Friday, July 14, 2006

My Primitive Brain Likes Gardening

So I've been reading these books on neuropsychology -- Yes, for fun, and yes, I realize this is possibly why I'm not the funky hip-hop goddess I'd hoped. I was reading something else entirely, saw a reference to a particular book on neuropsychology, thought, "Hrm, that might be interesting," and ended up reading half a shelf full, one leading to the next like a daisychain of dorkdom.

Anyway, I've been reading these books on neuropsychology, and one theory that really caught my eye was that is that it's our omnivorous nature that helped drive the development of our very large brains. (In fact, it might have been Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma that kicked me on this binge, I forget.) I'm not a science person, so forgive me if this isn't retold quite right, but the theory basically says that if you're a panda, all you have to know how to do to feed yourself is basically recognize bamboo. That's it. Just bamboo. As long as you can do that, you're golden. But omnivores, like us, have the entire world of potentially edible objects to choose from. Some of them will be hugely nutritious; some of them will kill you. Some will sometimes be nutritious but other times kill you. It's a tricky world when you're an omnivore, and some brain people think that it was our need to be able to identify food that initially pushed our brain development, particularly pattern recognition (find little red berry amid green leaves), memory (recall if this plant tried to kill me last time I ate it), and transmitted learning (e.g., language) -- if I can learn from YOU what you ate that was good, and what you ate that left you vomiting for three days, I don't have to try the experiment myself.

As part of this, they say, our brains get REALLY EXCITED when we recognize edible things. We get happy chemicals all over the place. "Yes! THAT! Nutritious! Congratulations!" the brain chemicals say, giving us a little foodgasm so we'll be sure to remember to identify bananas again. And again. And again.

I think this is why that in the space of a few short months, I have turned from a perfectly normal person into a gardening evangelist, like all those weirdos who talk about cultivars and get seed catalogs and care about the pH of their soil. We've been homeowners for three summers now. Before this, I grew a few well-behaved herbs in pots because herbs are expensive and pots are easy. Our first summer here, I did nothing, and mowed. I loathed it, and I'm not a big fan of lawns (as I've written before), so my initial goal in gardening was to remove as much lawn as possible and replace it with local plants (and bulbs) that require basically no work, no watering, and are better for the environment. Some work upfront, of course, but as I am a person who loathes heat, hates dirt, and isn't a big fan of the outdoors when I have to be IN the outdoors (I'd rather look at it from inside and not be the mosquito buffet table), I was willing to put in the upfront work to never have to deal with that section of lawn again.

This summer, we put in the vegetable garden, and suddenly I can't WAIT to go play in the dirt, and plant crazy things that will require daily watering and soil pH checks, and prune and deadhead and hoe (oh my Lord, I love my Amish-made hoe!), and just look at my plants.

This started, I think, the first time I went out and picked lettuce and OH MY GOD, I MADE FOOD FROM SCRATCH. I couldn't get over it. That lettuce just CAME UP FROM THE DIRT. For FREE! And it tasted so GOOD! I was grinning every time I saw the lettuce bed.

But then the squash arrived. And it's not like squash is hard to find, because there's a lot of them, but you do have to dig down through the squash leaves to get to the bright yellow fruits, and the first time I did this - EVERY time I do this - I get ridiculously delighted that I JUST FOUND A SQUASH! I want to do a mad little dance of joy (probably not hip-hop). I don't even LIKE squash.

And oh, the tomatoes! Finding a bright red tomato among the mass of leaves ... I just want to bite into it right there. Pulling onions is like finding buried treasure. And the corn - watching the corn grow, I seriously feel like, "This is what GOD must feel like when God makes things!" I mean, I grew something seven feet tall from a tiny quarter-inch seed in less than three months! And it's going to be FOOD! I am constantly wavering between pride that this is my own personal great achievement, making corn grow, and utter awe that I basically didn't DO anything and there's a seven-foot plant with FOOD on it in my yard!

So all this gardening madness, this desire to wear ugly shoes and get dirt under my fingernails, and this burning compulsion to explain to everyone the glories of growing kohlrabi, it's really not my fault. It's evolution's fault. I'm just getting totally flooded with happy-happy-joy-joy brain chemicals every time I find food. I mean, seriously, FOOD! IN MY BACK YARD! It's like crack, I swear. My inner hunter-gatherer can't get enough of it.

So forgive me if I waste lots of bits and bytes on gardening. It's not my fault; it's evolution at work, making my big primate brain all happy that it found nutrition.


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HeartShadow said...

is THAT why people keep growing squash? because it sets off an endorphin rush?

wow. there's actually a use for the stuff. I'm astonished.

Chef Kevin said...

Ah, Eyebrows, this feeling of gardening euphoria would rapidly end if you had to help de-weed my parent's garden. Not the "garden" they have now, but the quarter acre or so when I was a kid. Twice a week, several hours a day. That is how every kid likes spending their summer vacation.

But you are right. There is nothing better than seeing if the corn is ready, put on a pot of salted water to boil, pick a few ears and boil a few minutes. MMMMMMMM. And the raspberries....

Mahkno said...

When I was put to task with weeding the garden, there would be no peas left to gather. Mmmm.... foodgasm!!!

Same with rasberries and blackberries.. and...

Well that put an end to me weeding. Gma wanted her peas !!!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that little 'surprise!' when you go out and find a pumpkin or a watermelon under the vines is awesome.

Within the next day or two, we will be digging potatoes - thin skinned, red Norlands that, an hour before were buried in the dirt and now on my table hot, salted and buttered.

Oh, yeah, and we planted popcorn this year (albeit late). The kids will like that a lot (me too!)

Every trip to the garden atthis time of year is like Christmas morning.
Anon E Mouse.

Eyebrows McGee said...

Ooooh, potatoes! That's next year! I'm going to plant those blue ones.

Now you've all made me hungry with this talk of other garden foods!

Mahkno said...

When you do decide to have kids... it will be great when they are between ages 2 and 8. They will have this wonder about them, when going to the garden. They won't care what is being grown but all too eager to explore and gather.

One year we grew Habaneros and some other peppers. Our son just loved watching them turn orange. He was more eager than us to pick them. One day we did... we got a bowl out and gathered them up. He was such a happy camper to have this bowl of bright orange habaneros. We told him not to touch them and absolutely not to eat them. Did he listen? No. He eventually grabbed one and took a bite. The next hour was a mixture of love, laughs and an obvious mouthful of flame. If we had only had a video camera...

Eyebrows McGee said...

Oh no! Ouch!