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.

Getting out of nowhere

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

I went to a wedding high up on the hill in Bountiful, Utah, which is one of those towns where you can make a reasonably precise estimate of a person’s wealth and status by how high up on the hill their house is. This was a newly built residence, with the steep hillside tastefully terraced and the terraces landscaped with dozens of flowers and shrubs.

Bountiful is zone 7 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while I come from zone 4 or 5, so there were lots of plants I didn’t recognize.

When I met the owner of the new house, I asked him what a particular plant was, by way of making small talk. He looked toward it as though for the first time, the look on his face vaguely between puzzlement and blankness.

I saw that the landscape was not really his garden. It was an amenity he had purchased, with the cost probably including delivery and installation. The plants didn’t constitute an aspect of his consciousness as is the case with a gardener in his garden. They were just “over there.”

His body was in the garden but it was not in him. Besides not knowing the plant’s name, he also did not know where it was in its life cycle, whether it was thriving or just getting along, or what it might need before winter.

Chimpanzees can't watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

Chimpanzees can’t watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

I quickly changed the subject to the weather, but the moment reminded me of an illustration I sometimes use to evoke the hierarchical structure of reality. Imagine a chimpanzee at a baseball game, maybe standing on third base. He can see the batter, the runners, and the glittering lights of the scoreboard. What he can’t see is the game.

There is a level of reality that isn’t accessible to him. He can’t comprehend what’s involved in a situation characterized as bottom of the ninth with two out and the count 3-2. He could never figure out what a bunt is, let alone why it might be used. He can’t wake up to a reality that, for him, will never exist.

We’re all like that to varying degrees. We’re all surrounded by levels of play to which we are oblivious. Things are happening that we do not see, though they are right in front of us. The homeowner could see the colors and the plants. He probably knew how much it all cost. But he was not there, was not present the way a great ball player is in the game.

Writers on place have talked a lot about the how easy it is for us to slip into being nowhere, to have heads full of abstractions that filter out the world around us. In modern America, commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. People move past such places without seeing them in the way that gardens are seen. They can have a kind of perfection, similar to silk and plastic flower bouquets that represent flowers but lack the essence of flowers. The dimension of time—the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying—has been minimized, leaving only an aesthetic composition.

Typically, the makers of commercial landscapes rely heavily on hired labor and annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common. Rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, an expense. They are ironic constructs because a carefree garden is nearly an invisible garden. We are left with the sense of a garden, in somewhat the way that Pizza Hut gives us not Italy but a sense of Italy.

The modern mall may be the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice, to evoke what is becoming our primary function: wanting. Desire is the spell such places are designed to cast. We move through an aura of well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We move along in our dreamy business, undistracted by care, maybe with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.

Breaking the spell is easy. We just need to ask what it is for, what it means. This restores the real game, which is to see more, understand more.

Figuring out paradise

Umphrey place in Mission

Gardens can be experienced as symbols or metaphors. Usually we think about them more prosaically, in terms of biological science or aesthetic pleasure, but there are things to ponder beyond why applying nitrogen to dahlias can lead to robust plants with few flowers, or why planting blue salvia can intensify the orange of the day lilies beside it.

People search for order instinctively. Many writers have discussed the way various gardening styles reflect and express different visions of paradise.

The Garden of Eden is a foundational myth in my tribe. God planted the garden and placed a man and a woman there. They walked and talked with God. Though at the cosmic scale, evil did exist, the man and the women knew nothing of it. They were not yet “as gods,” knowing both good and evil.

They lived in a pleasant shelter where maybe they could have lived forever as children. They were forbidden to eat the fruit of one tree, warned that the penalty for doing so was death. So they were given a choice.

The path they chose led to a knowledge of good and evil. They had to leave the garden to earn their food through labor and bring forth children in pain. They chose hardship and pain and a knowledge that could be had no other way.

I don’t believe God was either dismayed or surprised at the choice they made. I don’t believe his plans were frustrated, any more than wise parents are stymied when their children begin making their own decisions, despite parental warnings, finding out some things for themselves. No one else, even God, can do our knowing for us if we hope to be free.

We have to struggle with evil before we can understand goodness. Eventually, the man and the woman would die, but not before they were given time to restore their unity with God. Time is opportunity, and there is no better use for it than to learn the meaning of the cosmic contest between good and evil.

The end of their quest would be, as T.S. Eliot put it, to arrive where they started and know the place for the first time. Our goal is paradise. Our method is facing trouble.

The story comes to us through Moses, who was, Eric Voegelin argued, the most significant human in history. Monotheism was a powerful cognitive advance—something of a unified theory of meaning.

Polytheism provided a less ordered vision. It recognizes many of the forces that are present in consciousness-reality, but it sees only weak relationships between them. In Homer we encounter a tremendous—epic, we might say—grappling with evil and a dawning sense of universal justice, which his characters can glimpse but not yet articulate. In the war between the Greeks and Trojans, various gods took different sides. Homer was enough of a poet not to simply take his tribe’s side, but to see in the drama something larger than tribes, beyond even the gods—some force that cared about what happened and that favored some actions and disapproved of others. We witness, haltingly and mysteriously, the coming into the world of justice.

Homer could not quite answer the question “what is right?” It couldn’t be disentangled from the question “which god do you follow?” A few centuries later, Socrates had become a monotheist, because, he said, of his personal experience of deity. Revelation. Having got that far, he knew there was a universal moral law, and, brilliantly, he also saw that humans could perceive that law through reason. An escape from the cave was possible, because there really was a “beyond” that the senses could not perceive but that the mind could know.

The purpose of life, he taught, was the quest to know the purpose of life. The end of human life, my tribe teaches, is to re-create paradise—to have it not merely as a gift but also as an attainment, a state which we know how to care for because we learned how to create it.

Visitors never fail to mention how much work my gardens must be. I usually shrug or mumble. The garden provides an occasion for effort and the effort requires time, but I hardly ever do anything that I don’t feel like doing. It’s quite a joy to find one’s own mind by rearranging and editing the world as it is given, and to have at hand the means to do so.

Trouble is transient, but what we learn from meeting trouble endures. Labor and pain and death are occasions for us to use our growing powers to make places and worlds quite better than we once could imagine.


Write here

There. That looks better. The peak of the peony bloom is past and removing the fading flowers lets the plant feed its roots and the remaining buds rather than wasting energy making seeds. Moments don’t last, though there are always more ahead. The Asian lilies are blooming now, and later the orientals and trumpets will come. Now to sweep up the mess.

A garden is a series of moments. One of the best of these at my place is when the peonies along the path to the secret garden are in bloom. It’s a spectacle of pinks. and the fragrance is heavenly. I want it to last.

But it doesn’t. The main bloom lasts about two weeks. Towards the end, blossoms are wilting and turning brown, and the heavy weight is breaking some of the stems. The scene turns decadent.

It’s time to deadhead. There are actually quite a few flowers that still look good, and here and there are buds which haven’t yet bloomed. Trimming out the dying and decays flowers leaves the bed looking quite spectacular—though not in comparison with what is past.

Most years things look awfully forlorn before I finally grab some shears and have at it. Once I start, it’s pleasant. In most cases, I like deadheading.

But I usually procrastinate when it comes to the peonies. I’m reluctant to let the moment go.

Rain is grace

It takes some effort to live in a garden, where the beauty of nature is clarified and cultured. But this doesn't mean we have earned that beauty. It remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

Who could “deserve” to really see a peony on a rainy day? It takes some effort to make a garden, clarifying the beauty of nature near at hand. But after the work, it remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

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.