I have a new spade this winter, heavy, a little stiff, and very sharp. As I work digging a fresh bed for Bleu de Solaize leeks, I think of my friend Agaja’s twenty-year-old spade. Agaja is a friend and a great gardener. Over the years we have dug in tandem, shoulder to shoulder, many a lofty bed of Zen vegetables. Agaja’s spade was fashioned by the Bulldog Tool Company in England, with a solid steel shank and a gleaming digging blade a foot long. Agaja sanded the ash-wood handle clean and painted it morning-glory purple. After more than two decades of digging, the foot-long blade of Agaja’s spade is now seven and a half inches in length and reduced daily by every new bed she digs. It leaves a trail of glorious, well-lifted soil in its wake, soil pulsing with life and laced throughout with fine metal filings from Agaja’s diminishing spade.
The garden spade is a dangerous tool. It calls to be used. Like Manjushri’s sword, the spade gives and takes life. The primary tool for hand digging, a sharp spade also works as a hatchet to split wood, to shave off kindling for a nighttime fire, and to sliver the point on wooden garden stakes set out to mark the first spring beds of limestone lettuce and Easter Egg radishes. Once your hand and eye find the digging spade that is yours, this tool will traverse the gardens of your lifetime, like Agaja’s spade, always with you. Even if you put your spade down briefly to harvest red Russian Kale, your spade will locate you, calling insistently from the edge of the garden.
Digging the winter leek bed myself in the cold December wind, I feel kinship with the Chinese monk Yun-Yen when my spade is in my hands. Centuries ago Yun-Yen asked his master, “Every day there is hard work. Who do you do it all for?” The master answered, “There is someone who requires it.” Yun-Yen asked, “Why not have him do it himself?” The master replied, “He has no tools.”
Gardeners have tools—or, more accurately, our tools have us. Working with my new spade, I think of Agaja’s seasoned spade hanging in the tool shed at night, gleaming from the rub of the well-worn furrow. A working spade hums the song of its particular garden, hums the song of those who have no tools. A well-used spade shines with hard work. Shines, even at rest.
Wendy Johnson has been gardening and practicing meditation at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California since 1975. She is at work on a book about meditation and gardening.