Knelt between sprouting peas and pumpkin heads, hands deep in soil, Jessica Mitts is most at home. In a 360 acre ecological reserve on British Columbia’s Bowen Island, crows call above her head and douglas squirrels zip along branches. The sounds and sensations of gardening are meditative, Jessica says.
But before a gardening career, there were worms, weeks spent in a Buddhist monastery, and an accident that changed the course of her life.
Planting was a passion that grew over time for the 26-year-old. “My connection with nature wasn’t planting-related as a kid, it was going into the forest on the back of our property and climbing on logs in the stream, investigating bugs and building forts with my sister.”
Jessica recalls watching her mum and grandad planting strawberries in their island garden, but she showed more interest in worms. “My mum would find a worm and she’d bring it over to me, then that would be my focus. I’d watch it digging down in the soil then I’d dig it back up again. I really gravitated towards worms for some reason.”
A connection to nature was difficult to find during her high school years in West Vancouver, the school’s concrete setting in contrast to island forests. Plant biology in Grade 11 sparked her interest. “I was completely taken with the life cycle of plants, and became totally absorbed in learning about it.” She took a variety of classes at university that included biology and history, planning to become a teacher.
But a car accident in Vancouver one night put her studies on hold. She describes being hit crossing a road on her walk home from class. “I blacked out and an ambulance brought me to the hospital. It took about four hours for me to see the doctor and I was sat in a wheel chair just shocked and concussed. They brought me into a cubicle and then it hit me; this fear and panic overtook me and I realised what had happened.”
Recovering from the trauma of the accident and a concussion, Jessica decided to leave university and travel. Walking through rice paddies in Indonesia and farmlands in Nepal rekindled her connection to nature. For 49 days she lived in a monastery near an ancient Buddhist town in Kathmandu. She spent 30 of those days in silence. “You had to be very present, because there were no distractions. Everything I was dealing with I had to face.”
Morning chores included herding goats and reading Buddhist texts to them. There was one goat particularly fond of her. “It would head-butt me and stay by my side, so the handlers joked it was a reincarnated boyfriend of mine from a past life.”
Meals were eaten on the rooftop overlooking farmers tending to the terraced fields of the Kathmandu valley. Before eating, the group would close their eyes and give thanks. Jessica remembers listing a couple of things on the first day to be thankful for, but by the end of her stay, she was last to open her eyes and eat.
“I’d just be sitting there thinking about the crops and the farmers and the delivery trucks– I’d seen the whole process so I realised there’s endless things to be thankful for when you’re eating. That really resonated with me.”
Jessica’s injuries caught up with her on her return home. Working with a local tai chi/chi kung instructor and counsellor was transformational, she says. “It helped heal me physically and mentally. I figured out I’m a person who loves working with nature and community, and I wanted to live a lifestyle good for the planet like the Buddhists did.”
She took on a landscaping job and found peace in gardening, spending time between eight clients weeding, pruning and cutting back blackberry bushes. “Once I got good at it, it was just so satisfying, from start to finish you can see a difference.” She devoured permaculture and soil science books, then took a variety of growing courses at Gaia College.
“I developed a real passion for soil science, which I feel like was a full circle back to the worms I played with in the garden as a child.”
By this time she was producing abundant crops of zucchinis, squash, raspberries, kale and broccoli in her own 40 by 80ft garden, which caught the eye of Bowen land developer John Reid. “He was looking for someone to help support the Grafton Community Gardens Project; he approached me and I said yes.”
Jessica gathered volunteers and built growing spaces with herbs and berries in the spring of 2016. As of last September, she now forms part of a collective that supports the care of the garden.
“We can be very disconnected from where our food comes from. Growing your own food, you take back your right to know where it’s coming from and how it’s grown. If you take that to an entire community, it’s huge, and empowering to all.” The collective encourages anyone in Bowen’s community to get involved with the project.
Jessica connected to gardening because a good portion of her high school and university education focused on humans’ damaging impact on the earth. “Hearing that as a young person can feel overwhelming and depressing, so I questioned what things I could do in my everyday life that would bring some sort of goodness towards that situation. Looking at growing food, that’s one of the most sustainable and compassionate practices you can do.”
Gardening is for everyone, she emphasises. She’d love to stand in front of a group of teenagers to tell them it’s a career option regardless of gender or body type– we all have different capabilities and skills to offer. Growing food is healing, she adds; it’s a constant learning process and forces the gardener to be present.
Jessica recently launched her own landscaping business, Land Heart and Sky, that focuses on empowering people to get their hands in the soil.
“When I was looking at different professions at university I was always thinking, ‘Where is there a job that actually contributes something good for the earth and will fulfil my values?’ My only solution was to create what I want to see in the world. I think growing food and eventually supporting my community by passing on that knowledge is the best first step.”
Find Jessica: landheartandsky.com
Join her at the Grafton Community Gardens: graftongardens.ca