Category Archives: Gardening

Emerson: nature and words

Hawthorne branches in blossom...

An English Hawthorne in May. The boughs were popular for May Day decorations before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, after which the trees did not bloom until mid-May. The ancient Greeks carried hawthorn branches in wedding processions, as emblems of hope.

I intended to start summer by reading Voegelin on Plato. I’m interested in what they both say about the metaxy–the inbetween of the immanent and the transcendent, where we experience being. For young people unfortunate enough to have grown up under the influence of a deconstructive culture which drowns out reality with propaganda, replacing God’s kingdom with their own, their most sacred feelings and emotions are reinterpreted within a bottomless self endlessly chattering amid legions of desires and fears.

I want to think more about today’s language wars, which lie at the heart of modernity’s global contests to replace Creation with Ideology.
I’ve been re-reading Emerson’s “Nature” –or at least listening as I drove the old truck to Missoula for a couple yards of compost. I was surprised at how prescient Emerson was in his discussion of language. He begins his chapter on language with three statements about nature and language:

1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

I read these words when I was in college, but I don’t remember them making any particular impression on me. Today they seem precisely the needed counter to the chorus of antichrists substituting myraid uncertainties for every natural fact. They would destroy such words as male, female, marriage and family by positing endless expanding tangles of meanings, as though the tree of life were a bramble thicket.

Emerson understood nature as language, a way of thinking consistent with Genesis, where God speaks our world. Words refer to realities–to categories that actually exist in Creation, and we can speak truth:

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

It is from nature that we get the images that allow us to think about such things as hope and majesty. Our words are true to the extent that they evoke things as they really are.

Also posted in Teaching

Learning the meaning of nature

The 'Stargazer' lily does not occur in the wild. Leslie Woodrigg created the upward-facing cultivar in the 1970s, working with hybrids derived in the 1860s from Gold Band lilies and Japanese lilies which had been cultivated for centuries in Japan, China, and Taiwan. Such gardening wonders help us see the meaning of nature.

The ‘Stargazer’ lily does not occur in the wild. Leslie Woodrigg created the upward-facing cultivar in the 1970s, working with hybrids derived in the 1860s from Gold Band lilies and Japanese lilies which had been cultivated for centuries in Japan, China, and Taiwan. Such gardening wonders help us see the meaning of nature.

The leitmotiv of my garden, as I experience it, is that it is the “between” where a gardener encounters the “beyond” from which “all things rise.”

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.

Through me the landscape thinks itself

Butterfly on zinnia flower

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail on a yellow zinnia, which is a showy flower rich in nectar—butterflies love zinnias. It’s growing amid a patch of calendula, in front of a stand of blue salvia. The constant work of the pollinators, mainly bees but also some birds and butterflies, is one of the more vivid reminders that a garden is not a “thing” so much as living process. It provides resources for many participants on endless levels.

As I’ve engaged the garden more mindfully, the constant movement of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds drawn to the pollen and nectar has become more vividly present to me, in the course of the slow awakening that is a garden.

At first thought, it’s clear that it is I that am awakening, as what becomes present for me was there before I knew it. But then, I am the garden’s consciousness of what it is—”Through me the landscape thinks itself,” as Cezanne observed. So the garden needs me if it is to awaken to itself.

The garden has less existence without me. I don’t mean my labor, though that is part of it, so much as my awareness of the structured and articulated place I have engaged, without which the garden would be what Nietzsche said the world was without the engagement of a conscious being: “a chaos of sensations.”

So being present to what is present is part of the work—an attentive listening.

Also posted in Living

When reality is luminous

The growth of grass and trees is directional, as is reality.

The growth of grass and trees is directional, as is reality.

When we have time to relax, we are drawn to places where nature has an epic quality—the seashore, the big sky. At Flathead Lake yesterday, the waves came ashore in endless variations of something ceaseless, an aspect of eternal calm. I felt the familiar trust in the constancy and the lastingness of being, the semblances of order deeper and stronger than trouble.

It may seem too obvious to mention, but the waves have direction as do the growth of grasses and trees. So do the passing of the sun and moon and stars. So do we. The cosmos is order within order. The progress of humanity has occurred by perceiving order in the cosmos, then rendering it in the order of our thoughts, our gardens, our cities, our nations. Reality, as we know it through history, is directional, from seed to fruit, from hut to city, from hunger to plenty, from weakness to strength.

We experience the directional tendency in our souls as longing for a higher reality, something beyond the mundane that we glimpse with emotion that has been described as both joy and grief, or both at once. It’s easy, like Gatsby, to mistake the longing, thinking that it is Daisy that we want. Alcohol and promiscuity are low, inarticulate manifestations of the quest. We all feel the pull of desire drawing us toward something more. When we become conscious of the nature of the longing we can begin living into that desire, pursuing joy in earnest.

Philosophers and prophets have through the ages expressed the sense that reality is moving toward a culmination, and that growing consciousness of that movement, the moments when reality becomes luminous, aware of itself in our consciousness, occur as we drawn from wonder to reason, to clarity, and we find words for what we see.

Also posted in Living

Between God and Creation


“We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning at all.” —William James

The Infinite a sudden Guest
Has been assumed to be —
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away?
—Emily Dickinson

We grasp reality as moments: the purposeful flutter of a Canadian tiger swallowtail, red monarda to white lily, the house finch perched on a blue nepata stem, bobbing under the weight, picking at a marigold gone to seed, motion inside motion, scent of impending rain, sky darkening, chickadees descending in a flock, storm wind in grass, thunder.

In the garden, I remember, return to direct experience, looking, seeing past words: the flash of purple clematis hanging in heavy vines from the trellis in softly falling rain, golden calendula, day lily trumpets, no ideas.

It is good, I know, in the same way I know at a glance the geranium is red, in the strange togetherness of presence, the interpenetrating witness.