I work on a farm, gardening with young adults who live with various learning disabilities and diagnoses such as autism and Down’s Syndrome. The challenges they face range from limited to almost no speech, fits, cognitive issues such as difficulty sequencing tasks, focusing and more physical issues such as problems with balance and mobility, poor stamina, and poor hand-eye coordination. Others have behavioural problems which have resulted in them being excluded from mainstream school. They come and work in the garden to learn valuable life skills, increase their self-confidence and build positive relationships with themselves and with others.
The garden is a fairly large space which raised beds, an orchard, a berry cage, and two enclosed green houses within a 54-acre working farm. The challenge in running the garden is to keep it producing food whilst working with the young adults who come here and helping them to do the work. Things don’t happen quite the way I am used to.
Things can be very slow. Since I started here in January, the primary focus has been to convert the garden into one with raised beds. In my first week, I must have dug the surface area of a tennis court. Once the ground was ready, we worked with our young people to build the beds from posts and side rails, sawing and hammering bits of wood together. What would probably take half an hour to do, would take us a whole day just to build one raised bed.
Vegetables don’t grow in neat rows. The task of sowing seeds is very difficult for those with poor balance and poor hand-eye coordination. In spite of repeated reminders to imagine a row of trees all lined up next to each other (i.e. the radishes) they will be appearing in clumps with erratic gaps in between and definitely not in a straight line. The same with the carrots, lettuces and spinach that are now in the ground.
Fruit trees don’t grow vertically. As it is relatively easy to grow fruit bushes from cuttings, we do a lot of it. However, it is hard for these young people to place the small trees and stand them straight in the holes they have dug. We try not to correct everything they do, so the trees will grow at various angles.
Sometimes, depending on the ability of those who come on any given day, the only tasks that can be accomplished could be wood chipping paths or digging up and transporting compost from one place to another.
In between the gardening, the days are peppered with rather hair-raising incidents like the microwave catching on fire because someone has repeatedly pushed one of the buttons with their lunch inside; cups of coffee being made with 14 spoons of sugar and cold water; and someone going missing because they had lost their way and ended up in the neighbouring forest. There is something apparently gratifying about repetition and sensory stimulation. The same questions or statements could be made every few minutes for the entire day or cups could be dropped for the pleasure of hearing the sound of the porcelain breaking. None of this of course is deliberate.
The garden exists because of these young people, as does my job. In spite of the seeming challenges of working in an environment like this, most days are heart-warming and heart-opening. These young people do not play games, they are no hidden agendas, they are generous in their affections, they don’t pretend anything, they will tell you as it is. When they are having good days, they will do the best they can; when they are having off days, they will tell you about it but they don’t make it anyone’s fault. When they succeed in doing something, they are over the moon and so am I.
Over the last several weeks, I have been wondering…
Humanity is diverse – how does each one of us live a life that is purposeful and meaningful when the ‘mainstream’, whether it is work, education, or recreation, is geared for people who fit a rather narrow range of criteria (that which we currently consider ‘normal’).
In our pursuit of ‘perfection’, whether it be in our work, our homes, our products and services, does it not end up pushing ourselves into a corner; where the criteria are so narrow and specific that we end up cutting so much of life and of ourselves off? I could have neatly lined radishes and carrots if I did all the gardening myself or greater food production if a handful of gardeners worked around the clock. I am not denying that well run vegetable farms are vital to our enjoyment of good health and satisfied stomachs on a planet of 7.8 billion people. However, if we broadened our criteria and replaced perfection with a range of values that we hold dear, we would give ourselves more freedom to be human and to create spaces that allow diversity to thrive, both from the perspective of our offerings as well as to whom we make these offerings to.