Gardening and the Gods

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

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Every morning I greet my garden with joy. It’s a delight to know my beds and borders are out there, awaiting me. We kind of rely on each other. Gardening is, after all, a faith-based initiative. Without faith in the future, or at least hope, how can I battle drought, rain, early frosts (or late ones), bugs, critters, and the whole array of obstacles that stand between the present moment and the eventual garden of my dreams? As a gardener, I’m thinking long term. I plant little whips of trees, even grow some from seed.  I nurture fledgling shrubs 6-inches tall, and plant perennials that won’t mature for quite a while. In the fullness of time, they’ll match the vision in my mind’s eye. It’s a slow process. Sometimes, actually more often than I’d care to really consider, it takes years to develop a new area, or to bring harmony to even a fraction of my overall design. Even my abundant garden purchases are based on that same gradual, evolutionary scale: a few dollars here and a few there, but it all adds up.  That elongating time line doesn’t bother me; I rarely even consider it. I simply assume tomorrow will bring a new day, and a new step forward. But what if it doesn’t?

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What got me thinking was “Gods of Good Fortune, Smite Me Not” an awesome  post by the endlessly entertaining, opera-singer-turned-garden-designer Louis Raymond at his superlative blog “Dirt on the Keys.” In it, Louis talks about building the garden of a lifetime, a task in which, I believe, we all are engaged. I know I am.  It takes decades of sweat and toil, as well as-most significantly nowadays–finances. What do we risk by throwing so many resources-time, effort and funds–into a hole in the ground? What if, he wonders, the current financial meltdown is not just a momentary blip (historically speaking), but the lead rider for the horsemen of the apocalypse, with the others about to thunder into view?  Maybe we’re poised at the brink of the abyss. What if, he writes, this economic kick in the pants is more like a gunshot to the kneecap, a permanently crippling injury, a game-changer?

Louis and I share the hope that the globe’s current difficulties are but the birth pangs of a new order, the portal to a society more moral, more ecological, more just. But what if they’re not? As Louis writes:  “Gods help us, but we’re in a Rumsfeld Reality here. The known unknowns to the left and the right aren’t so bad; it’s the unknown unknowns up ahead that could really kibosh everything.”

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja-vu all over again.” I had a lot of those same thoughts some years ago, on 9/11/01. That very day, as the dust cloud remains of the twin towers drifted over lower Manhattan, casting dark shadows across so many psyches, that very day, as it turned out, someone was coming to take pictures of my garden for a magazine cover. I wandered shell-shocked through my beds and borders, thinking to myself:  A garden, how trite. How monumentally unimportant, how pathetically insignificant it seemed. Weren’t there more meaningful things to worry about?  

But as I continued my little walk, I had an epiphany. Gardening, in fact, was precisely what I should be thinking about. It was the antidote to all this horror. Let’s leave aside the basic notion that gardening is therapeutic, it reconnects me with nature and the earth’s cycles, the labor is meditative, blah, blah, blah. Gardening is more than that, it is an act of creation, made all the more wondrous when contrasted with chaos and destruction. It is yin to the yang. It is an act of defiance, of life-affirming faith. A garden says, “YES!”

Let the winds of fortune blow (which they will do, no matter what). I’m standing my ground and shaking my trowel-holding fist at fate.  Sure, I may go down in flames. Maybe we’ll lose the house, or our plummeting net worth will force me to cut down the magnolias to make room for rutabagas. But, hey, I might be hit by bus tomorrow, or fall down on the bunny slope, like Natasha Richardson, and never wake up. One thing we’ll never know is our fate. All we really have is today. And today, all we can do is carry on, even in the face of unknown unknowns. As my wife, at her Buddhist best, sometimes reminds me, we must learn to rest in uncertainty. 

So, breathe deep. Welcome to this day. The sun is shining. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sapling to plant. I’m trying to make a garden.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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our friend Ben April 5, 2009, 8:44 am

Well said, Steve! (And I have a new ‘Crimson Cherry’ rhubarb to plant. Those electric stems!) In times of retrenchment, our gardens can be consolation and inspiration, nourishment for body and soul and, as you point out, for our imaginations as well. What Rousseau said!

Thank you, Silence. Many things grow in a garden. Good luck with that rhuarb!–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow April 5, 2009, 9:04 am

Great post Steve. I get that feeling of “joy” every time I enter the garden. I have been persuing that garden of my dreams for 30+ years now. The dream has gone from garden to garden. I guess that is what keeps me going. Besides I just have to be out there.

Lisa-Funny how that feeling just keeps coming back. Thirty years is a good length of time to be working on the garden of a lifetime, though things might get a bit confused if we’re talking multiple locations. Of course, as you point out, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Have fun out there.–Steve

Nancy Bond April 5, 2009, 12:44 pm

Indeed, the garden does teach faith. And patience. I share your wife’s philosophy. We should all live in the moment. Plant that sapling! Take what joy the garden offers, because the days will pass anyway. ;)

Patience, indeed. I never had any until I started gardening. Now maybe there’s to much, sometimes being in the moment means wandering around, just looking at stuff rather than making progress. But, I’m in no hurry. –Steve

Les April 5, 2009, 7:33 pm

This was an excellent post. When I get into the garden it is like the rest of the world is on tall unaccesible shelf. The morning of 9/11 I knew instantly that the world had changed, and I also thought that business would evaporate at the garden center where I work. The complete opposite was true – fall of 2001 was one of the best we ever had. I hope that spring of 2009 will be similar.

Interesting, Les. Cetrainly people are veggie gardening-for the first time ever I’m seeing lots of empty racks on the seed stands. And all the hardcore gardeners I know are not cutting back a whit. Hey, if people are going to be staying home instead of vacationing, they’re going to want something to do. And you can do a fair bit of gardening for less than the cost of a good dinner out.–Steve

Victoria April 6, 2009, 12:17 am

Your post names all that I love about gardening and I agree that it’s a salve for the soul in these less-than-certain times.

Here in Victoria, Australia, drought, high temperatures and strong winds have delivered the summer from hell. Along with farmers, gardeners are now patiently preparing soil for the rains of the ‘autumn break’.

Aussie gardeners are well acquainted with faith, hope and patience; never more so than after a particularly dreadful summer.

I reckon many Aussie gardeners face some real challenges, Victoria. Wishing you warm days and cool rain.–Steve

pam April 7, 2009, 12:20 pm

Ummm, the “gods” pictured here look a little Wagnerian if you know what I mean.

@LES – I’m certainly thinking that we don’t have to undergo another bombing like 9/11/2001 to have a good season at a garden center. I remember a wonderful still life book that pictured flowers that had completely wilted from one day to the next afterwards.

Nothing like a little sturm und drang,Pam. Speaking of which, I think @LES is just saying that in trying times many find solace in gardening.–Steve

LINDA from EACH LITTLE WORLD April 7, 2009, 2:56 pm

A friend who worked at the Chicago Botanic Garden on 9/11 said that hundreds of people came to the garden that day. Some to escape the city but many for the tranquility and a place to think about what was happening. That fall I planted daffs in my garden as my tiny memorial. Soon they’ll be up and I’ll remember but I’ll also keep ordering and looking forward. Thanks for a really lovely and thoughtful post.

Gardens definitely offer solace, Linda. I like your memorial idea too. Yep, life goes on.–Steve

pam April 7, 2009, 11:14 pm

Good post and wonderful comments. Gardens are wonderfully healing. What I have planted in mine is the future. No flowers from the past, no trends, no attachments to the past or people who might have inhabited it.

Les, In the past week or so I have heard about 5 or 6 references to how wonderful they found 9/11/2001 (probably the other 9/11 also).

Sorry, folks I think I’ve wandered into the wrong room here. Oddly, it feels like the past.

Pam–I like what you said about your garden growing toward the future. Mine too. But I still cherish its roots, which twine into the past. Out there are old friends, or at least a bit of their horticultural legacy, and reminders, of, say, the day my son was born (thanks to the tree that commemorates that event), and of our loyal old dog, who lies buried next to a Japanese maple. So the garden occupies a kind of temporal continuum…and I’m thankful it does.–Steve

joco April 13, 2009, 1:44 pm

Gardening is chasing a goal that keeps on disappearing further and further into the distance……

It’s a constant battle that I know I will lose, but I wage it anyway…..

If you are lucky and even-tempered and manage to stay calm, it can be like the halcyon days from our early childhood when playing in the sandbox wasn’t fraught with the fear that the sandcastle would never get finished…..

It is the ultimate act of faith in our everyday life…

It is wonderful for all those reasons.

Country Mouse April 21, 2009, 9:31 pm

Wow I love it when a post hits a nail on the head.

Thanks Country Mouse–it got at the heart of some things I’ve been thinking about lately, nice to know I’m not alone.–Steve