OF GARDENS AND GARDENING*
I once believed that gardening was a kind of self-torture practiced by little old ladies, retired farmers, or misers suffering grocery bill neurosis. But the wisdom that comes with years has finally gotten it through to me that gardening, the oldest occupation known to man, is not only pleasurable in itself, but a great teacher that confronts us with some of life's more intriguing mysteries.
First, gardening re-acquaints us with the soil, the womb of the world; that magical mortise from which Adam once was molded, and from which life still springs: 'The earth brings forth of itself, first the bud, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.' St. Mark tells us.
Furthermore, gardening acquaints us with the miracle of growth. Even botany with all its complex itemizations and tedious terminologies is mute to explain what makes the earth 'bring forth.' Botany can tell us how things grow, but never why. And so the acorn, with its oak inside, maintains its mystery, the shudder of a seed, its source of awe.
Gardening can also teach us about what nurtures life and what destroys it. We soon discover that beautiful plants seldom spring up by accident, but more rather by careful husbandry. Weeds must be extracted, insects killed and blight and disease defeated, and the demands of water, aeration and light met. And even then success is not guaranteed. There are storms, high winds, hungry wabbits and all manner of thieving visitors to be foiled.
Of course the parallels for man cry out to be explored. He too was planted once, nurtured in the womb of his mother, and he too sprang forth. Helpless, he needed loving nurture, loving shelter, and loving protection from the blight of evil influences ever waiting to attack.
He learned to drink from the waters of purity and aspire to the light of truth guided by his loving parents. For even as plants wither and die deprived of light; so do children, deprived of knowledge. As the Bible puts it, 'My people die for lack of knowledge--Get wisdom, and with all your getting, get understanding.' ( How many tests I've passed by memorizing random facts and information I knew literally nothing about, I can't begin to guess. All I know is that an awful lot of A students 'know' almost nothing)
Finally, gardening puts us in tune with the swing of the seasons, and the cyclic turning in almost all natural things. We see them grow, blossom, yield, die, and get cut down. We observe that some, like the Easter tulip, are seemingly reborn, and we begin to see that our own lives in many ways are bound by those same cycles, and that we, like the prairie grasses, must endure those cycles too.
There is something about a late fall garden after the first killing frost, that is strangely moving. Only the day before we had seen it still blooming and looking fine, with melons and squash yet to be harvested and then the frost and the desolation of the aftermath. Here and there one sees the usual survivors (there are always survivors). The Swiss chard will still be thriving and perhaps a few peas and snap dragons, but the finality of it is inescapable. And there is the haunting sense that the weeds, still standing strong, and their accomplice the 'the blond assassin' the frost, have won after all.
In the far border where myriads of flowers once so gaily danced, only a few sad marigolds remain, smiling bravely. But winter has shown its teeth.
All of this mirrors our own mortality, our own withering, the fall of our own ancestral garden long ago. And so, like the marigolds, we too smile bravely. For here's the joy. Even amid this ruin'even here under the fading beams of a retreating sun, flickers the hope that after the long sleep of befalling winter, the sun shall come again carrying the spring rains with him and in the company of a Gardener.
He will gather all those scattered seeds so long mislaid and plant them in a plot of perfect soil, that when they grow this time, their flower will never die.
* From the column 'Where the Wild Thyme Blows' (1973) redacted 4/2007.