I want you to imagine that you are sitting in a garden on a sunny afternoon, somewhere by the bounds of the Salish Sea, in the land of the salmon, with the summer light filtering through trees, amidst the sound of tranquil water plashing against rocks, birdsong and a gentle, pleasant breeze. More butterflies than you can remember seeing for quite some time are gathered there; most are shades of brown and orange, but there is one brilliant blue butterfly that briefly darts into the garden and vanishes over the fence.
A hops vine twines up tall poles; the raspberry canes are already promising a succulent and marvelous harvest. The ponds have goldfish in them, and screens over the tops to prevent the depredations of the herons. Hummingbird feeders hang up over the walkways, and the insistent buzz of Anna’s Hummingbirds as they perform their dive bombing display occasionally preempts your thoughts.
On the far side of the garden is a lush growth of bamboo. The gardener who organically tends this patch of ground says that they are a lure. She planted butterfly bushes to attract butterflies, and they came; she put out feeders for the birds and the hummingbirds came, mason bee homes for the mason bees, why not plant bamboo in the hopes of luring pandas? Next to the bamboo, the raspberries, next to the raspberries, the compost bin. For who can hope to have a garden without compost; the chance to add some caring balance to the soil, which keeps the fragile network of cooperative bacteria and plants working to make beautiful foods and flowers. That and timely water, good seed, pest control. A garden is about the gracious benefits that come with the right amount of effort at the right times, over many years. The wisteria and clematis, the passion flowers, all these gorgeous colours, don’t come without effort.
As you sit in a cedar gazebo, which is filled with memorial plaques of friends, family and pets, some long dead, and some more recently passed, there is a sweet smelling peace all around that sits well in your soul. If there is ever to be a locale a place where atheists and believers can set aside their differences, it will be in a place like this. A garden has no care for what you think, but only for what you do, and that is all of its hazard and charm and usefulness in one sentence.
Unitarians are not all gardeners, but I think that if you took a poll, you would find that a large percentage of them garden. The garden may be vegetables and it may be flowers; it may be cacti or begonias or orchids; it may be a hobby farm on an island with a cantankerous goat and an elderly horse. Or it could be yaks. Some people do have yaks. To garden is to both impose order on a piece of land, an order which is achieved and maintained only with effort, and to submit to the actions of the natural world with humility.
The juxtaposition of control and submission is in many ways a metaphor for religious, or shall we say spiritual growth. For as much as we can plan a garden, and draft a place for each stalk and rhizome, we must see that no seed will sprout and no flower bloom without its own inbuilt instructions. Nature and nurture are required. In the genetic code of Unitarianism, or in its most powerful folkways, is a deep need to see the divine in the ordinary, and a history of challenging assumptions as well as structures of power and force. Intellect is only one weapon against evil, illness and woe, and it frequently isn’t the most useful one. One can plant a single acorn and never see the tree that grows… or you can randomly allow the squirrels to rearrange your bulbs, as I have done on many occasions, and wonder at the various places that the hyacinths now come up. Or you may, as one gardener of my acquaintance has done, treat the hole dug in the lawn by a visiting dog as a sign as to where to place the next stepping stone in the garden. Your actions are not all for your own gratification, and what a shoddy and horrifying culture we would have if every action was planned to that end. One may not control the event, but one can always ameliorate it, learn from it, build on it or turn it to a suitable lesson; it is our job to turn the bad into good with our thoughts and deeds.
A gardener, showing a garden to a new friend, will not see the garden as it is. Rather, it is a palimpsest of time, place and greenery, with each season scraping off an old layer and adding a new, until what is seen with the eye is only the latest flower beds and acquisitions and not the layers of effort and colour which have made the garden what it is. A garden is a place of memory and effort, as well as a place of peace and contemplation of what is, what was and what will be.
A beautiful public garden is one of the great gifts of a citizen to a city. In Europe during the war, there was a garden in Kiev full of mature trees. In the midst of starvation, cold and want, the people who lived through the second war left the trees standing, knowing that their children would bless their sacrifice and forethought. So must all of us put aside temporary requirements in the service of a greater good, and it is the relentless and comforting cycle of the seasons which reminds us, year in and year out, to have a care for the future, which will happen whether we have a care for it or not.
A garden is sometimes the first place that a city child may be exposed to a cycle longer than the week that goes by and brings him his favourite television program again. To plant a seed and watch it grow from two crumpled dicotyledons into a fat pumpkin for the front porch on Halloween is a joy that more children should know. To garden is to be connected to growth and decay in ways that will allow a child to generalize these simple facts of all organic life into her own life, and to be of some comfort. How many of us have looked at a tree, a flowering shrub, a climbing vine, a stand of irises, and thought of the gardener, now passed, who planted, fed and watered it so that we may be sheltered and enriched by it today.
Unitarian values sometimes seem to lack showmanship in an environment full of competition for attention and honour. I’ve read the list of Unitarian principles and sources to many people over the last ten years, and virtually everyone hearing them has little objection to them, which is damning with faint praise. In place of the megachurches lately sprung up across Christendom, Unitarianism seems like a boring maiden aunt, always going on about some cause or other. I would like to reframe that image somewhat, and mention for a moment my astonishment and glee, when attending the memorial services of some Unitarians recently passed, when I find out that the boring elderly relatives are like neglected gardens, in that my eyes and consciousness passed over them until I learned that lay beneath the dead heads of their fluffy hair and the keen intelligence and thirst for justice that lay in the compost bins — the aching and aging bodies – I had been walking past. It seems to me that they were gardeners too, but the human spirit does not necessarily leave the physical signposts we may view when we sit in the gazebo and listen to the bird song. It wasn’t until they were gone that I knew of the courageous union activities and anti-Nazi activities of my fellow congregants; how I wished I’d had the sense, the interest and the humanity to ask them about their lives when they could tell me about them with that same ferocious zeal for life and justice that they have now taken to their graves. But that is just me feeling sorry for myself. Like the gardener that inherits a neglected garden, it is always our task to nourish the soil, to clear the weeds, to plant and plough and harvest and to always save the seeds which, small as they are, contain the miracles of another season. The garden is not always physical. It is a model, a way of viewing the world as well.
A garden is a patch of ground, particular to a gardener, a family. The Unitarian garden is a model for a whole world. In our hymnbook there is bread, and there are roses; there is a call to action, an invitation to celebrate our triumphs, and a supplication for strength to bear the burdens of the quotidian world and to heal the rifts and ruptures that scar our planet and our body politic. In the garden of our religious journey together, there are many meals shared and songs sung, many moments of rapt silence and raucous laughter, as we welcome the rituals and enjoy the volunteers who find their way into our carefully laid out plots and beds. Each moment of enjoyment, meditation, sorrow and contentment yields to a new commitment to the work, however we conceive of it and bring ourselves to it….
Have YOU hugged a gardener today?