Learn with Your Hands in the Dirt

by Andy P. on February 22, 2013

My fiancée and I recently built a garden where we live on a small island off the coast of China.  For her, a city girl from Taiwan, it’s her first time really getting her hands dirty.  Even though I was raised with my hands in the dirt, the experience of starting with nothing and creating something completely our own has been more fun and meaningful than either of us could have imagined.  Here’s a few lessons I wouldn’t have learned if we hadn’t gotten our hands dirty.

– Andy Paluch

“There’s Treasure Everywhere”

There's Treasure Everywhere BookThat’s the title of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes books and I’ve always felt like they are pretty good words to live by.  Behind our apartment building there is a vacant lot and a small patch of woods. There are also two new apartment complexes being built around the corner right now and so there are various building materials, wooden pallets and trash strewn around the vacant lot and all through the woods. When we first moved in, I complained about how messy it was and what a shame that the construction crews had left so much junk to accumulate in our little corner of nature. Then I decided to start clearing away some of the trash and put in a garden.  The best sunny spot was buried under a pile of plastic bags and glass bottles, but as I started to sort through it, I found all kinds of usable junk, and it turns out that usable junk isn’t really junk at all.

Barren gardent siteNow, the garden doesn’t look quite as good as if we’d brought in a load of topsoil and some railroad ties, but we were able to scavenge enough stone and bits of this and that to carve out and piece together a place to grow some veggies. The garden is slowly expanding back into the sea of trash and rubble that occupies the woods.  The point is that I will never look at “junk” the same way again.  As we go around town now, vacant lots are gold mines.  You never know when you’ll find an old pallet in good enough shape to be torn apart and turned into a retaining wall or a nice old piece of stone with a corner sticking out from under a twisted pile of metal scraps.

Working in the gardenYou may not go cleaning up a vacant lot and building a garden anytime soon but I bet if you start to take a closer look you’ll find that you’re surrounded by “useable junk.”  It might not be scrap metal and stones, but how about that part of your day or week that you dread?  Maybe it’s the drive to work on Monday morning or maybe it’s the time you spend standing in line at the bank.  How can you find a way to use that time rather than loathing it?  Maybe there’s that one guy you work with that has such a sour attitude every time you talk to him that it puts you in a bad mood for an the rest of the day.  Use him to see how good you can get at dealing with people with sour attitudes.  If you look closely, I bet you can find ways to use a lot of the “junk” that usually just irritates and sucks the life out of you!

“Seeing is Doing”

garden siteAs we’ve spent time out working in the garden we’ve had lots of people stop by to check up on what we’re doing.  The spot is right on the corner and lots of elderly ladies walk past on their way to the small temple across the street.  Because the space we picked to clean up was such a dump before we started, literally anything we put in would have been a great improvement.  That’s a good place to be, and all of the local grandmas smile with approval when they see that someone picked up the trash and planted cauliflower.

Garden growingThe best passersby that come over to check things out are the young people.  There is a group of boys that walk by the garden on their way home from school, and they always stop by if they see me out working.  Our communication is pretty limited but they usually hang out for an hour or so, helping out and goofing around.  They know everything that we have planted in the garden and have now had a hand in building about half of the beds.  The really cool thing is that I’ve never really told them what to do or how to do it; they just hang out and do things.  Carrying dirt around if that’s what I’m doing or tying up tomatoes or hilling potatoes; over the past couple months, it has started to become their garden.

Andy and boy working in gardenI worked on a man’s farm once who had a simple motto for getting things done: “Seeing is doing.  Doing is understanding.  Understanding is seeing.”  My fiancée and I just went on vacation for three weeks and left one of the 10-year-old boys in charge of the garden.  Everything was alive, bigger and healthier than ever when we returned, and our towering tomato plants seem to stand as a testament to this model of learning.  When you learn with your hands in the dirt it’s a very natural process to start to see what needs to be done and understand the reasons for doing it.

“Use It or Lose It”

The Internet can be a particularly challenging place to learn things because it’s so easy to access information and new ideas that we never really have to work for them.  In fact we are exposed to so much information every day, our brains are a bit overloaded.  A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that we get almost 12 hours of media exposure every day when factoring in the amount of time we spend multitasking with the TV, internet and radio all on at the same time.  We’re never suffering from a shortage of ideas.  In fact, we are suffering from exposure to a glut of ideas and a lack of opportunities to put them into practice or use them in some way.

If you read these articles every week, hopefully you are able find things that you can pick out and start using.  There’s nothing like learning with your hands in the dirt.  There’s no substitute for taking an idea or bit of insight and seeing what it feels like in the real world.  If something resonates with you, use it as soon as possible if you really want to set it into practice in your life.  If you don’t, you risk that idea getting washed out in the flood of information that we are exposed to all the time.  So, keep reading, keep learning, keep searching but make sure you take time to use what you find, to test ideas in the real world and learn with your hands in the dirt.


Leave a Comment