It starts each year in early February when the first seed catalog arrives. I look out to my garden – usually blanketed in snow or leaves and other winter debris – and begin to imagine its return to foliage and flower. I have the immediate urge to plant something, which can be temporarily soothed by bringing a bunch of tulips home with the groceries. There is excitement coupled with a deep comfort when that first green pushes up from the soil. I often call my friend Nancy, herself a masterful gardener who has gifted me with any number of plants and cuttings. “The allium are coming up!” I announce, once again amazed that what seems dead is dead no longer. And before too long – much earlier this year with no winter to speak of here in Hardiness Zone 6, resulting in an uncommonly prolonged and extraordinary spring – I join those otherwise by and large sane people who thrive with dirt under our fingernails. Garden dirt that invites, heals and demands. Generally one to couple exercise with disregard, even contempt, I will bend, kneel, push, pull, shovel, squat, haul, crawl and all other manner of muscle and joint abuse, certain of two eternal truths: my participation in promise and possibility, and the best beer will eventually be enjoyed in the shower!
No surprise, nor intended pun, gardening is fertile soil for conversation on the spiritual life. As Oscar Wilde reminds us, “The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden.” The connections are significant and fairly obvious, with each requiring daily attention, practice not theory, providing solace and renewal, holding infinite possibilities.
For centuries, just about everyone tended a garden or worked the fields to survive. The lessons derived were honorable and readily understood, rooted in tradition and planted in every child. Gardening teaches us much about ourselves, about our interdependence with the natural universe, about the relationship between work and creativity, about our quieter and deeper selves, and about how we might begin to discern those sacred, even mystical dimensions that elude us in other aspects of our lives. Gardening can produce revelations of the profound in the ordinary. The simple existence of our gardens – sometimes begun in emptiness, from barren ground – with their varied forms and transformations can startle and delight both our mind and spirit. From each parcel of soil and seed, vines and blossoms nourished, weeded, transplanted, pruned, we harvest practical wisdom about beauty, love, history, lasting values, mortality and the seasons of our lives. Beloved poet Stanley Kunitz reflected on a century in his garden as a parable of the human experience, “created to endure just as humans emerge, thrive, suffer, give pleasure and, in due season, depart.” (The Wild Braid, 2005)
Rain that fell through the night has subsided and I take my coffee out into the garden this morning. Inspecting some of the work accomplished on the weekend (strangely, without diminishing the skill and energies required for these other achievements, we seem to play chess or tennis, practice meditation or the piano, yet work in the garden) the divided irises appear content and the new rose bushes are both joyously fragrant and certain to invite an intentional care and nourishment I’ve avoided returning to for a while. Just getting them in the ground offered something of a life-lesson. Finding there would not be enough sun where I’d originally thought to plant them, I dug in another spot only to discover enormous roots from a tree some distance away. Trying to be alert as well as patient, I watched and waited a few days, meanwhile discovering new plants that had “volunteered” in surprising places, a gentle reminder that I share this space with so many other creatures, above and below the earth. Gardens, like the best of friends, are not deceptive: they let you know. Imposing my pattern on the landscape – as on a friendship – would be a mistake. That life-lesson? Respect, don’t invade.
I stand at the end of this path, observing all that has taken shape here over these thirteen years and how so much has been reflective of my own state of being at a particular time. The stretch of lavender that allows me to return each summer to the French countryside I visited too long ago with a cherished friend. Hydrangeas that helped transform a high school stage into the garden of resurrection for the Great Vigil of Easter (another lesson in patient trust, as these hothouse plants forced for holiday bloom took five years finding their way back to a natural flowering cycle). And the cannas, connecting me to the grandfather I know mostly from photographs, one where he stands grinning among his own enormous blossoms, sporting a straw Fedora and clutching his long briar pipe. He’s in a white shirt and tie so I expect it’s Sunday and he’s just returned from church. Stretching my imagination a bit farther and recalling anecdotes passed on by my father, I’m sure he’s singing, some Hungarian folksong, maybe a hymn from the earlier church service. Singing as he walks between the carefully tended rows of his tenement lot, pulling a few weeds, staking the tallest stems, then pulling his rocker into the shade to enjoy his pipe on a Sabbath afternoon.
In 1995, Stanley Kunitz welcomed his 90th year with a life-affirming collection of poems titled Passing Through. A few lines from “The Round” return to me.
. . . I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
. . . I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
I have the immediate urge to plant something.