I am a gardener. This is a simple statement of fact; not a declaration of a consciously chosen identity. If you asked me who I am or what I do, I would probably neglect tomention it. When I fill out a warranty registration card, under the category of hobbies, I don't check that box. But for every one of the past 31 years, I have dug up the soil, planted seeds or seedlings, weeded, watered, harvested, preserved food, and prepared and eaten meals from the food I have grown. Simply put, gardening has become an integral part of how I live life; an embedded, active practice; a discipline and a ritual.
|photo by Kathy Fenton-Miller|
There is so much I could say. . .I think I need to begin with some “nots”. Gardening is not efficient, for me anyway, or profitable. Most everything I grow is available 12 months a year at Meijer or Walmart, and what I save by growing food myself would barely pay for the Ibuprophen I take for the headaches I get from working in the hot sun—let alone amount to a decent hourly wage. I don't do it to save money, and I wouldn't have to, to survive. Times may change; my commitments could change, but for now, that's how it is.
Secondly, I do not garden because it's a “natural” activity. Nothing about it is natural. In fact, everything about it involves pushing back nature, intervening in the natural processes to favor and protect one plant over another, to shield a plant from insects or disease, to thwart birds and mammals intent on eating the food before I do. The plants themselves are not taken from nature and would never survive without human care—some are, in fact, hybrids which cannot even reproduce on their own. The very space I garden in, a 35 X 100 ft plot of bare earth within a two acre clearing, must be constantly reclaimed from nature. Neglected, it would revert to forest with frightening speed.
At least on the surface, everything about gardening is artificial. Gardens don't just happen; they are made—by humans. Gardens are an artifice, that is, a construction—a created reality. I hope you can hear where the language is going here: artificial, artifice, art. . .created, creation, creativity. The artifice and art of my gardening is a creative activity. I think what I most love about it is the sheer joy of molding and shaping something different. If we take seriously the idea of humanity bearing the image of God, it makes perfect sense that we humans share with God the impulse to create—to mold and shape, to craft and build. We want to echo and participate in the Divine creativity and we are like that by nature—in our essence. So if you want to know what really makes me tick as a gardener—at a deep level, I garden because that is one way I have to become fully human.
Three points added extemporaneously:
First, I want to point out that a major part of the enjoyment of gardening is simply contemplation. I didn't choose this; it just happened. I find myself going out almost daily just to look at my garden. I observe and take pleasure in its appearance, its development and vitality. Its a little like the image of God, in Genesis, looking at creation and taking pleasure, finding it “very good”; or setting aside time, Sabbath, to stop labor and enjoy the earth. In Gen. 3 there is the brief image of God, “walking in the garden, in the cool of the evening” which suggests to me the same sort of taking pleasure, for its own sake.
Second, for me gardening exists within limitations or boundaries. Gardening may be “tinkering” with and pushing back nature, but I don't see it as my place to extend my reach as far as I can. I choose not to use anything more toxic or “industrial” to defeat bugs than rotenone; or to amend the soil, than compost and wood ashes. My interventions on my two acre lot are balanced by thirty plus acres of wetland and woods that I leave alone for the most part, unlike previous inhabitants, who drained and farmed everything.
Finally, even though gardening may be seen as an artificial activity, we who do it operate within the larger natural world. I find that I value the way it binds me to and teaches me to heed the cycles and seasons of the natural world, in a way I would not be if I only went to the supermarket or even a farmers market. In the spring I must make time to till and plant, or I may have no crop. In the lush spring growth of May and June, I must weed and mulch, or again, I may have no crop (or I may have a lot of hard, backbreaking work in the hot July sun). When there is no rain, I must water. When the strawberries or the sweet corn are ripe, they must be harvested. If I choose to garden, my life begins to revolve around these realities and I began to be formed and shaped by that response. I am a better gardener than I was ten years ago because I am more willing to make the effort to act when the season is right.