Though everyone recognizes that we live in the world, some people think we think in our minds. But consciousness is not mainly processes in the brain. Watching a young child play for the first time with a bouncing ball, we might observe that as he experiments with force and angle, practicing coordination, his body, the ball, the floor, the wall, and gravity are incorporated into his mind. In practice, we can’t make sense of the ball or the child independently, can’t ‘tell the dancer from the dance,” as Yeats put it. Together they form a single entity, the-boy-and-ball, and the boy is having thoughts that would literally be unthinkable without his body and its senses and a world to engage. His world is the substance of his consciousness.
Similarly, the garden becomes the substance of my mind as I weed and water and watch and smell. To dwell amid gardens is to mingle one’s conscious life with what is given.
Gertrude Jekyll says the garden teaches trust that God will give the increase. Trust is intertwined with the humility that emerges in the presence of things, such as the fragrant symphony of an Oriental lily, that grow from mysteries we cannot fathom.
The gardener does little things—noting the slight wilt of hibiscus leaves and bringing water or seeing a bindweed leaf reach toward sunlight and applying mulch—and wonders ensue—not occasionally but reliably, and in stupendous abundance.
A garden might exemplify the relations of humans to the Beyond—”Th’ Big Good Thing,” as it is described in The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett—that “goes on makin’ worlds.”
Stargazer lilies were created by humans deeply reliant on the cooperation of the natural world. Gardens exemplify an intimate co-dependence between people and nature.
The person alone is nothing, able neither to create nor to survive. All we have learned and can do is precarious and dependent on nature, and in this state we learn from the garden an alert waiting, a serene responsiveness, a diligent receptiveness.
And in the process, the gardener helps (in Cézanne’s phrase) to make nature’s meaning clear. Nature is a gift, which teaches us how to care.