Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ode to Thoreau

We all seek immortality. Some pursue it through the legacy of their work or their families, others through celebrity, and some, regrettably, through crime. For the da Vincis and Edisons among us, there is art and science. And then there are gardeners, those people foolish enough to believe the greenery they cultivate around their homes will secure them lasting horticultural fame.

I’m a lover of nature, both the wild variety found beyond the ends of roads and highways, and of cultivated ground. I believe we’ve reached a point in human history where we can safely say no landscape is pristine. The hand of man has reshaped the earth everywhere, as I’m reminded when I read that red dust from the Gobi Desert is routinely blown across the Pacific and settles on, among other places, my half-acre of the earth’s crust. I am thus content with being a pastoralist, a person who lives peaceably with cultivated land that is sustainably tended. I am not a romantic about wild nature.

What I love about gardening is the subtle give-and-take with the landscape that it requires, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature. I plant and sow, and cut down and transplant. Life in the garden has an Ecclesiastes-like rhythm: There is a season and time for every purpose under heaven. I find it interesting that it was in Eden that God chose to locate Adam and Eve, not Times Square. There is innate goodness to the stage on which the deity initiated the moral drama of humanity. It was a cultivated place full of good food and beauty—and the occasional serpent.

But a garden is no place to seek fame. It is not immortal, any more than I am. Everything I plant will eventually die. The time I spend creating living space that is both esthetically pleasing and functional is never wasted, however. It's an investment. What I spend now pays out incrementally over time in emotional satisfaction. Unfortunately, as soon as my payments cease, the garden immediately plateaus and then begins to backslide. Entropy sets in. That is the terrible beauty of the thing. Subtract one person from the scene (me) and within a year blackberry vines, poison oak and wild clover will have begun taking over. Within five years most of the untended plants will have expired from thirst. My garden left for a decade will not so much resemble untrammeled nature as it will a weed patch next to a 7-Eleven parking lot.

On account of how I’ve organized my life this year, I’ve spent more time than usual puttering around outside. When I couldn’t work or read or pray or even think last spring, I could still garden. Through most of my life, when I’ve wanted to ponder my relationship with God and my place in the world, I’ve gone to the wilderness, to places of raw and isolated beauty. Lately, I’ve become less like John Muir and more like Henry David Thoreau, who had interesting things to say about gardening. It was a pond set in second-growth forest to which he retreated to think and write, and not the deep Appalachians.

Thoreau’s folly was to plant a bean field at Walden, and then to spend a season watching woodchucks and birds have their way with it. It’s astonishing how much anger an animal’s assault on your garden can incite. For me, it’s the deer that strip the buds off my rose bushes that prompt murderous thoughts. My more rational response has been to put up fencing; Thoreau’s reaction to marauding critters was to give up farming. Despite our differences in strategy, the two of us share the companionship we find in solitude. He went to Walden to live deliberately, as indeed I do these days. He wished “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

That, in essence, is what time spent sowing and harvesting can accomplish. My garden teaches me things about nature and about people, as the New England woods did Thoreau. It gives me the opportunity to be a co-creator in microcosm. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, Thoreau wrote famously, and go to the grave “with the song still in them.” This 19th century mystic and I agree that nature is full of genius, full of the divine. I’m not sure I can sing that tune, but I think I can hum a few bars.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Thanks for explaining that plants have a life span. Now...please tell Michelle.