Death and Life in the Garden: Learning in the Garden Classroom

As gardeners our hands are ‘bloodied’ with the chlorophyll of plants…while it may not stain us as ‘murderers’, we are never the less complicit in their deaths…as much as we are necessary for their lives.  Without us, as a group, these garden plants would never would have been propagated and, if not for our ‘selfish’ acts in the garden, choosing, designing and displaying them, many would be passing into obscurity, most of us knowing nothing of them or of their loss, their passages into decline and extinction, even more quiet, unnoticed, as too many already do today.  While we may acquire and attempt to grow them with the ‘best’ of intention, eventually, they will all die, ill fit or not, suddenly or after many years in our gardens, as a result of our ignorance, impatience, simple curiosity, our desire for something ‘different’, or even in spite of our best informed efforts.  Death comes to all things and our gardens are no exception.  Our gardens art artificial after all, creations of our making and they do not comprise a viable population that will out live us, reproducing in place, making the adjustments that they must over time to survive.  To do this would take an unprecedented amount of effort and coordination on our part and that of our neighbors.  The setting of our gardens are unique to us and their purposes are much narrowed and more intentional than are the places their progenitors come from, the ‘gardens’ of their origination.  For many of these plants our relationship with them might best be thought of as student to teacher as nature sacrifices itself in an attempt to teach us of what is being lost, ever since we stepped out of the loop that once put us in daily direct contact with nature and came to embrace this modern world and its expectations of consumption, ‘ease’ and never ceasing growth…so it is not ‘murder’, it is life, an attempt to return and reclaim.  There is purpose to be found in our gardens, well beyond surface amusement and distraction in what is too often becoming an ever uglier world, or for some of us our need to impress in a game of one-upmanship.  Nature demands more of us, that we accept our role as student and become careful observers, willing acolytes…maybe even crusaders….Too much? no, I don’t think so.

Death in the garden can teach us man things, first, about hubris, that just because we want to grow something doesn’t mean that we can, that the more out of step a plant’s requirements are, with the given conditions, the more we must do ourselves to make up for them.  We have to learn to be attentive to those conditions in our gardens and to not expect what is not possible, as well as to remember that every plant is allotted a finite span, that it will grow to the extent that it is allowed, but at some point, past reaching its maturity, it will begin to decline and like all things, die.  The lifespan of anyone plant has more or less set limits unique to its species, a time that can often vary over a considerable range, shortened or extended by the conditions it faces, the other plants and organisms with which it lives…as well as by our own acts.  When a plant lives harmoniously within its local community, the species and individuals with which it grew in an ongoing relationship, supported in ways it is most accustomed to, to which it is adapted, following an old pattern, it will perform in a manner consistent with our expectations…but it too will die there…it must and this is not a cruelty, but a necessity.  Indeed, it is part of the ‘plan’ and the cycle of life.

All life is cyclic, each species with its own particular pattern of ebb and flow, of growth and renewal, back and forth between organism and place, intricate and embedded, each individual important, its role and contribution essential to the overall ongoing process unique to a place, but no more so than any other, redundancies and flexibility built into each individual, species and community, along with ‘failsafes’ beyond which they cannot cross, biological limits to growth and life….No individual is above this process, each ultimately sacrifices so that others may go on.  Gardens can teach us of this organic ‘becoming’, as species follow the patterns unique to their genetics, consistent with their role, building on what came before, dying to clear the way for what comes next, for that next generation, contributing/returning the energy and content of their own bodies, both in life and death, even, arguably, the ‘experience’ gained through one’s life.  Each organism is another step along the path, variable, but none the less committed, some, more ‘ready’, incrementally, capable of what was once impossible, in a world where the conditions themselves continuously change, while others are just as committed a step or two back, because it is a journey of the ‘whole’, each individual a participant ready, yielding its place when its time comes, ‘knowing’ that it is what comes next, and the health of the whole, that ultimately matters.  When we ‘know’ this we understand our obligation to the future and we do, to the best of our ability, living fully, in celebration of the success that comes each moment, always cognizant of what we continue to ‘owe’.  We do what ever we can to ensure the future of coming generations, of all species, as necessary and rightful inheritors.  It is about giving…not taking.  In nature winning is not about taking at any cost, it is about giving until you have nothing left to give, about giving ‘for’ the sake of life itself and about accepting that and with that acceptance the contentment that comes with it.  In nature it isn’t about unrestrained growth, that is what medicine has identified as cancer, it is about transforming, adding complexity, ‘value’ and richness, not mere numbers, with keeping what is essential and imbuing what we can with more, more capacity, energy, intelligence, moving on to something greater than what was here previously, ‘in’formed by what preceded it.  There is no truly ‘best’ individual, there is no special commendation made to the most ‘powerful’…no ultimate goal beyond the state of ‘becoming’, life along the burning edge, not the fuel or cinder on either side.

A natural landscape above the glacially carved Wallowa Lake in the Eagle Cape Wilderness, late September.  Less than two weeks after returning home from New Your we were on the road again to the remote Wallowa Mountains of NE Oregon and from their on to Boise, then McCall, Idaho…the contrasts in experience could not have been any greater!

There is a quote still heard today, whose origin is attributed to several authors, political and religious leaders, even to comic book writer, of the western world over the last three hundred years, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  The idea seems to be shared by many of the world’s traditional indigenous people as well, along with the idea that gratitude and reciprocity should be at the core of our relationship with nature as a central precept that helped define their relationship.  (See the thoughtful posting of one grad students take on these ideas featured in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, “Braiding Sweetgrass”) It follows from observing nature and the understanding that power is capable of both destruction and creation and that as a part of nature, it is our responsibility to ensure that our actions are not doing irreparable harm, that when we ‘take’, as we must as organisms that rely on other organisms for our own sustenance and shelter, that we do so in a sustainable and respectful way, a way that does not damage the natural world in ways that diminish its ability to continue as both our provider and the seat from which all life comes.  We see this played out in our gardens as we prep, plant and care for the plants that we grow in them, noting how much effort and resources we must bring to bear to see our intentions through.  As we ‘wake-up’ to this concept we begin to wonder how we can change our practice, be in greater harmony with the forces at work in them, aligning our efforts with its own.  We learn to separate what is possible from what is sustainable and we each make a decision based upon our own resources and our commitment to our particular vision.  As we age and our resources diminish,  we often find that our gardens are not as ‘sustainable’ as we thought they might once have been and the ‘legacy’ we have thought to have created less enduring than we might have hoped for.  We learn, perhaps, that we are no more special than others, that our attempts to make a mark or a ‘difference’ are only as ‘lasting’ as was the ‘model’ that we followed and of the willingness of those who follow us to continue on.  Ultimately it is the health and well being of the whole which is most important.  The success of vanity projects, including our gardens, will ultimately, vanish.  What will remain are the works of nature and if we want to make a difference, it would behoove us to take its council.  In the democratic world of nature, governed by natural ‘law’, the weakest amongst us are still recognized respectfully for having ‘given’ what they could.  The “Kill or be killed”, “winner take all”, ‘”Only the strong survives,” mentality that we teach ourselves is incomplete and badly out of balance.  The ungerminated seed that feeds the mouse that feeds the hawk and the tender seedling that succumbs to the bacteria and then feeds the various organisms and microbes of a healthy soil, each plays a valuable role, it is not a story that places ultimate value on great strength or longevity, but more on species richness and coherence.

I don’t accept that there is a real choice in this, that once learned, I could reject it…live simply and narrowly for myself.  There are certainly many examples of people who do this and every one of them sell others and the future short.  This does not mean that life should be a drab commitment to blandness, of constant surrender.  It takes courage and strength to stick to this path.  Nor does it mean that we should abstain from pleasure…the expression of joy is all around us, in the flight of birds, the flowering of woodland and meadow, the swaying of branches in the call and response to the wind, in the countless revelations of life, if we would acknowledge them, take the time to revel in our shared experience, but we shouldn’t build our lives around the pursuit of it exclusively…to do so is a denial of life, a reduction of the possible, of one’s experience.  Where would we be if none practiced gratitude? if none of us gave back, rejoicing in the wholeness of life, casting all responsibilities to the side?  It is not selfishness that we should avoid, but petty smallness of thought and action, because it demeans us all.  Narcissism is to put oneself before all others.   Self-aggrandizement is to proudly trumpet ones own self importance, and in so doing, diminish the life of others, leading to a cascade of lost opportunity, an act that diminishes oneself along with that of the others. That is a world driven by fear and judgement, a world dominated by competition, in which we each fall short and work to compensate.  It is a world that has become the polar opposite of the natural world, in which meaning, value and belonging has been stood on its head, a world in which nature is bound in servitude, its only recognized value that which it offers us to sate our hunger, a hunger that grows from our own self imposed separation from it.  Such a path can only bring death, because it has lost its connection to the seat of all life and value.  To be truly selfish would be to work towards that which is best for all, because that is a world in which we can most fully live.  To live life narrowly, in the sense of self, is not just to deny the world and others, it is to deny ourselves that range of richness and opportunity, it is a failure to hear the music, to understand the dance, to be afraid.

Our gardens have much to teach those who are attentive.  By living lives disengaged from others we do injury to all things and ourselves.  We don’t need any more walls between us, any more separation.  If the present shows us anything it shows how powerfully we can divide ourselves with our minds alone and the injuries that we inflict when we do so.  Advantage gained over others is ultimately no advantage at all.  Every act exacts its price.  Competitiveness in the absence of cooperation is the practice of annihilation, the willful ignorance of the greedy and the small.  We all live in the world of idea, of words and abstraction, but idea is meaningless without the brick and mortar world, as well as the world of the living, to give it substance.  Each shapes the other.  Each is essential to the other.  No ‘thing’ exists on its own.  Context and relationship are everything.  Without them this would be a dead universe of bland and meaningless objects and our lives would be pointless.  Some fear that this is indeed the way of the world, but it isn’t….The lack of meaning many see in the world is a projection, the blindered view of their own lives, their own painful self-imposed deconstruction of life….It is what we do, how we balance on that knife edge between ourselves and the other, how we live in this world that either gives meaning or strips it away, but that is not completely true either, and our gardens show us as much, because the meaning is there within them and all around us, but we too often refuse to see it.  The entirety of the rest of the world lives in relationship with.  It is only ourselves, we ‘dominant humans’, who have chosen not to.  It is our struggle to find our way back within it and, in the process, rediscover our role and purpose and, in so doing, find both our own redemption and the ability to heal the world….This is what our gardens can teach us.

Our gardens are not just simple distractions in which we can lose our worries for moments before we return to our own darker reality, they are a microcosm, reflective of how we live our lives in this world.  Our attitude, our ethic, how we manage our gardens is parallel to the way we live in this world.  Moving around this country, around our cities and neighborhoods, the problems that we see in the world are reflected back in the gardens and neighborhoods that we occupy, our level of understanding, our caring, is manifested there as can be our ignorance and indifference.  We have much to learn and many lessons to implement before we can find our way back into our rightful place in this world and return to the garden.  Ultimately, the gardens within which we garden, extend beyond the legal lines of our property, well out into the world which we occupy…if it doesn’t look much like a garden to us, then that is upon all of us.



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