The origin myths of most cultures lead off with an ode to garden oases where the harmony and unity of life are in their glory.
But it's probably the radical pacifism of low-tech gardening that explains why the message of planting peacemakers has taken so long to catch on - so many years after Joni Mitchell directed us to "get back to the garden."
"Permaculture," as one style of gentle gardening is called, got pushed aside by mass food production about 10,000 years ago, and food farming has been linked ever since to punishing labour "by the sweat of thy brow" and the conquest and subduing of nature.
The famous Biblical metaphor of turning swords into ploughshares, commonly seen as a symbol for converting weapons of war into tools for peace, is on an another level a bald statement about the kind of weaponry required to force the earth into submission.
That's because mass agriculture depended on getting rid of nature's favourite plants - perennials and self-seeding annuals, since known as weeds or wild forests and jungles - and replacing them with human-bred annuals that produced edible seeds. These were esteemed because they were easy to store for the emerging leisure class that led to civilization, according to the storyline of most history books.
Without such stored food, warriors, the dominant group within the leisure class, would have had to work for their food instead of marching across vast empires. So it came to pass that ploughshares usually led to new rounds of swords.
War has continued to supply major technologies for mass-scale agriculture, most notably nitrogen explosives converted to fertilizers, poison gas converted to chlorine-based pesticides and biological warfare converted to genetic engineering. Common pesticide names such as Killex and Ambush also testify to food production as a form of martial art.
Peaceniks, environmentalists and educators are only starting to work together on gardening plots that help people make peace with the planet and with one another.
Richard Louv has just published Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, which attributes the increase in anti-social behaviour among children to social disorders rooted in the disappearance of authentic natural environments. The skills and resources needed by kids with behaviour and aggression problems "can't be encapsulated in a pill" such as the widely prescribed Ritalin, Louv writes, "but could be equally powerful medicine."
And the respected Evergreen Foundation has just released Gaining Ground, a report on Toronto school experiences with naturalized and food-producing gardens. The study documents major improvements in cooperative life skills as well as marked declines in aggressive behaviour and vandalism.
These connections of peace, order and good gardening are confirmed by my experiences with two very different student-oriented gardens.
Near Black Creek Pioneer Village, 15 teens worked on a project to reclaim 6 acres of scrub land for food production in the gang-racked northwest end of the city. "I learned to appreciate life," said Dahlia Dixon, one of the 15 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony late this fall. "This is the most important thing I gained - experiencing and seeing an alternative to street life and gangs."
Project supervisor Solomon Boye insisted that all work be done with hand tools so the young people would learn the calm and equilibrium that come from respecting the dignity of land and labour. "Nature's principles guide us in the ways of another life," the city's community gardens coordinator told the gathering. "If you want to find God, you have to go to the garden and dig him out," he said, repeating an aphorism from his native Ghana.
"To enjoy peace and equilibrium," Boye told me later, "we need to see land like it is part of us and treat it without aggression, as if we need its permission."
Quite a bit south of the urban farm near Black Creek is the High Park Children's Garden, built atop a parking lot that served as a nighttime watering hole for youthful boozers and scrappers less than a decade ago. It's since won a fistful of prizes. Though kids usually come to the garden in groups, "they quickly connect to the fact that it matters what they do, so it becomes a very personal activity," says garden staffer Keeley Forth.
When those with major behaviour problems arrive, "the teachers are soon saying they've never seen them so relaxed,' says co-worker Yafit Rokach. Unlike competitive sports, "the garden is a cooperative space, where everyone has to count on one another. Our vision is to have a city led by lifetime gardeners who understand such connections," Rokach says.
Ever since the Victorian era, when "muscular Christianity" dominated thinking about youth recreation (the idea was that rugged and competitive sports kept male teens out of the saloons and out of testosterone, and thereby into virtue), it's been tough slogging to get less aggressive projects accepted as high priorities.
It's also been a tough row to hoe to get authorities to recognize that peace the outcome of carefully acquired social skills and problem-solving muscles developed through proactive investment. But the growing trend in peaceful activity is now on the public agenda.
Give peas a chance, I'm tempted to say.