I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.George Washington Carver
Adam was a gardener, and God, who made him, sees that half of all good gardening is done upon the knees.Rudyard Kipling
For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.Luke 17:21
Pathology is a relatively easy thing to discuss, health is very difficult. This, of course, is one of the reasons why there is such a thing as the sacred, and why the sacred is difficult to talk about, because the sacred is peculiarly related to the healthy.Gregory Bateson, Ecology of Mind
Earth’s crammed with heaven,Elizabeth Barrett Browning
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
I have started reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s most incredible book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that the book is an inquiry into the influence of the idea of a garden and the activity of gardening on our souls. If some particularly important figure in western civilization has mentioned a garden, it is explored thoughtfully and in ways you might not have anticipated in this book. I’m not finished with it, but it is already one of my absolute favorite tomes. I’m not too modest to suggest that’s saying a lot.
As I am aggressively uninterested in the nonsense that is dominating current events at present, I have spent days tending my gardens. The tasks for today were planting fruit trees and pruning all of the dead growth that goes along with whatever passes for “winter” in Florida. The act of pruning gave me ample time to consider how perfectly gardens serve as metaphors for “the human condition,” as Harrison would say.
I loathe pruning, so it’s a good thing one only has to engage in the practice a couple times a year. Have you ever tried to prune bougainvilleas or rose bushes or fruit trees with thorns? My bougainvilleas in particular – though not very old – have thorns the size of sewing needles. You can pick whatever tool you choose to cut them down to size, but they will still inflict some pain. These plants fight back and it’s heroic.
Pruning is an essential activity, however. Gardeners prune for several reasons. One, to get rid of dead or damaged branches. Two, to create room for new growth. Three, to make the plant beautiful and pleasing to behold. And four, to have the plant grow on your own terms – to not damage your house, impede a pathway, and so on.
You can probably see where I am going with this. “Pruning” as a behavior is also essential to a healthy human existence. Like plants, human beings cannot flourish when constrained by dead ends.
I recently stumbled upon my neighbor out weeding her flower beds. Her yard is mostly a matter of professional landscaping and not flowers or vegetables that mean anything to her. I am helping her change that, however. It had not occurred to me until she complained that all she does is weed her yard that her idea of maintaining a garden is entirely limited to eliminating weeds. That’s unpleasant indeed.
She asked me how it is that I do not spend all my time in the gardens weeding. Do I have some secret? Are my beds lined with that plastic sheeting they sell in garden centers? Do I know of some awesome chemical?
I told her that her main problem is organic – that she doesn’t plant enough of what she likes. Have you ever thought about why you weed a garden? It’s the same logic as pruning – you are eliminating that which competes with positive growth for resources. The best way to eliminate weeds is to suffocate them with plants that you do like. Plants that fight back. I don’t have a lot of weeds because I have been known to plant 300 impatiens in a single afternoon. Weeds can’t compete with hundreds of flowers that derive their name from their impatience to spread and reproduce.
It actually requires less effort to be surrounded by beauty than it does to be surrounded by negativity.
I have adopted this practice in my life as well. I have become shameless in cutting off social relationships that fill me with anxiety, anger, or other toxic emotions. I don’t hate-follow people or the news. As far as my life is concerned, all of these are just weeds and crossed branches that need to be eliminated.
Instead, I try to fill as much of my daily life as possible with things that are beautiful and good. I devote time to reading good books, going hiking or kayaking, sitting outside with a cup of coffee and listening to the birds, teaching Elise how to play soccer. Just sitting outside soaking up the sun. It’s not that difficult to smother the bad stuff with good stuff.
The garden is an excellent metaphor for living because the Garden is the primeval classroom for human activity. It’s our holy education on how to exist well in this world and enter into a positive relationship to what is transcendent, beautiful, and good. It is the space, physical and intellectual, that routinely brings us back to first things – to “paradise,” which literally means and enclosed park.