Every new concept begins with a majority of one, including a garden.
Standing in the early morning sun, feeling its gathering warmth caress my body, I am surrounded by dancing colors as the flowers in my garden as they nod and sway in the teasing breeze of June. I love my garden with its ever-changing combination of hues, scents, flavors, textures, and shapes.
Working in my garden gives me a spiritual ground. My garden is a place to keep the accelerating pace of life and its increasingly fragmentary activity in balance with the solitude required by my soul as I struggle to cope within a society that seems to be rapidly losing touch with its sense of human welfare and dignity. Was there, I wonder, also a time in the far-distant past when the tempo of life’s ebb and flow seemed to pound with disquieting force on the gate to the heart of the primitive human being, in which is secreted the stillness of peace? Was that when the first flower was consciously planted in a particular place to commemorate the inner silence that was being assaulted by the outer world?
Did planting that first flower constitute the birth of gardening as a conscious act of human love that fulfilled a void in the human soul? Was it a practical act or the soul’s need to create a small corner of beauty and harmony? With the planting of that first flower, I can in my mind’s eye see the gentle touch of a female hominid extending spiritual beauty and compassion into the dangers of a harsh world beyond the family fire. And because the first act of gardening altered how people participated with Nature, I wonder how gardening as a specific and practical activity got started. Perhaps it started with comets.
Although the ancient Chinese thought of comets as celestial brooms wielded by the gods to sweep clean the heavens of all evil, author Rebecca McClen Novick has another thought. She likens the 1997 comet, Hale-Bopp, to a time machine taking us back to 2213 BCE, the date of its visit before this one. As we gazed at the comet, we were sharing a common experience with everyone who stopped to watch something rare and beautiful 4,210 years ago.
To see a comet, writes Novick, “is to unite with the mythic history of humanity and . . . the genesis of life itself,” for many scientists now believe that comets brought water to our world, creating the necessary conditions for the beginning of life. Hence Novick refers to comets as the “cosmic gardeners, tending the flower beds of the stars.” When we view a comet, are we really seeing a celestial gardener who brought water to Earth and thus made possible the first garden on this tiny planet suspended in infinite space? Did a comet and the soul beauty of a female hominid unite somewhere in time and make possible my garden as the eons passed?
Being ingenious and open to the opportunities of life, early hominids sought easier and better ways of getting food, ways that helped to ensure their survival. Perhaps one of the earliest ways of improving the chance of getting sufficient food was altering the vegetation of a landscape through the use of fire.
With this realization, they began consciously changing the dynamics and the design of every landscape with which they interacted. In doing so, they created a tension between their need for resources and their spiritual beliefs about Nature as they endeavored daily to survive. This seeming incongruity between exploitation and reverence was mediated and integrated through an early sense of spirituality, which dignified the necessary exploitation of that which they deified by transforming hunting, fishing, and gathering into sacred acts. By harmonizing their more mundane acts of living in a way that aligned them with their spiritual beliefs, the people not only created but also maintained the continuity of their psychic holism, rather than compartmentalizing their lives into isolating fragments of behavior by separating the two.
People, including our ancient ancestors, have never been totally in harmony with Nature, if for no other reason than because they had to kill in order to live. In addition, they altered their environment simply by living, often in ways locally detrimental to themselves, before they moved on. Although they were not enraptured with the concept of Nature, their spirituality encompassed the whole of their lives, including their economics, and that made all the difference.
Nevertheless, it was ordained in the nature of things that somewhere in the world, one of the most important technological events would sooner or later take place—the invention of the irrigation ditch. Just think, there actually was a time before ditches, a time when the distribution of water was dictated solely by Nature.
But then came the first ditch, which allowed humanity, plants, and animals to move into areas heretofore uninhabitable by those who needed water in close proximity. Ditches and the conscious, selective domestication and cultivation of plants and animals gave rise to agriculture and an illusory sense of control over Nature. With that sense came a greater degree of fidelity to a particular place, which may have led to the first true sense of gardening.
Although Nature had long been objectified before I was born, I remember the small, diversified family farms of my youth in western Oregon with their personable fields. I also remember watching in helpless dismay as the family scale of farming gave way to the corporate scale, and in the process of this escalating social trance, I was taught to believe that I could never have enough or ever own enough to feel secure. I was also taught that security is synonymous with the word “mine.”
Finally, there came the time I started working in my garden, which I own in fee simple. Although the connotation of ownership is control, I have learned, sometimes painfully, that I neither do nor can control my garden. Rather, gardening is a reciprocal relationship between the Earth and me. The soil is my medium of experimentation and everything thereon and therein is my teacher. As I treat Nature, so Nature responds in kind. If, for example, I am neglectful of the soil, it produces little of what I desire, but if I am mindful and nurture the soil, it produces in abundance what I wish. The reciprocity of which I speak is an outer reflection of an inner attitude of my being, which brings to mind a story I once heard about a Chinese priest in search of the Book of Knowledge.
The priest spent his entire adult life fighting dragons, thieves, armies, and demons of every kind that blocked his path to the Book of Knowledge, a path he followed without knowing where it was leading. Finally, after years of struggle, the path led him to the edge of the sea, and there, high atop a lava pinnacle, was a monastery.
With the last of his strength, for he was by now an old man, he climbed the narrow, winding stairs to the monastery, where a monk welcomed him. The monk bade him enter and told him to rest, for his way had been long and difficult.
After the priest had rested from his arduous journey, the monk came to him and said: “You have traveled from afar to this monastery following a path that led you knew not where. In so doing, you have shown the strength of your faith through your obedience to that which has guided you from within, and you have had your courage well tested along the way. I am the keeper of the Book of Knowledge, and, since you have earned the right, I give you leave to look within.”
The old priest looked at him and asked: “What shall I find?”
Whereupon the monk replied: “Only what you take with you.”
With that, the old priest opened the long-awaited Book and found within a mirror, which reflected the image of his own face. And within that reflection was all knowledge contained, for it revealed the relative wisdom of what he had learned and thus become as a result of his trials and struggles and the choices he had made along the way.
He saw, for instance, the very moment in his life when he learned that discrimination of choice determines the path one’s feet are destined to walk. He saw the far-distant circumstance in which he had learned that a life without desires is the key to freedom from the prison cell of materialism. He saw, by contemplating the cumulative events of his life, that good conduct is the sole responsibility of the individual traveler and is not dependent on the behavior of another.
He now realized that all the demons along his path were only distortions in the house of mirrors, those disowned parts of himself that lived in the shadowland of his own soul. He suddenly understood that wisdom can neither be taught nor given away, that wisdom, the distillation of life’s experiences, must be earned and that unconditional love, which asks nothing, overcomes all obstacles.
With ever-so-slight a sigh, he slowly closed the Book and reconciled himself to the fact that the sacred Book was in reality a mirror reflecting the opportunities and the choices he had made along his journey of incarnation, as well as the lessons he had learned—lessons presented to him by the Lords of Karma. In retrospect, he saw within the great Book the sum of his life.
Here you might ask what this story has to do with gardening and reciprocal relationships? Well, as I work in my garden, I see those things that I did correctly and those I did not; they are reflected in the health of the soil and in the growth of the plants. I see where I made impatient choices with Nature, and the environmental, emotional, and sometimes-physical cost of my impatience. I also see where I made decisions, out of a center of peace, and the resultant harmony I helped to foster by treating my garden with patience, kindness, and respect and how it reciprocated in health and beauty.
In short, my garden is, in many ways, the mirror in my Book of Knowledge, and in it I see myself reflected because the priest and I are one. And like his, mine is an inner journey, a journey without end, a journey without distance, a journey in which I am both in creation and creating. As I create so I am in creation, and I am either freed by my creations—those born of love—or imprisoned by them—those born of fear.
The decision is mine, for each day, with a pen called imagination and an inkwell called choice, I write and rewrite, edit and re-edit my autobiography. And change is the vehicle with which I mold and remold my character, the image I will one day see in the mirror of my soul when I open my own Book of Knowledge. But until that final day arrives, I see myself reflected daily in the mirror of my garden.
I have learned, for example, that I can neither own the plants I grow or purchase, nor even the soil of my garden to which I hold legal title and deed, and thus I cannot manage them for predictable outcomes. Both plants and soil are born of Nature, as am I, and so they are my teachers, not my subjects. I say this because they are free to respond according to the manner in which I treat them, but not necessarily in the way I would like.
I have learned that I do not and cannot own my garden, that my thoughts, motives, experiences, and behavior are all that I own. I can, however, relate to my garden. Learning the loving heart of relationship is the purpose of life, be it a relationship with another person, Nature, literature, science, technology, or myself. Relationship is all there is because I must be in relationship with something and everything in order to exist—hence, freedom is always relative, never absolute.
When I treat each plant in my garden in a certain way, it responds to that treatment by conversing with me through the timing, duration, and vigor of its cycle of growth, bloom, and seed. Collectively, these cycles, mediated through my treatment of the soil and the apparent whims of Nature, produce in my garden an annual living poem of ever-changing colors, scents, textures, designs, and flavors.
A great blue heron flies overhead and peers down into my garden pond contemplating an easy meal of goldfish. The heron circles and glides in for a dawn landing. What a magnificent bird as it stands patiently at the edge of the pond. But I, too, want the fish, for I have come to love them as they grace the waters amidst the pink and yellow pond lilies. How empty of visible activity the pond would seem if the heron succeeded in securing its breakfast before departing to the next convenient neighborhood buffet.
This time, my cat detects the heron and alerts me. I race outside and shoo the heron away. It flies out of sight behind some trees to the west, where, unbeknownst to me, it sits and watches—waiting. After working in the garden for a half an hour or so, I enter the house, and in that instant the heron again swoops down to the edge of the pond. Zane, my wife, seeing it, calls to me as she runs out the back door. The heron leaves, and does not on this day return.
We purchase a fine mesh net in reaction to the heron’s unexpected appearance and spread it over the pond to keep out the great bird. But alas, the net also keeps us out. We are now separated from the pond, held at arm’s length in a way we have never before been.
Although the fish may be momentarily protected from the heron, the pond is also unavailable to us. We can no longer actively participate in its daily life except through the net’s plastic mesh. We have unknowingly and unintentionally distanced ourselves from the pond in the same manner as we have intentionally distanced the heron.
This is brought home to me the next day as I gaze through the net along the edge of the pond. There, in the water, is a damselfly slowly drowning because it cannot get out through the net no matter how hard it tries. The damselfly, the immature forms or nymphs of which are aquatic, is the first to emerge from our pond this year, which makes me realize that we cannot protect the fish from the heron without somehow closing our pond off to ourselves and seemingly to the Universe. We not only have kept the heron and ourselves out but also have trapped the damselfly within.
Just as we interact with the pond, so the pond interacts with the Universe, of which the heron, the damselfly, and we are inseparable parts. My feeling of separation from the pond becomes increasingly acute; until, after three weeks, I can no longer bear it and remove the net. Feeling an immediate and immense sense of relief, I reconnect with the pond and the pond reconnects with the whole of the garden, including the heron.
And so I learn that I can no more protect the fish from the marauding heron than I can keep the cabbage butterflies from laying their eggs on my vegetables, or the scrub jays from planting acorns and filberts amongst the flowers, or the robins from sowing holly trees seemingly everywhere through their droppings. Nor can I force the freezing north wind to bypass my garden in spring or bargain with the late frost to spare my plants while it kills those in other gardens. And I cannot stave off the lost, empty feeling each summer when the baby swallows, raised in the nest box on the north side of our house, fledge and join their parents as they navigate the winds.
As summer wanes, I realize once again how much the seasons differ one from another, both among themselves and among years. And I, too, am different, for no year goes by during which I do not grow and see the world and my garden with a new and different perspective—that of the world dimming outwardly with the aging of my eyes and that of my spirit growing inwardly ever clearer within my heart. Of late, the growing clarity of my inner vision causes me to wonder whether we humans, as a species, will ultimately end up with an environment compatible with our existence or hostile to our existence. But do we deserve any better in light of our current behavior? The answer will depend on the questions we ask, the decisions we make, and the actions we take while gardening, for as we treat our gardens, so we treat the world as a whole.
© Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.