LIFE BEGAN IN A GARDEN
David C. Hughes
If you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.
From the top of the door frame leading to our back yard hangs a wind chime. Inside the house. What a wind chime is doing inside the house only Mary knows, but it’s a beautiful work of art. A cross sporting a maroon heart, an orange button, and a hand-painted bumblebee dangles from a shiny silver “S” shaped hook. Below the cross hangs a flowery sky-blue rectangular plaque attached with two rusty coils. “Life began in a Garden,” the small plaque proclaims.
“God Almighty first planted a garden,” wrote Frances Bacon, “and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.” Life began in a Garden and He placed Adam and Eve there to tend it to the greatest refreshment of their spirits and their souls. In the Garden they communed with God, walked with God, spoke with God, and enjoyed His presence both directly and within the realm of His creation.
After the Fall, God allowed the memory of the Garden to remain within the deepest recesses of human experience. We now spend a good part of our lives building careers, establishing relationships, and piling up useless stuff while erecting barriers and taking up residence in self-made prisons of ignorance and self-focus. But when we step inside the gates of a garden, thrust our fingers deep into the dirt, lift the soil and breathe deeply of that musky, earthy, messy matrix of life, we are transported back to the foundation of time.
Cultivating a garden is the antithesis of modern existence, one in which I willingly partake, a catharsis I’ve embraced since I can remember. My parents raised me up alongside the yearly garden; as the tomato plants grew, so did I. I remember my dad hand-digging the 20-by-40 foot plot with nothing but a pointed shovel, a pair of work gloves, and lots of grunting and sweating. Even now, when I turn over the sticky black North Texas clay with my strong and steady Craftsman rototiller, I am once again connected through time and circumstance to those simple days of my ancestors’ necessity. But I do it not out of the necessity for physical sustenance but rather out of the need for spiritual nourishment. I garden because I can’t not garden.
Gardening slows me down. Practically nothing happens fast in a garden and between growing seasons. The seasons roll by, driven by the relentless precession of a wobbling earth, opening the window to planting and closing the window after harvest. The moment I drop a seed in the ground, slow-motion unfolds right before my eyes. It may take a week for those seeds to germinate, two or three months to harvest, eight months to die at the touch of subfreezing temperatures. It’s all in God’s timing. A garden demonstrates God’s urging to be still and know that He is God. It takes away my control because once the seeds are in the ground, there’s nothing I can do to make them grow except to apply the water, pray, and wait. A garden is counter-cultural, it’s a throwback to slower times, to a time of faith, of reliance, of worship.
From the first cultivation in late February to first frost in late October my garden grows. Millimeter-by-millimeter the okra and the zucchini and the green beans thrust their heads above the ground, reaching for the sky. Millimeter-by-millimeter the pumpkins spread their leaves and begin to crawl. Millimeter-by-millimeter the peas climb their chicken wire trellises and open their ivory blossoms to the steadfast search of honey bees. Only the asparagus runs counter to the rest of the garden, shooting straight up from the ground at the breakneck speed of seven inches a day, scrambling toward the sun in an attempt to spread their wispy leaves before I come along with my pocket knife and assimilate their lives into mine. Their season is very short.
“Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination,” wrote Alice Morse Earle in Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden. But it’s more than an exercise in imagination; it’s a workout of sensations. I breathe deeply the scent of rotting mulch, the prickle of disturbed tomato leaves, the sting of freshly-harvested jalapenos. I squish the damp clay between bare fingers. The two-inch layer of mulch yields to my sandaled feet after three days of rain has softened the earth, giving me hope that this growing season might provide enough natural moisture to keep the plants hardy and oh so dark green. Verdant leaves shiver as a south breeze tickles the asparagus, the wispy fronds hissing back like petulant children going through growing pains. Serves them right. Sunlight excites the deep greens and plays across the oversized pumpkin blossoms waving their yellow orange greetings at every honeybee and red wasp flying by. I snap off a pea pod and devour it, savoring the earthy sweetness and thanking God for the bounty surrounding me, doing what it’s supposed to do while I struggle to do what I’m supposed to do.
One afternoon I dropped my world-weary body onto the small settee Mary placed beside the redbud next to the garden. I sighed, lifted my wine glass, and sipped the now-warm sauvignon blanc. The wine flowed over my taste buds, its subtle citrus tones emboldened by the dry air rushing out of the southwest. I looked at the garden, I mean, really looked at the garden, and here’s what God revealed to me.
We grow a traditional garden, nice neat rows planted side-by-side with peas, onions, green beans, lettuce and okra. Pumpkins, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, cantaloupes, tomatoes, and zucchini reside in their own plots, spaced far enough apart to allow these larger, vinier plants to spread out without rubbing tendrils with their neighbors. These are the “compartmentalized” fruits and vegetables.
Springing up all over the garden are the volunteers, plants we didn’t sow by hand but rather sprouted from seeds discarded in the compost box or plowed under during the fall cultivation. This vegetation pops up in the dirt patches, pushes up through the mulch, grows outside the nice, neat boundaries we’ve set up for the other plants. In other words, these are the wild ones, the unruly ones, the free spirits of the plant kingdom. These are the “non-compartmentalized” fruits and vegetables.
And all are thriving.
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes