I just bought a bonsai tree for my bedroom. It’s a tiny, bent thing that sits on top of my printer, underneath my window. It will never grow tall, but I’m looking forward to having it alongside me as I go through the next years of my life. When I get up each the morning, I look out over Polk Street and Nob Hill towards the Marin Headlands with my little tree.
It’s been several years since I started my vegetable garden and learned to grow my own food. From my urban apartment in downtown San Francisco, I missed the feeling of being surrounded by vegetation, and the simple pleasure of watching plants grow.
Living on the 12th floor of a high rise, it’s easy to feel out of touch with the rhythm of nature. I spend most of my time engaging with the world through my phone or one of my laptops. It’s not unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s life in Her.
Even when I go outside for a walk, I’m surrounded by buildings and asphalt rather than trees and nature. Where I am now is the most urban environment I’ve ever lived in. It’s the first time I don’t have woods outside my window, or a river in my backyard.
We’re all connected to the natural world around us, but I think it’s easy in the pursuit of career excellence to find myself intent on working late rather than getting out of “the city” to take a breather and recharge my batteries surrounded by nature.
When I was first getting my career started, I was living with my parents for a bit. They have this big giant yard that backs up to a creek, and that was when I decided I was going to start a garden I could eat from.
I researched this type of gardening where you can fit tons of different crops into a small space, each into a square foot of soil, and built one with a friend. I had everything from this really amazing spinach vine that loved the Texas heat, to red basil, to jalepenos, and on. Not everything I planted grew, but I was just learning and getting started.
Every day, I would come home from a stifling job at a consulting firm and water my garden. I’d change out of my biz casual and into some jeans to hang out with my plants before dinner.
Walking around my garden with the hose, I felt connected to everything, and very at peace with myself. In some ways, it was better than having pets. The plants were cool being with me as I was in my head with my thoughts, letting the day wash over me like the water from the hose.
As the water seeped into the soil, I could watch the plants respond and thank me.
The red basil would fill the air with the smell of fresh basil as soon as its soil got damp. It was letting me smell it as a way of saying thank you. The plant was offering itself back to me as gratitude for caring for it, and I loved it for its beauty and simplicity.
Over time, I could tell that they each knew me and responded when I was nearby. I never knew plants had such personality or a deep capacity to connect with us.
The last year or two I lived in Austin, I moved every 6 months. My garden at home froze one winter, and I didn’t stay in one place long enough to let anything else put down roots.
Even though I don’t have a garden today, growing my own food still profoundly affects how I experience the world.
When I cook, the food I make today, years later, is still influenced by what I grew in my garden. Every pizza I make or order comes with with spinach and basil, even though it’s difficult to find red basil most of the time.
I yearn for the time when I’ll be able to return to a life when I’m daily connected with the environment and growing the food I eat. I believe we’re supposed to live in lockstep with the rhythms of the natural world that surrounds us, but it’s easy to disconnect from that as we swim in a sea of technology.
A natural rhythm is part of why I love to travel for work. Arriving in a new city for an event, I can fall into step with the rhythm of the conference I’m attending. It carries me along for a few days, and I am a full citizen of the community that forms.
But once the show is the over, as I head back home, the show tears down and the rhythm disappears. Outside of work, there are fewer and fewer rituals to be a part of as a 20something male. I’m not the only one feeling this, but I lament what I perceive to be a great loss that comes from our deeper connections to our devices and our jobs, which have 24/7 access to us, but at the expense of creating more and more shallow, temporal connections with one another, and with the earth that would breathe life into us.
And breathe into us something more than endless push notification and urgent fires to put out. But rather life that offers us less to do via a touchscreen, and more for us weave into the fabric of every step we take, and the small rituals that over months and years of repetition form our identity.
A walk through Muir woods. A slow afternoon at Dolores Park, empty on a Monday when everyone else is busy at work. Silence between two people.
A few years ago, I dove headfirst into my career in the expectation of creating amazing value, achieving escape velocity, and then escaping the rat race and the trap of working my whole life because that was “the plan.”
I’m still working towards that goal, but when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I think there are more answers found in my little banzai tree than any blog post I could read, or any startup veteran who could give me advice.
Sometimes I think that complicating my life in the pursuit of an ultimate goal of simplicity might not be the shortest distance between two points.
Meanwhile, my little bonsai tree patiently waits for me to get home to water it. It reaches ever skyward to the sunshine that gives it life.
I hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter