I have only the vaguest memories of my parents’ efforts at gardening. I occasionally watched my dad toil in the garden, producing many vile and noxious vegetables – beets, acorn squash, and turnips, to name a few – which then appeared on the dinner table, where I was forced to eat them without question. Watching my mother turn the soil as she planted the petunias and pansies that brightened our landscape are a much fonder memory. But what I remember most vividly is the canning. I was often in the kitchen with my mom, probably less a helper than an indifferent observer to the process. The pressure cooker with its ominously rattling valve always filled me with dread, accompanied as it was by Mother’s dire warnings and horror stories. Looking back, it is reminiscent of the adults in the movie A Christmas Story, who, upon hearing of Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, responded, “You could put your eye out!” So I kept a healthy distance from the monstrous contraption that held the potential to decapitate me if I got in the way of its explosive power.
Add this fear to the hot and tedious work of canning, and one can understand why gardening has held little allure for me. Tack on five adult years in Alaska – too cold – and 22 years in Phoenix – too hot – and you end up with a fifty-something woman who never had a garden until a year ago. It was my husband’s idea really; apparently he had never been force-fed rutabagas or brussel sprouts. But his enthusiasm was catching, so last spring I agreed to go along for the ride. With more hope than knowledge, we threw some seeds in the ground, reading the seed packets’ scant instructions (which we mostly ignored), then watered, weeded, and waited. It was a learning year. We got plenty of radishes and potatoes, a few carrots, one cucumber and no onions or corn. Not bad for newbies really.
So, gardening time is upon us again, and I have been asking a lot of questions from anyone I know who has a garden. We feel better prepared this year, but we probably still have more hope than knowledge. The results will likely be a crap shoot at best, however I find that I am learning something about the spiritual life in the process. Following are some pearls of wisdom (not to be confused with pearl onions) I have discovered.
1) In faith, as in gardening, a deep connection to the earth is essential. Time is not governed by calendars and clocks, but by the turning of the seasons. Legend has it that the earth is only ready for planting when the snow disappears from a local mountaintop. Too soon, and a heavy frost can kill the tender seedlings; too late, and the vegetables don’t have time to ripen. Souls, too, have a time of readiness that cannot be rushed. All things must unfold in their own time.
2) Gardens and souls require tending. They both need attention from the gardener in order to flourish. Our spirits need fertilizing, watering, thinning and weeding just as much as the garden, so that we might bear fruit in the Kingdom. And take it from me, there will be days when tending is the last thing you want to do, but when the harvest comes, it will be worth it.
3) We all need companions along the way. I don’t know what I would do without the sage advice of my gardening friends, and I also rely on the wisdom of my spiritual director and other soul companions in order to grow in faith.
4) Much as I might like to avoid it, preserving the fruits of the harvest is a good idea. To paraphrase John Wesley, when there is a bountiful crop, eat all you can, share all you can, and preserve all you can! That way, when you experience lean years in the garden or in dark nights of the soul, you have something to draw on that will help get you through.
5) Lastly, I think there’s something to be said for having more hope than knowledge. A lot of good things have come to me when I was just blundering through. Hope is good. It makes room for eager anticipation, for a willingness to be surprised by God’s abundant grace. And so we enter into the planting time once again, trusting in the earth and trusting in God while we water, weed and wait. May God bless you in the harvest.