Project: Essay by James Robinson

“You can buy books and all that.  But it ain’t worth a darn thing if you don’t get down there and get in it. Physically. And mentally” 

Paul Lyon is a tall man with a calming presence. But when we sat down for coffee on a chilly Saturday morning in Durham, he would challenge a characteristic that typifies most college students: a relentless hunger for knowledge. Paul didn’t tell us to stop learning, rather, he indirectly challenged the ways in which we satiate our hunger for knowledge. As a Duke student, my learning frequently takes the form of readings, lectures, exams, discussions and essays. These methods are informative but can also be detached from the subject matter and the realities of the earth. 

In the garden, Paul learns through doing. Gardening isn’t just Paul’s hobby, it is a spiritual way of being–of connecting to something deeper. He points out that when working with plants, “a book ain’t gonna grow it. ‘Cause you gonna run across some crossroads. And something to keep you from being successful. That’s the devil in you. So you have to get that out of your mind and your head so that you can do something” (37:53). For Paul, overcoming the challenges faced in the garden requires patience, flexibility, and dedication.

His hands-on approach to the garden requires being physically and mentally present. He notes that in order to garden you must be patient, and you must listen to the plants. While others might call you crazy, he noted that for those who are willing to be patient and listen, the plants will talk back. Paul describes his own life through the marks on his hands–how they had been weakened from years spent snapping beans on his mom’s farm, twisting tobacco plants, and shining shoes. Now, his hands tenderly tend to the plants in his home and garden. 

Perhaps it is because Paul has spent his life learning through doing, that the lessons he shared with us imparted not only practical knowledge but also wisdom. After all, wisdom is knowledge acquired through experience. It’s clear that Paul wants others to learn through this hands-on approach as well. We asked him how our project might be able to help the Year Round Garden Club, mentioning how we could start a Facebook page, post pictures, or make a short film. After Paul thought about it for a second, he mentioned that we could help out by visiting the garden and getting our hands dirty for an hour or two and help out. 

Perhaps it was a fitting end to the interview. For if all we seek is knowledge, then we can keep to the books. But if we seek wisdom, then perhaps we will need to get low to the ground and dig our hands into the soft soil.

Words Cited:

Paul Lyon, interviewed by James Robinson at Triangle Coffee House, October 13, 2018.