Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why I Garden

death and the art of digging beneath the surface

I used to hate gardening. I hated measured, ordered flowers. I saw something so militaristic and tacky and even unjust about imposing artificial geometry on something that already has an intricate, hidden order. Base fear seemed at the heart of the antiseptic impulse to remove what Nature so abundantly bestows on the earth -- I took the gardener's imperative to weed as a personal affront. I happen to be a scrappy survivor type with blunt fingers, an iron stomach, and large feet. So, if I were a plant, I'd probably be a weed. How like the worst impulse in humanity to kill one thing to encourage some artificial and biased standard of botanical beauty. Why rake? Why remove stones and briars? Let the earth go natural! Why tamper with God's green earth? That was my philosophy.

But on some level, I knew it was a philosophy of convenience. Because beyond any philosophical revulsion, I particularly hated the feeling of dried dirt on my hands. Dust on my skin sends shivers through me the way that the sound of squeaking chalk on a blackboard does. And the way it gets beneath your fingernails and drives a wedge between the nail and the skin makes me feel almost sick. I hated the posture I had to assume to weed: squatting or kneeling in the awful dirt, with the sun beating down on you. My attitude was inconsistent: occasionally I would color my hair or impose curls on what nature had made straight. Colors that God had never designed for the human face would sometimes appear on my lips and eyes. Perhaps a barely felt awareness of my inconsistency made me resentful.

Also, my experience had educated me to believe that I had a dispositional lack of patience; thus, I took this poverty of virtue for a component of my soul, and after the habit of all good narcissists, I promoted it as a valid state of being. I call myself a narcissist, because in those years, "I" was the only point of reference I could safely describe and feel certain about. If I was to view my self, that is to say, my starting point and end point, as "good," then anything that requires patience must be "bad" -- at least from the subjective (the only "valid") perspective.

None of this is very pretty, and it isn't the root of my distaste for gardening, either. What I have thus far described is more the soil in which the root was buried. The root itself received water and a kind of negative nutrition from this noxious humus and also released toxins that could support other growths that bore unsavory and poisonous fruit.

I used to hate gardening because I feared death.

When I was fourteen and living in Hong Kong, I was the proud mama of two African violets. It required all my attention and dexterity to water them in such a way that no drop of moisture fell on the velvet surface of their leaves. I observed their color and the tension in each hidden stem from day to day. When a leaf began to rely too heavily on the edge of the pot for support, or when its color faded even a shade, I would gently work it loose from the plant, for the good of the whole. Each new bud that started as a dark knot in the secret, leafy heart was greeted with my own quivers of joy, and the days during which it slowly arose from its bed of foliage, swelled and lifted its chin from its chest, and opened its glistening violet soul wide to the cosmos were altered in their very substance. Every moment of my experience was washed with the subtle glaze of anticipation, which transformed even the quality of sunlight and the intensity of its reflection on everything it yanks into life.

Life, indeed all substance, in this phenomenal world is temporary and provisional. Only the light is eternal, but I didn't understand that then. All I understood is that my family would be moving across an ocean and a continent, to someplace called "home" that contained more unknown variables than any ordinary tomorrow. The wash of color vanished and sunlight dimmed. Exercising dexterity, which was essentially powerless to prevent the rot of anxiety from eating my own insides, reminded me too much of its limitations and quickly came to nauseate me. Even brushing my teeth brought on the kind of existential nausea that Jean-Paul Sartre described with so much morbid precision.

So, the violets died, and with them, any trust I had in a world of shifting shades of green. I experienced this as a profound guilt. I had betrayed something, "some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing," that had depended on me.

Well, is it any wonder that I began to sneer at small minds that conceived of tidy garden beds decorated with uniformly spaced hothouse flowers marching in orderly columns, took up the banner of "going natural" in order to trumpet the survival of clumsy, impatient weeds like myself, and crowned the whole ugly mess by complaining of the discomforts of handling dirt?

What overcomes fears, lets us tell ourselves the truth, gives us strength to promote life? What allows us to breathe?

* * *

discovered, while digging

In the basement, in boxes:

1) A man's platinum wedding band
2) A pair of high magnification reading glasses
3) Black and white photo of a high school senior named "Michael" from Wilson High School's 1954 graduating class
4) A CIA bronze medal awarded for "meritorious service"
5) Several letters of condolence addressed to "Wally" with carbon copies of response letters, signed by "Wally" attached with rusty paper clips
6) A map of Arlington Cemetery with a red X marked in Section D.
7) Death certificate for a man who died of a crushed skull

In literature:

1) The Fat Lady, in Franny and Zooey, for whom one can sing
2) The end of all our exploring, in Four Quartets
3) A daughter who is mother of her son, in I Synge of a Mayden
4) Myrrh and how dead wood blooms, in Trilogy
5) How to stain the water clear, in Songs of Innocence and Experience
6) An onion, in The Brothers Karamazov
7) A baby's sneeze, in Anna Karenina
8) Fresh woods and pastures new, in Lycidas
9) the godless , in proud of his scientific attitude
10) Gold to airy thinness beat, in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
11) What happens to prophets no one believes, in Elektra
12) The one who anticipates desires, in Paradiso
13) A bed, in The Odyssey
14) A burning boy, in Casabianca
15) Dying frogs, in Water and Land Animals
16) Rooms within rooms, in In the Western Night
17) Palimpsests

In my mother's address book:

1) Contact information for Fred, who was Mike's college roommate

In a photo album:

1) A picture of myself, sitting in the front pew, at my parents' wedding
2) A set of four images that together tell the story of how I once fell off a swing

In the woods of Virginia and Pennsylvania:

1) A night filled with as many fireflies as there are sequins on a cocktail dress
2) Trees with limbs that twist and writhe black against a slate sky
4) A crayfish I mistook for a baby lobster
5) An allergy to mold

While walking through a door on a Tuesday morning:

1) My future husband

In an ugly church in the suburbs of Philadelphia:

1) The skin on Jesus' feet
2) A white handkerchief
3) A reason for tears

In my friend's refrigerator:

1) Six bottles of cheap beer
2) A reason to stop counting

In Paris:

1) Chanterelles
2) A copy of Playboy magazine that mentioned Mike and Wally
3) The Bagatelle
4) Ten cousins I never knew
5) A taste for coffee
6) Giverny
7) Nine varieties of potato
8) The Medieval castle under the Louvre museum

In children:

1) Love

In parables:

1) A light by which light may be seen
2) A drop of water that spreads to the edges of the Infinite
3) The bean that sprouts beyond the clouds
4) A pearl with which I could buy back my life
5) How to wait

* * *

living things and the art of digging for them

I dug two holes, one on either side of the steps leading to my front porch. With one gloved hand, I had taken hold of a young rose bush, gripping it at the thickest part of the stem, right where it met the surface of the dirt. With the other hand, I gently nudged at its plastic pot, working the cylinder of soil loose from its container. Just then my neighbor, who is a philosopher by trade, called from across the street, "Planting flowers?"

If he was surprised by what I was doing, it was nothing compared to my own amazement. "Yes!" I answered, "Roses!"

Giving my project a critical once-over, he asked, "Is that how you do it? Just dig a hole and stick it in?"

"I guess so," I said. I mean, what did I know about gardening? Those two rose bushes were my first plantings. Two days later my husband had to dig them up and replant them because I hadn't put them deep enough in the soil.

So then I fell madly in love with gardening, and the roses and I lived happily ever after.

No: I just had to write out that particular sentence, to finally get the lying thought out of my head and keep it instead, where I can see it. In actual point of fact, I did not begin to love gardening for at least another year. For many months I was pleased with myself for having bought the roses and stuck them into the ground (albeit, ineptly), and then I was amazed to see them come back again in the Spring. During the following summer, each time I looked at their frilly, pink blooms I experienced an emotion that can only be described with the words, "Will you look at that?"

Taking all my courage into my hands, I planted more flowering perennials. I didn't do it out of love or because the roses were a "success" that I wanted to repeat, but rather because I felt something was missing in the garden. I was new to the house when I planted the roses and had inherited with it a few unusual and beautiful plants, as well as scores of horrid hostas. A friend was kind enough to dig many of them up for me and relocate them to a place where they could be enjoyed, but now the flower beds were pitted with craters, which I attempted to fill, one by one, with plants that wouldn't require any effort or care after I did them the small service of covering their roots with dirt.

But performing even one small service to aid some helpless and innocent life form can change the way we look at it. Or cause us to look at it at all. The first thing that I began to love about the garden was the way it invited me to look at it. And the act of looking, looking with love, seemed to vivify the plants. Before I went away for a three week vacation, I asked a friend to water my garden for me. She asked if there were any special instructions, and when I told her the most important thing was to look at the plants, she thought I was crazy (so she told me later). But I still maintain that there is something holy about looking at a thing: "He has looked on the lowliness of his servant" (Luke 1:48). And soon after Mary's prayer, Zechariah uses this strange idea of being looked on by God, too: "He has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them" (Luke 1: 68) -- elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word for "look" is translated as "visited," "has broken" (as in "the dawn from on high will break upon us"), "to select or to choose" (from Acts 6:3), and "to care for" (see James 1:27). Well, I know what happens when the sun from on high "breaks" on my flowers: they are fed on light and they thrive.

This house is my twenty-third residence. I have lived in it for a little over two years, and still we have many unpacked boxes in the basement, the attic, and my bedroom. With each move, it seems to take longer for me to unpack the boxes. There are some boxes I have never unpacked, through the past several moves. They stay sealed, get loaded onto a truck, and then come to rest in a new basement. What is in those boxes? Old letters, the bulk of my postcard collection, certain items of clothing, family photos...yes, and what else? It seems to be a function of my psyche that I don't want to have a mental catalog of what lurks in all my literal corners.

The interior corners are a different matter, though, and so are the exterior ones. In fact, my gardening seems to gravitate to corners. On the northeast corner of the property, at the foot of the retaining wall that makes a nice sharp angle to echo the street corner beyond it, I have planted three blood red poppies that pop from their green fuzzy pods, and toss their petals, like the skirts of Spanish dancers. Above them, just inside the wall itself, I planted two rows of lavender -- different varieties -- that send sprays of stiff, narrow bloom stalks up over formless mounds of greenery. The effect, from a distance, is to soften the sharp lines of the stone wall with a continuous bluish, pinkish, whitish and purplish cloud of perfume. Then, tucked into the elbow of these two lines of lavender, a cluster of peonies rise to offer up an embarrassment of pink froth, so heavy that their showy heads bow down to earth when they are wet. As the eye moves diagonally back from the corner, there is a young dogwood that bears a whole constellation of white stars. Further in and further up, at the corner of the front flower bed, a baby lilac bush stands erect while yarrow, blue daisies, and violet verbena dance in a circle around it. Behind the lilac, a venerable old syringa, dotted with tiny pale green leaves, hides the corner of the tiled porch. Within the wrought iron railing, two flower boxes, filled with geraniums, peachy snapdragons, and pinwheeling zinnias, crowd the porch corner with color. Finally, on the windowsill at the same corner of the house, lantana and dahlias tap at the glass, asking the inner world to acknowledge the unexpected. The other corners of my garden are equally dizzy with tiers of color that work their way in imprecise diagonals toward and away from the house.

I did not plan this pattern, nor any of the others one might discern with a critical eye. Friends have praised my "English" garden, but I did not set out to create a special type of garden. From my perspective, the over-all effect is a messy, riotous metaphor for something that was never determined in advance.

I am still preoccupied with the question of how I went from hating gardening to passing so many timeless hours stooped and kneeling with the sun beating down on me. How did I come to like the smell of dirt? Why do I not mind when the mud cakes and dries on my skin, ruins my shoes and pants, even sometimes gets into my nose and eyes?

1) Breaking the seal on one cardboard box led me to a cemetery where human bodies were planted in geometrical, "militaristic" rows, and where I found questions, red as blood, then

2) Combinations of words yielded clouds of meaning, radiating like halos of cloud around figures of speech, until

3) A single unexpected address began a process of discovery that turned death into someone with a name, a face, and a history as rich and complex and full of hope as blooms that are crushed in a storm, so that

4) Staring fixedly at family photos until they yielded up their secrets helped me locate the mystery in others who danced a circle round the figure of myself in a pew or on a swing, then

5) Paths through woods and along creeks showed me sequins in the air that could birth mythical shapes in the stellar universe, then

6) Peering through doors brought me face-to-face with fatherhood, in all its dimensions, such that it could generate me in every instant of my existence, until

7) Anointed feet brought me an invitation to look up into eyes that were new and great with life, so that

8) In refrigerators, I found my own littleness and dependence, then

9) Mushrooms and potatoes and all the colors contained in the petal of a white water lily revealed to me all the multitudinous contradictions hidden in the heart, until

10) Love led me to the Infinite, who tapped at my glass until I looked upon his garment sewn with seeds and pearls.

Because I am earnest to a fault, I must admit that I made all that up, on the spot, which doesn't mean that any of it is untrue. Just that my flowers could tell you another story, or another. And that is why I garden.

This post is in three parts. The first two parts ("death and the art of digging beneath the surface" and "discovered, while digging") first appeared as stand-alone posts. The entire essay was first published 12/5/07.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."