideas – whether it be philosophy, travel, the art of gardening, literary style, history; it is all there, a smorgasbord so vast I feel I have only taken a few bites.
From books I learnt about gardening long before I had a patch of dirt to call my own. From Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath I learnt the importance of the land, of the different philosophical views between those who sustain themselves through working the land, to those who never touch it although it sustains them. The land has sustained us since we crawled from the primeval mire, yet for the past few hundred years we have moved so far away from it. As my mother once said to me when I wanted to grow some corn, ‘only poor people grow vegetables’.
Consequently, it was not until I had a place of my own did I learnt how remarkably satisfying it is to get my hands dirty. Of the magic in planting a seedling, in the hope many months later it might bear fruit. That something edible, or fragrant, or beautiful will come from this tiny plant, provided it isn’t eaten by birds or bugs, that the rains will come at the right
time and the sun shine at the right strength, or that late frosts won’t destroy it nor a strong wind flatten everything. With many variables are involved from the planting of a seed to the harvest of a crop, it continually amazes me people can make their living from the land. How mankind has done so for eons is a miracle.
This view contrasts completely to what I call the McDonald’s Theory of Life, where everything must be ready now, and can be immediately super-sized. Where everything comes served with a dollop of happiness (aka sugar). God forbid if you must wait in a queue for a few minutes, or if the person in the car in front of you in the drive through fumbles with their change and holds everyone up.
It is much the same way I now see people drinking coffee. In Italy it is drunk at the bar, an espresso downed in a few gulps, everyone elegantly dressed and sophisticated even in their early morning silence. (One of the best coffees I had recently was at the Bar Mexico in Naples. Perhaps the best coffee I’ve ever had. For 1Euro I received not only a delicious espresso but also a glass of bubbly mineral water, poured on-tap like a crafted beer.)
Now everywhere I go I see people wandering the aisles of a shop or walking into work, a large polystyrene cup in hand filled with large, milky servings. So much milk masks the flavour of the coffee itself. Which beggars the question – why drink coffee at all, if the flavour must be hidden? Why not take a moment to simply sit (or stand at the bar) and savour not only the taste, but the moments it takes to drink the coffee. Moments spent doing nothing else. The journey from coffee flower to bean to cup is a long one – at least take a moment to appreciate the taste.
This can be extended into so many areas of life. Sugar coating, masking, sweetening, hiding the essence; all used to banish reality as far as possible from sterile, protective lifestyles, where even germs are unknown. No slice of lemon in the water, unless the skin has been scrubbed; drink milk which had only patented enzymes; eat an ancient grain so that First World demand will inflate the price until it becomes unaffordable in the country where it has been grown and eaten for centuries.
At the moment I am struggling with War and Peace. Not because of Tolstoy’s writing, or his philosophy, or his style. Tolstoy is truly in a class of his own, a master of literature. At the most basic level, on every page is a word, a phrase an idea of which I make a note. My rudimentary knowledge of French is rapidly expanding.
I struggle with all the names, and the dozens of prince and princess. In fact the titles are so common they become meaningless.
But these are not the reasons I struggle. The reason I hesitate to turn the page is because of what is to come. The title, after all, says it all. In the opening chapters the Russian elite gather at soirées, speak French and mock Napoleon; soon they will be but dust, but not until after much suffering, both for them and the nameless masses whose lives they control and who have no voice. Petite monnaie, petite monnaie (Small change, small change) Napoleon once said of fallen French soldiers. He is yet to march on Moscow, but when he does, it will end in tears. Too much death lies in the 1000 pages before me, and I doubt I can read through them.
Many factors contributed to Napoleons defeat. The Russians scorched earth policy was one. I grow many of my own vegetables for my own pleasure; much as I would love to be 100% self-
sufficient and live off the grid, I know this is not impossible (for our ancestors did so) but impractical. I might curse the cockatoos who destroy my fruit or the cabbage moths who delight in my seedlings, but their destruction does not leave me starving. I cannot begin to feel how the serfs and landowners felt as their land was turned to flame. The enemy might be rebuffed, but they themselves faced starvation, Russia is not a forgiving landscape.
Unlike so much of the world, I am blessed that I can harvest my fruit and vegetables without fear of mines or guns, or even radiation.
Perhaps most blessed of all: what was once essential for survival, is for me a therapeutic salve to my mind, which helps me order my thoughts.
In case I have inspired you: The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham, led me as a teenager to discover philosophy, as well as a life-long love of Maugham’s works. It covers a theme so common to Maugham: why do we choose the life we do, and what are the consequences of thee choices? Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath makes the suffering of the Great Depression personal, yet it resonates in this modern world: what happens when a person no longer has a voice?