What I learn in the garden is mainly the wisdom of traditions that I once kept through faith. I’ve learned from my culture and picked up from books insights that I could see were true in an intellectual way, and through gardening these insights have gained clarity. They’ve been embodied in the substance of my experience. In other words, my culture may be the source of what I know more than my garden.
I’ve been fortunate to have been raised in an intelligent culture, amid folklore and scripture more intelligent than I. There are truths in our heritage, if we are lucky, that we can learn only by obedience. Someone decades on in a good garden or a good marriage knows things that words cannot communicate to those who don’t know them. Spiritual truths can be discerned only with the spirit, to which the intellect may be a dull-witted and flat-footed bystander.
That’s not to say it’s possible or desirable to avoid mistakes. I have a long list of things that I now know don’t work, though it once seemed that they might. I’ve gained stronger vision than I had at the beginning, and it’s vision that drives the work of gardening. I don’t mean by “vision” what I think Robert Kennedy meant with his plagiarized self-promotion: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
“Why?” remains the more potent question if one is driven by a hunger for reality. Why-not-ism easily becomes a rationale for thoughtless destruction, as history shows. Why not collectivize the farms to enforce equality? Why not replace fathers with welfare and mothers with daycare? Why not remove the levees that culture put in place to restrain sexual passions? Why not seize money from entrepreneurs and give it to the indigent and improvident? Why not slaughter the cattle of the prosperous to provide a brief feast for the poor? Why not dissolve nations via international financial creatures and open border fiats? Why not plant palm trees in Butte, Montana? Such visions are thin stuff—fantasies without living substance. They are void of wisdom, which is a reality-based phenomenon.
An ancient proverb states that “without vision the people perish,” and this is followed immediately with an injunction to keep the law. Moral law structures our cosmos much as the system of forces described by Newton structures the universe. Strong vision is seeing deeply and accurately the laws of human meaning and action. With an informed imagination and intelligent desire we can construct models of actuality in our minds. A weak imagination may conjure up the fantasy of palms and gardenias for a backyard in Montana, but such fantasies can’t be brought into actual existence. They cannot be given substance even with the most committed effort.
Stronger visions emerge when we see so clearly why and how things are that we can connect the present with the past, seeing what is becoming and thus glimpsing the future. Imagination is an innate power of our nature to see and understand what we are and what surrounds us. We can build mental models of things as they really are, using them as maps to negotiate workable paths through an actual world. We become partners with Creation, participating in the unfolding of life. The Creator said of Creation that It was good, and creatures in his image can echo that truth.
The more we learn about specific plants as well as soil, water, sun, pests and disease the saner our visions can be. We develop our sense of time, understanding and affirming that the creation of a rose is only possible as a process in time. We learn that time is opportunity. I have arching beauty bushes that stand 10 feet tall on each side of the entrance into my prayer garden. I saw them before I planted them, though I see them more clearly now, fifteen years later. There are moments in May when they are so bejeweled with new blossoms that the world is more beautiful than I could ever deserve. Hard work can make life more and more a succession of such moments.
With vision we can convert meaningless events into a sequence of shining moments, plot points in the story we author. And we know that for us creation is never ex nihilio. Interestingly, that hoary doctrine of creation “out of nothing” was itself created out of nothing by philosophers arguing from the Stoic and Gnostic world views in the second century AD. It’s possible to create philosophical concepts out of nothing and then to talk about them as though they exist—much of our political discourse in this age of propaganda is that sort of nonsense. But such vanities are not useful to gardeners. For us, creation is a matter of organizing the materials and patterns we find and editing what is present.
There’s an admirable humility and wisdom in that. We do not create the rains and the sun and the soil nor can we instill the plant’s nature to grow. We are immersed in grace. And it’s all transient. There are no enduring accomplishments. We can shape and assist but we cannot control. We can only care; gardens are emblems of care.
And we have to do the scut work. If we neglect things, they will not thrive. They might die. Azaleas don’t like their roots to get dry. Rhododendrons suffer from desiccating winter winds. Tulip and lily heads are delicacies to deer. Our relationships to the growing things in our garden are the same as other relationships: they require attention and effort. We live best when we find and practice an endless attention and an endless care.
Sometimes it’s simple. Where calendula or echinacea or daisies have reseeded prolifically, we remove more than we leave so that the remaining plants may thrive. Some plants need to die to create healthy space or circumstances for others. Sometimes it’s simple. We pull out some bindweed, or we dig out the dandelions. Sometimes it’s harder—removing the maple that has grown too tall, shading plants that need sun. And even with all our care, loss is built into the game. A stand of Austrian pines succumbs to a beetle infestation. A city water line repair removes a stand of lilacs. A drought forces us to let fast-growing plants die so we can provide scarce water to the trees.
We meet these things without anger, as we meet sunset or autumn. Loss is built into the game. We are transient beings, made of transient beings, living amid transient beings. The structure of human reality requires sacrifice—those moments when to save something of value we have to give up something of value. It is through sacrifice that we gradually clarify our vision, learning what we truly do love, and learning to order our loves so we do not trade things of little value for things of infinite worth, the enduring things.
Sacrifice means “to make sacred.” The sacred, all around us, endures. It is never transient though our grasp of it may be. As we work we glimpse it now and then as beauty. It appears as brilliant moments which we labored for but did not earn as bursting light and joy touch us in our depth, transforming us to luminous creatures of hope, knowing that it is good.