As much as I can, I live in a garden. I thought it would be a good place to sit and write, or at least read, but more often I find it’s a place that provokes busyness, a little like sitting in a messy house. Wherever I sit, I find myself noticing things that could be done—a day lily moved that’s be crowded by shrub that got larger than I’d guessed, a new curve to an established bed that would add a bit of elegance, or a decision to get rid of the self-sewn echinacea that is taking over the round bed under the office window. There’s no better way to procrastinate than by edging a bed of lupines in full bloom. But I also find I never enjoy the beauty so much as when I am working.
Beauty, when it is found in truth and goodness, brings us the sort of joy that gives substance to hope. A world with such mountains, and such waterfalls, under such a sky must be fundamentally good. It would be a betrayal of honest faith to be very pessimistic. Our best longings may yet lead us right.
I know from experience how easy it is to be misled by beauty, of course. Hell has its beauties, too. Whole industries have been founded on the artistry of giving bad things good appearances. The devious appear innocent and the manipulative seem free of guile.
But as we pay attention our powers of discernment grow, and as we gain experience with good and evil, all the decoys that are not good lose their luster. Junk food loses its appeal, as do junk art, junk science, junk culture, and junk society.
Not that one should get too snobby about it. The farmers of ancient Sodom were highly skilled, and through their hard work they became very wealthy, but their wealth made them cruel and self-righteous. This was their great sin. Hugh Nibley tells us that “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah put nets over their trees to deny the birds their lunch, and ‘Abraham, seeing it, cursed them in the name of his God.'”
It seems good, on several levels, to plant elderberry and chokecherry and mulberry bushes, mainly for the birds. And at unexpected times, the good moments do come. I do sit and read, visited by goldfinches and cedar waxwings and dark-eyed juncos amid gardens that have drawn my consciousness outward to include them, moments like kingfishers landing and trout leaping in a calm metaxis whose horizons ripple and hum, there and not there, here and not here. It seems a good thing, living in a garden.
In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, one of the things Norman learned from his father is that “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
Just so. Though I dug a hole and amended the soil and planted the peonies, I still don’t know by what miracle they grow, and I did not make water to fall from the heavens or sunshine to flood through the morning, though these things happen. It’s grace.