Sharon June 22nd, 2010

There are some chores on a farm that can only be described as meditative - they involve lots of not-too-strenuous but deeply repetetive labor.  These are the kind of chores that I sometimes have trouble getting started on because they look both boring and endless.

Facing a bazillion chamomile blossoms, half a bushel of shelling peas or 1000 onion transplants can look like a long slog.  And yet once you get into the rhythym of it, somehow the endless work seems more manageable than one expected - it can even be enlightening.

I’ve done a lot of this work recently - first was the weeding of the long beds, then the filling of the holes in the cinder blocks with compost and soil mix, then the shelling of shell peas, followed by the removal of stems and strings from an awful lot of  snap peas, both to go into the freezer for winter.  And this morning we finally started on the chamomile blossoms that started calling me (and which I totally ignored) last week.

Picking chamomile blossoms by hand is tedious - the stems have no real medicinal value, so all you want is the flower heads.  It cannot be done rapidly and it requires a precision totally unlike many of the plants that I harvest with pruning shears.  And chamomile blossoms are tiny - an hour’s work in the sun will get you a bowl full, if  your bowl is small.

And yet there’s no substitute for doing this right - the taste of chamomile tea, dried fresh minutes after picking is so different than anything that comes in a bag.  Their value for calming, settling, easing and getting ready for bed is vastly greater when correctly harvested and handled as well.

This morning I found myself filling our drying area with hanging herbs, putting off the chore of facing the flower heads.  I clipped extra lemon verbena, fiddled with the catnip, went back to the yarrow again to cut some more, mostly to avoid the chamomile.  I picked the calendula blossoms, even though there weren’t many and it could have waited.  I looked over at the clover, but decided that was worse than the chamomile and I was starting too late in the morning.

Finally, I got to it.  And I found I didn’t mind at all, actually - the sweet applish smell of chamomile on my fingers, the smooth motions as I go through the feathery greens, the chance to just listen to bird song and to just watch the goats nibbling goldenrod shoots, the chance to think, it was a good thing.

Isaiah and Asher came out and joined me for a while, chattering away about their ambitions and projects, asking questions about the plants and coming back to tell me what the thermometer in the drying area read.  They picked and I picked and we talked, and suddenly, half the patch was harvested.

After they left I did some more, leaving about a third of it for tomorrow or the next day.  The funny thing is that it didn’t seem like a big deal anymore - the work had passed almost without noticing.  There were so many things to think about, or even not think about, to just immerse myself in the sounds and smells and feel of my world.  For moments, even long moments, I achieve that much desired state of mindfulness, the sense that one is doing the the thing wholly.

And then the kids are back, and we’re talking about summer projects and guests and building birdhouses and finding salamanders and when the pumpkins and watermelons will be right, and the bowl is filled again, and so are the drying racks, and what seemed endless and impossible was just a bit of work sandwiched in with a lot of good watching and listening and thinking about things and nothings, and talking. 


14 Responses to “Mindfully”

  1. Lynne says:

    I really love this. I find I fall into that slow, mindful pace when I’m pruning, or tying up tomatoes or peas or picking caterpillars off the shrubs. The work is physically easy and you have to pay just enough attention that other niggling anxieties and stresses seem to melt away. Every year the tomatoes get tied up more frequently because I love to do it so much.

  2. [email protected] says:

    In his book _Better Off_ Eric Brende describes this very well. He calls it the “original labor saving device” - the mind’s ability to sort of absent itself and, sort of center itself, and sort of transcend material reality when the body is engaged in repetitive physical labor, such that the labor becomes less difficult. I find this sometimes too, most often when weeding. I imagine competitive swimmers or runners find something similar in their sports. But so far, even in a garden I consider pretty large, I don’t have many tasks that need long periods of repetitive work.

  3. Kate says:

    All the herb books I’ve gotten hold of are a great help to figure out how to grow and how to use herbs, but seem to be missing that critical step of how to get from growing to using. Does anyone have a book recommendation for how to properly harvest medicinal (and other) herbs?

    Chamomile is one I’ve been wondering about specifically, so this post hit a nerve! I am not sure exactly at what stage to pick it, how long and where to dry it, etc., and I have the same questions about some of my other herbs, too.

  4. Brad K. says:


    I suspect that practice is necessary, to sustain the gestalt (moments of peace) for longer periods. Your Chamomile Experience seems to be an expression of stick-to-it-iveness - persistence, discipline, patience, or something related along those lines.

    Blessings, in deed.

  5. Kris says:

    I just got in from an hour of weeding, deadheading, inspecting what’s growing, and general garden puttering. I made a mental note that my potatoes need hilling soon (tomorrow evening’s chore) and noticed the hydrangea flowers are getting larger and soon will be ready to cut for bouquets. While I was weeding, a couple of the neighbor’s little dogs got into a howling contest, and I just had to stop and listen because it was so cute. Another neighbor’s cat (Lulu) climbed over the fence and came to say hello and hang out for a short while before wandering off. The windchimes tinkled in the soft evening breeze (I can still hear them now, inside, with the screen door open) and it was all so very pleasant. Life is so sweet in the summer, isn’t it? I don’t think I got to the state of mindfulness you described, but for me just to be fully present in the moment, to take the time to listen and to really see things, and to not be in a rush to do the next thing — it was almost like a meditation.

  6. maria says:

    As a kid, chamomile picking was a job my mom made me do. I remember getting really bored, but loving it too, loving the smell and the sun, I made up a chamomile picking song to pass the time. Every time I drink a cup of chamomile tea, I think of my song.

  7. ET says:

    Can you use a berry picker for chamomile blossoms?

  8. Emily says:

    I love picking chamomile! I slide the stem between two fingers and slide my hand up toward the flower. Pop! The flower head pops off the stem, cradled in my fingers. Very satisfying, like popping bubble wrap. :)

  9. Tegan says:

    Noooooooooooooooooooo! Chamomile stems are useful! The stems can be brewed with the flowers (and whatever else you find useful) to make a cramp tea!

    Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it! And it might make your chamomile harvesting easier (or harder — I don’t actually know :-P ).

  10. Carol Gudz says:

    I am truly inspired to better appreciate the simple tasks of gardening, after reading this. Thank you Sharon for showing the beauty I would otherwise miss in the every day chores.

  11. TJ says:

    makes me somewhat jealous - don’t have chamomile growing around - where I grew up - it was abundant all around

    there is one Russian expression that you might appreciate if i translate it well … something like :

    “The eyes are afraid but the hands are doing (working)”

    referring to the amount of work in front of you - precisely the thing you describe - weeding a hectare or peeling potatoes for a batalion etc.

    Somehow i always find myself doing things at an accelerating pace, until i am in a frenzy yanking weeds in the backyard and feeling up large cans. It may be a male thing or a small backyard (about 50′x50′) where one can go all out and not run out of steam.
    May be I am just always running out of time having to go to work or deal with kids or dogs or whatever else…

    I think your blog lets me vicariously experience some things i wish i could be doing with my life, but just don’t have the conviction to implement.
    Thank you for doing it.


  12. DEE says:

    I always tell my DH that I’ll pick the beans as he misses too many…but,truthfully, I love to pick beans…and strawberries and right now, raspberries. I don’t mind at all doing tedious weeding in a negleted bed…if it ever gets out of the high 90’s here my herb bed desperately needs my attention. DEE

  13. Laurie in MN says:

    This right here is why I don’t so much mind weeding. Or truthfully, hand sewing — both the practical kind and the ornamental kind. I do have to be careful about the thought process I go through, though. I have a tendency to get into negative thought patterns if I’m stressed at all, and that can get just ugly. It’s best for me to try to just be in the physical moment.

    That’s much harder when it comes to things like decluttering my house! :D Both my husband and I have Horizontal Surface Syndrome (as well as too much stuff. *cough* working on that.) so I spend a good amount of time not nearly often enough clearing off the dining room table and trying to keep the living room “client neat”. At least weeding stays done for a while once you’ve done it!

  14. Tom says:

    I’d like to grow chamomile and try making some tea with it. My climate is pretty similar to upstate NY. Do you recommend the Roman perennial chamomile or the German annual chamomile? I like perennials and am inclined to plant the Roman, but am wondering if there are advantages to having the annual kind around.

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