Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Garden

My Garden

Today is a practice in reality. No, not in my normal, provocative rambles on debatable topics of uncertain resolvability. This is merely the fact. And maybe the greater facts that can be distilled and condensed from the facts. But enough of this rhetorical labyrinthine prelude. Let me welcome you to my garden.

The sun burns high in the powder blue sky. It’s not azure. It’s not even cornflower blue. It is powder blue, like the sun drained the usually wet-blue sky of all its precious moisture until it turned into a vacant, dry, blue powder. A blue desert, hot and uncomfortable just to look at. This powder blue sky stretches out thin across the sky until it disintegrates at the edges of the horizon in rippled layers of white that dance in the heat waves.

But most of that rippling horizon is obscured. It is obscured by a wall of deep, forest green leaves. A hedge. It stands thick and tall, circumnavigating this small world with its wide green arms, interwoven branches decked in their evergreen coats. Its top dips and rises like waves on the ocean, like the heads of mighty columns pushing through the green mantle. Inside hide spiders, lady bugs, small birds, and a family of squirrels. They call this place home.

I call this my space. My sanctuary. My garden. I found it, long forgotten and hidden behind its hedged wall. It was wild, with long golden grasses that rose as high as my chest. Birds and squirrels and all sorts of other animals made paths through its rippling waves; small tunnels that crisscrossed this golden world inside the hedge. This is how I found it. Overgrown. Forgotten. Ripe with potential.

It was like our lives, back in the dusty corridors of the past, when we would look over our landscape and see nothing but unmarked potential. Remember the days when you would look over your life and see roads and possibilities spiderwebbing away in all directions. Remember the time, when optimism unmarred by cruel reality blossomed and shot forth the green shoots of ideas in your mind. Remember those long forgotten dreams. What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I spent the next year working from early in the morning till sundown. I began by carving a simple path through the garden. It was fall and the long golden grasses were pressed down by the heavy October rains. The smell of the sweet earth and the wet grass and the red leaves of the small maple tree all washed by the rains was intoxicating. The path took several different turns through the decomposing soil, some unexpected. A few unforeseen bumps forced detours. A shallow running streambed caused me to stop until I could build a bridge. But eventually I reached a place where I was happy with the winding paths. We must all carve our paths too until we reach the place were we feel our work is complete.

And yet, my work had only begun. I spent that entire, cold winter, breaking up the hard clay soil which lay beneath. For years, the garden had remained untouched by any human hand, the wild grasses quickly outgrowing all other plants until they were all that was left. Their stalks grew high but their roots were shallow. I tore them up easily. But this meant that the ground had remained unbroken, and had hardened to clay. After pulling them all out, I was left with the daunting task of shoveling the cold, hard clay out, breaking it apart with my shovel, and then mixing it with compost. For days, it was the same repetition over and over. Dig out the hard places, break them apart, mix them with something better so they would not go back the same way. Its amazing what clay garden soil can teach us about the human heart.

While I was digging, I met my enemy. The blackberries. These wild brambles had been encroaching for years, moving slowly forward in their war with the golden grasses. But now that I had cleared the grasses, the blackberry roots that had lain dormant beneath the grass had their opportunity. They began sprouting in pathways, in beddings, in between planks on my bridge. They were everywhere. Once again I grabbed my shovel with my blistered hands and I went to work. Funny how just when you think you’ve beaten something bad, you can always find something worse just around the corner. It may seem like a bleak outlook on gardening (and life) but being aware of that very real potential gives us the power to take initiative action against it.

After I chopped back my first blackberry, I discovered their horrid roots. Buried deep in the hard clay where sunlight had not penetrated for perhaps centuries, they lay like red, shriveled snakes, long and twisting. I decided to act. I dug deeper. Pulled out more clay. I found them and pulled them up and threw them away. But the problem with things like blackberries are that they cannot simply be ignored or hidden away in some secret corner of the garden, otherwise they will find a way and they will break forth and they will spread everywhere. No, the only way to deal with blackberry roots are to pull all of them out from their hiding spots, hang them up in the sun where all can see them until they shrivel up and dry completely, and then burn them. The parallels with sin in our lives is striking. There really is only one effective way of dealing with it.

So I took care of the blackberries in the garden. I chopped back their bushes and pulled up their roots. I broke up the fallow ground and enriched it with compost. But because of the giant evergreen tree that towers over the entire garden, my soil was still too sour. I had done nothing to cause this. I did not plant the tree, but instead the tree had come with the garden and would always be there towering over it. As it stood there it dropped its pine needles all over the soil and sucked the nutrients right out of it. It was a continues process that there was no stopping. The only thing I could do was sprinkle something over my garden. Regularly. And that was something called Bloodmeal.

Now this may sound gross, but when livestock is slaughtered, the blood is collected and dried into a powder. This powder is used by farmers and gardeners to fix a nitrogen deficiency in the soil. Where there is no nitrogen there is no new, green, leafy growth. There is no life without the bloodmeal. And interestingly enough, because the tree continually sprinkles its needles on the garden I must continually cover it with bloodmeal in order for it to grow and prosper. I’ll leave you to connect the dots and analogies there.

So I worked the garden throughout the winter, breaking up clay and snow and ice. I could not allow my garden to become hard or cold during this time or all the beneficial insect and fungi and bacteria in the soil would die and I would have useless dirt. Again, very similar to the human heart, we must also continually work to prevent ourselves from growing too hard hearted or cold, or we loose the very things that give us life, and we become useless to others and to God.

Come spring I was excited. I ordered seeds. I ordered little plants. I got vegetables and fruit and herbs and flowers. I had planned everything perfectly and had placed enough effort into the garden to allow it to grow and prosper. I remember the warm spring day when I went out and with a quiver of excitement made the first hole in the cool, wet, black soil. The seeds were planted with purpose. I didn’t scatter them half-hazard or without intent. Every seed I planted was planted exactly where it was planted for very specific reasons. I planted the pumpkins away from the rest so they their vines would be able to grow where ever they wanted. I planted the lavender along a hillside so that its roots would never be wet or soggy. I planted the corn and the beans together, which thought odd sounding, caused the beans to have something to anchor to as their vines grew, and the corn which feeds heavy on nitrogen, had a plant that actually takes it from the air and places in the soil. The two were an odd couple, but I placed them together for a reason.

Then came the waiting. Few things in life, other than waiting for a bus at a bus stop, can teach you as much patience as those dreadfully slow two weeks. But nothing on earth can describe the amazing joy and hope you feel when you walk out into the garden on that early spring day and you see those bright green shoots barely breaking out of the cracked ground. The rewards that come with patience far outweigh the waiting. It is always worth it in the end.

I watched them grow, the straight grass like shoots of corn. The winding tendrils of the beans. The large, velvety soft leaves of the pumpkin and cucumber. The calendulas came up fast, and within a few short weeks they were blooming in large heads of orange, yellow, red, and bronze. They formed hedges of color around the beds, all the while acting as guards to deter common garden pests. They were only annuals, and so I knew they would die by the end of fall and never come back. But I grew to love them anyway, because no matter how many times I cut of the flower heads, they always kept pushing out more, usually bigger and brighter colored too. They were the epitome of optimism, and their optimism was contagious.

They did die at the end of the summer, and the next spring I was unable to find any more seeds. But that didn’t stop them. Unknown to me, they had sown their own seeds and even to this day, I will find them growing in out of the way corners and unexpected patches. They are like good friends, unexpected gifts you find in unexpected places. And just like good friends, many of whom we do part ways with throughout our lives, the season we have them for is a time to be enjoyed while they’re there, and a memory to be cherished when they’re gone.

Then came my harvest. It was amazing. To think that those small seeds could contain this much abundant life was incredible. Some of them had literally been so small that they were no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, and yet they had grown into large bushes that still stand to this very day, covered in small, blue, cucumber flavored flowers. Some things did not have the results I expected. The corn was barely as big as my pinkie and was not nearly pollinated enough. But it was beautiful anyway, especially after it was dried and used that thanksgiving as decoration in the house. The pumpkin didn’t make anything but flowers, yet we found out that there are quite a few recipes for stuffed pumpkin blossom (surprisingly good!). In all things, I had done my part and I had harvested, even when the harvest hadn’t been what I expected. But as long as I had kept my mind open, there were a few happy surprises to be found.

That next winter I took care of the garden again, but life got busy and in the spring I did not have time to take care of my garden. I knew I should have gone and weeded it, but I procrastinated. Several months later, the sowing season was past and I finally made time to go to my garden. The beds were covered in weeds. The paths were overgrown with golden grass. The blackberries were back and had taken over the whole streambed. And I could no longer sow, and therefore would not have any harvest that year. Timing is so critical in all areas of life. If we aren’t conscious about our actions as well as their timing, we will miss the windows of opportunity.

So I went back to work, pulling the things out that didn’t belong there. I became obsessive about it. I stayed at a spot for hours pulling out every last weed, making sure not a root was missed. And while that was great, once more my timing was off. I had cleared the garden of all the weeds by winter, but then, the rains came and there was nothing at all left to anchor the nutrients in the ground. It all washed away. Make no mistake, the weeds did not belong there. But while pulling them out root and all was good, I should have cut the roots off and thrown the leaves and stalks back in the soil. Sometimes we want to purge life of all our mistakes. But mistakes serve a great purpose too. They help us retain the good things in life. They help us overcome destructive habits by tasting the consequences. The worst thing we can do is not make a mistake, but make a mistake and not learn anything from it. I learned from my mistake that winter, when I had to build retaining walls around my beds in order to keep the soil from washing away. What is the greatest mistake you have ever made? What do you blame yourself for, the most out of everything in your past? What did you learn from it? What are you still learning from it?

Throughout the years I have worked on and off on the garden. I have come to realize that it will never be finished. There will always be something to do, something to work on, something to plant or something to pluck up. And I’m okay with that. I have also come to realize that the garden can’t be built up in a single season or a single growth year. It is taking years of slowly working the soil, slowly beating down the paths, slowly pulling the weeds. This process is the fun of the garden. It is what makes it alive. I wouldn’t want it any other way. And as I continue on it, my original vision is changing. Where once a lonely bench would have sat, there is now a hedge of lavender, soon to be joined with a carpet of red, creeping thyme to sit on. The vision, like the garden, is ever changing, ever growing, ever expanding, never ending.

Today, I walked back into the garden. The sky is the powder blue I referred to before. The hedges chirp with cicadas and the giant evergreen tree ruffles with playing squirrels. This year I let the garden lie fallow, so that it could have time for the soil to recover. The beds are covered in red clover, bees buzzing lazily as they gather the sweet nectar. The golden grass has sprung up all around, laying low already under the burning sun. Queen Anne’s Lace, a weed that looks like a carrot plant with a long stalk and a white, lace-like head of tiny flowers is mixed in between the golden grass, wasp, white butterflies, and onyx black beetles flying from head to head. Large dandelion heads of feathery seeds are also seen throughout the field like setting, their delicate heads breaking in the wind, carrying the feather seeds on the breeze. Blackberries that have spilled over the streambed banks like a green river hold up sun warmed fruit, just ready to be picked by a bluejay, a squirrel, or me. I stand out here, and I simply breathe.

Did you know each one of those animals are breathing too? Did you know each one of those leaves on each on of those plants are breathing too? Did you know that the fungi in the soil that allows that giant evergreen tree to grow as high as it does by merging with its roots, breathes? Did you know that the ground itself is continually breathes? All of creation breathes in unison and in that way we are all very much alike. We all rely on the Ultimate Breath to sustain us. We are His garden, and He delights to see us bring forth good fruit. Why would we ever deny Him that?

Some people wonder what heaven will be like. I know that for me, heaven will be an untouched spot of ground, no ethereal city or celestial cloud bed. A place where I can dig deep without worry of stone or thistle or thorn or serpent. A place where I can sow blank white seeds and dream new flowers and fragrances and patterns and plants from them. A place where I can build the garden of my heart’s desire, and then take my Heavenly Father by the hand and guide Him through it and show Him every single detail, ever secret corner, that I made for Him. For me, heaven would be a garden.

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