From Takoma Voice April 2009 issue
by Ashley Bryant
photos by Julie Wiatt
While incense and meditative music fill the air, the customary greeting of “peace” flows through the purple halls of Dr. Nazirahk Amen’s Carroll Avenue shop, Wisdom Path Healing Center. He hopes the word peace doesn’t loosely deflect from one person to the next—but penetrates the minds and souls of those his words meet. He is taking steps to get beneath the surface with his words as well as his hands by connecting the community back to its roots, not through any genealogic pursuits, but literally through gardening.
The doctor is a father, husband, organic merchant, community gardener, practitioner of naturopathy, and acupuncture, who many in the community have seen cloaked from head to toe in purple garments with locks more than 20 years in the making draped well beyond his back.
Dr. Amen is a man of many virtues—but a natural gardener.
He began gardening as small boy with his family in the rural South—where he was introduced to the techniques of organic and container gardening. As a child, his family cultivated their own crops and bartered food with neighbors.
“Can and freeze—that’s what we did,” Dr. Amen said jokingly of his early experience with farming. “That was the only stock market I knew.”
It was the autobiography of Malcolm X, the declining health of members within his community—the ultimate search for a purer spiritual and physical body that lead him to his current organic state of being. As a paramedic and volunteer for EMS (emergency medical services), Dr. Amen saw the ins and outs of the nursing home and emergency room. He observed a culture where black men were being self-destructive, and thought “I don’t want to do that.” He gave up meat, along with negativity and hostility in his cultural adaptation and began to take responsibility for himself, which led into his spiritual adaptation. “You have to open your heart and realize you have what you have,” he said.
He is a member of the Nahziryah Monastic Community—a community many people affectionately call “the purple people.” According to the community’s website, “the color purple is a color of the highest spiritual vibratory light…the age of enlightenment….universal consciousness…an aura conducive to, assists in, and embraces the direction, the goal.”
Although the NMC practices intensive organic gardening as a part of their vegan/vegetarian diet, Dr. Amen’s passion for gardening transcends beyond that. Dr. Amen intends to spread his greeting of peace to the soul and soil of his neighbors by breaking the disconnect he says individuals have with gardening. “There is a lot of disconnect that needs to be reconnected,” said Amen. “We have to make the places where we are sustainable—everyone can’t run to the mountains when there is a crisis.”
According to Dr. Amen, the act of gardening was devalued as individuals put more focus on the need for higher education; school was important, while gardening was considered menial labor.
“Gardening is like a love—a movement that needs to happen,” said Dr. Amen. “[We] can’t wait for the government to decide local organic produce is the way to go.”
Dr. Amen says that many people are overly focused on earning a living, while other aspects of society are being neglected. People are in a “rat race to pay bills—we don’t even know our neighbors anymore,” he said. “It’s about getting some of that back.”
According to Dr. Amen, gardeners are natural time keepers who observe and follow nature instead of “working with a force beyond egotistic capacity to control the environment.”
He champions the initiative to grow locally for healthy alternatives and community sustainability. “It’s very clear to a lot of people that we need to grow locally—eat locally,” he said. His business helps members of the community design their own gardens, produce more food for an area, and teach them how to prepare meals with the food they grow.
Dr. Amen cited the levels of toxicity within the environment and the Chesapeake in particular—and pointed to organic gardening as a viable option to eradicate the negative chemical effects on food. He said people today use harmful pesticides to make gardening faster instead of educating themselves about natural methods.
In his basement and attic, Dr. Amen uses a coconut core base growing medium and compost to soil the plants in his greenhouse. The area is lined with a fan, humidifier, flower pots, and colorful blue and red LED lights that give off a violet hue to sustain the green life within the purple confines of his home. “I’m sure other people that have this type of set up aren’t growing anything legal,” he said of his greenhouse filled with houseplants, figs, pomegranate, ginger, tomatoes and peppers.
Dr. Scott Lastrapes, a medical doctor with a specialty in family medicine, Howard University assistant professor and colleague of Dr. Amen, who many know as Dr. Scott, shares a plot of land within Blair Community Gardens, located in the District of Columbia with Dr. Amen. In their garden, plots had rows of trenches that they were going to mulch and use as paths as well as rows of soil piled higher than ground level for the plants. White onions and red onions are scattered on a patch of raised land, while sugar snap peas are set to grow tall alongside carrots on both sides of the raised beds—an intensive gardening plan they implement to effectively use their land resources.
Dr. Scott is working with Dr. Amen to bring alternative medicine to the conventional scene. He wants to bring healthier food into hospital menus by advocating for care facilities to grow their own food. He wants to reconnect people to farming in healthy ways. “The farm experience needs to be re-embraced,” said Dr. Scott. According to Dr. Scott, there is no place for small farmers and conventional farming because of subsidies that make it hard for individuals with small crops to earn a living.
He wants to “get to a place where you don’t have to do anything,” with the soil. “All we have to do is feed the soil—it will take care of the plants,” said Scott. “We are putting stuff in with the intention that the garden will be sustainable in the future,” Scott said of using compost to nurture the soil.
Dr. Amen’s gardening techniques have subtly followed him since his childhood, and continue to be an emerging force in his current approach to the soil and the soul. The adage ‘you are what you eat,’ is no play on words in the purple house, where the belief is the diet directly correlates to the workings of the body. According to Dr. Amen, western medicine doesn’t fully recognize the role food has in disease, and genetic manipulation isn’t being taken seriously either. “In health there is no other—you create your own situation,” said Dr. Amen. He says he teaches patients the “energetics” of food to help them find which food bests suits their bodies. “There just is—people do what’s right for them,” he said of people taking responsibility for what food enters their bodies.
According to Dr. Amen and Dr. Scott, there are proposals in the works for future community gardens at Sligo Mill Park and Poplar Mill Park. The doctors advocate a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, where advanced gardeners teach others how to plant in order to have a cycle of effective harvests.