Getting your hands dirty

The final words of hope in Voltaire's most famous short story, Candide - about an innocent optimist who travels the world only to be left crushed and disillusioned by its' cruelty are "we must cultivate our garden".

Millions of pages have been written about the philosophical and symbolic meaning behind this sentence but it's also fair to say Voltaire meant the sentiment to stand on its own.

A passionate and dedicated gardener, Voltaire was one of the greatest minds and most prolific writers to have ever lived. It is not hyperbole when historian Will Durant states: "Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire."

He was a man who was world famous for most of his life, as well as extremely wealthy, so Voltaire tasted most of the vices and diversions this sort of renown and means can provide.

However, as Voltaire reached his dotage, writes Durant, "he bought an old estate called Les Delices, settled down to cultivate his garden and regain his health; and when his life seemed to be ebbing away into senility, entered upon the period of his noblest and greatest work".

When a visitor to Les Delices praised Voltaire's garden, he is supposed to have replied: ''Yes, I have planted 4000 trees," which strikes me as a pretty enthusiastic recommendation for tilling the soil.

The love of gardening and its effect on our well-being is a common thread in history and certainly gets a plug in the Bible in Genesis: "God Almighty first planted a garden", and from the likes of the brilliant Francis Bacon, who declared horticulture "the purest of human pleasures ... the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man".

I include these dudes' thoughts because they were no idiots, but also men of the world who tasted politics and power and - in the case of Voltaire - pretty much every other sensuality you care to name. Yet they returned time and again to the "patient bounty of the soil".

Hundreds of years before they belted out the Bible, another big brain well-acquainted with indulgence, Epicurus, "bought a fair garden, which he tilled himself. There it was he set up his school, and there he lived a gentle and agreeable life with his disciples, whom he taught as he walked and worked".


To the committed gardener, these sentiments would simply confirm what they've always intuitively known, but it's interesting to note modern science has now backed up all those grinning, dirty, root-pullers who can potter away for hours in the soil.

About a decade ago, a doctor named Mary O'Brien stumbled onto the benefits of Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium in soil, which "has since been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn improves mood and possibly even brain function".

According to research presented at the American Society for Microbiology in 2010, simply breathing the bacteria while gardening or walking outdoors, may increase learning behaviour and decrease anxiety.

Pair this with the fact some of our greatest thinkers have been fervent gardeners, and did their greatest work while gardening, and it makes a compelling case for getting your hands dirty this weekend.

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