Delicate is not a word I’d use to describe my mother’s hands. They were large, strong and capable of many things, such as making the finest pastry, digging the soil, or rubbing my back. Like her they were full of life and full of love.
I can see her hands now, covered in flour rolling out pastry on the kitchen counter-top. I can picture her gripping the heavy wheelbarrow as she rolls it down to the compost heap at the end of the garden. I can feel the feather light touch of her broad fingers on my back as a small child, soothing me to sleep when my mind was racing. I can picture her flat bare nails, only ever painted on special occasions. She was too practical and too impatient for manicures and so she kept them short with nail scissors and was often heard exclaiming “Oh I snagged a nail!”, then scrambling for her nail file at the bottom of her handbag. I see her sparkling rings on her fingers, her white gold wedding ring paired with a diamond ring on her left hand and an eternity ring, which I now wear, on her right hand.
My mother’s hands made many beautiful things in her life, but they also caused her a lot of pain. She suffered with Raynaud’s disease, which constricts the blood vessels in the fingers and toes, preventing full blood circulation. I remember her rubbing her bone white fingers together with a pained expression on her face. As a child I had no idea this was anything more than a quirky feature of my mother’s body.
I didn’t know it signified an auto-immune disease. I had no idea that auto-immune diseases start multiplying. Like a line of dominos they can gradually build up to a toppling process that races towards cancer. I just knew that my mother often had cold hands and was always searching for the warmest gloves she could find. Ten years ago, on April 23rd, my mother died from complications resulting from Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma, specifically the white blood cells that produce antibodies for our immune system.
As I slowly push the seedling root down into the soil with the end of my chopstick, with utmost delicacy and concentration, I look at my hands in the soil. These hands are not my mother’s hands and yet like an overlaid image I see her hands now, with this ring of hers I’m wearing back on her finger. She is kneeling at the grassy edge of the flower bed, pressing the small new plants she’s bought that morning into the soil. When she’s done she throws her head back shaking her hair out of her face and giving me her signature wide triumphant smile that flashes joy at all who encounter it. This is the blessing of memory, that even without my mother physically here, I lived long enough with her to have stored a deep bank of Mum-related images, sounds, tastes, smells and textures — a sensory well I can draw water from whenever I need to summon her presence.
I’m brought back to the present moment by the sound of my sister’s laugh emanating from the screen propped up on the table in front of me. “What ARE you doing!?” she enquires with mock shock. “I’m repotting my seedlings, of course,” I reply with a happy smile. “Is gardening in a white t-shirt the best idea?” she needles playfully. She’s channelling our sensible mother, who would change after Sunday lunch into some old jeans with grass stains on the knees and a faded t-shirt, then get out into her garden and play. It’s taken me a long time to come round to the idea of growing my own plants. Sometimes I think that’s because she’s not here to teach me what she knew. It makes me miss her more when I attempt to learn something about gardening for myself.
I recently wrote about my move to Somerset and how I’ve been walking daily in the surrounding fields as a way to connect myself to this new landscape. Part of my experience of moving from the city to the country, is the realisation that I know so little about the flora and fauna around me. Soon after I arrived last year, my lovely neighbours invited me to share their allotment, but I never took them up on this kind offer. There is something intimidating about being faced with a huge plot of earth and having no idea where to start. In fact, for some time now, gardening has taken on a lonely aspect in my mind. I can see that it’s part of my grieving process. I wanted Mum to teach me about plants and now she can’t. So I decided I didn’t want to spend time alone in flower beds or digging allotment plots.
Despite the emotional avoidance that has kept me from gardening, each year I try to override it with a new resolution. On several occasions I’ve planted seeds, but then failed to nurture them well. When, unsurprisingly, they withered away I had self-pitying thoughts: “Oh well, everything dies”, “I’m a plant killer”, and most insistently “I can’t do it because she’s not here”. These false starts at cultivating my own green fingers have gone on for years. That is until a few weeks ago when I renewed my annual resolution. This is the year I will become a gardener, I tell myself triumphantly! Hence my sister’s surprise to find me gardening on a Sunday afternoon, just like our mother used to do. It turns out that a piece of the puzzle to motivate me was missing. I found the missing piece in an unexpected place, my gut.
Now what does the gut and gardening have to do with each other, you may ask? I was recently listening to a podcast interview with the American doctor and expert on water and soil systems, Zach Bush. He was talking about the importance of the gut’s microbiome in connection to the microbiome of the soil. He argues that gardening is not only good exercise and good for our nervous systems, but it’s also good for populating our digestive systems with bacteria and enzymes that help us break down and absorb the nutrients from our food better.
It makes sense that the state of the soil we grow our food in is directly related to the way our bodies digest and use the energy from that food. Zach Bush’s principal concern is that pesticides like glyphosate damage our intestinal lining, leading to leaky gut conditions. Bush asserts that pesticides are so prevalent in our food systems that it’s almost impossible to eat food that hasn’t been contaminated with chemicals. There’s even evidence that despite the ban of glyphosate in organic farming, some organic food still retains residue of the chemical. This can be due to cross contamination in production facilities, but it can also be a result of poorly established buffer zones between organic and non-organic farms.
I have been learning a lot about the microbiome recently. The science around this complex biological system has been advancing in leaps and bounds over the last ten years. It is now understood that a healthy gut produces a healthy immune system and when the flora of the intestines is out of balance then the whole homeostasis of the body gets out of balance. I have struggled with my digestive system my whole life and, as my friends and family know, I am always on quest to solve the question of my digestive health in order to strengthen my immune system. I have been particularly afraid of catching COVID because I know without a healthy microbiome my immune system is compromised and probably won’t be able to fight back. Viruses love me! Recent research studies have investigated the potential connection between the state of the microbiome in those suffering with long covid, which I think is worth paying attention to.
All this new information about the microbiome makes me wonder what could have improved my mother’s health in her lifetime. From regular migraines to multiple auto-immune diseases, she was suffering from an imbalance of hormones in her body long before she was diagnosed with cancer. Alongside Zach Bush’s work, I have recently been introduced to the research of nutritionist and biochemist Karen Hurd who designed a diet protocol to rebalance hormones in the body. Incredibly, it’s as simple as eating beans.
Hurd’s research has shown that a high daily intake of soluble fiber in the form of pulses helps the body excrete excess hormones more efficiently, while helping enrich the gut’s microbiome with lots of prebiotics. However, the joy of beans is not contained solely in the nourishing of the human body, but also in the nourishing of the soil they’re grown in. This takes us back to Zach Bush’s thesis that the quality of our microbiomes is directly connected to the quality of the soil’s microbiome. Beans actively enrich the soil in which they are grown and when they die they release nitrogen back into the soil, making their nutrients available for future crops.
The jury is out on whether I have the patience and dedication to become a nurturing green fingered gardener, but I do see healthy new shoots appearing. Part of the healing process of grieving is developing the capacity to live for oneself and not just solely for the person who has departed. Now that I know gardening nurtures my microbiome, and is something that benefits my digestive health directly, I have a new incentive to dedicate my time to it. Rather than be driven by a fearful quest to keep my mother alive in me by doing the things she loved for her sake, I know I can honour her by deepening my own roots in the soil where I am now growing, for my own sake. When I take the time to connect to the Somerset earth while handling these delicate green seedlings, I can see that my hands are made of her hands.