Soul-Making In A Garden

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Linda Swanberg

2815 Old Fort Rd., Apt. 215

Missoula, MT 59804

(406) 493-0240

linda@snowisthemountain.com

 

 

 SOUL-MAKING IN A GARDEN

                                                                    i.

 

My path toward wholeness began in a garden. Feelings of isolation from the world lessened as I began to take my garden seriously. Barriers broke down. I softened. I learned to nurture the soil, to understand the needs of hosta and hellebores. I watched closely the old oak and Norway maple, and I witnessed, in the process, my own inner growth. It was I who was truly being nurtured.

 

In the garden I realize that there is no such thing as aloneness—no walls except those that we, ourselves, erect. For 27 years, my garden has never ceased to teach me tirelessly. Her lessons are cumulative—each builds upon another. I witness her naturalness in all kinds of weather, her stillness in conditions beyond her control, and I feel true joy. I have come home to my real self! I walk more softly now. Under the old apple trees I linger a little longer. I am humbled by the solitude of branches in winter, rocks, and the ground itself. As love for my garden grows, the garden reflects back in full measure: my wonder, my delight. “Everything is as it should be,” the garden silently affirms.

 

Awareness is my garden’s ultimate gift to me. In a spring rain, I know that dripping leaves turn to fire in the fall. October trees will immerse me in another world. And the naked stature of winter trees gives me a sense of groundedness, of solidarity. Living close to trees, I witness branching, budding, and leaves that turn a rich gold, red, and purple. Trees unveil their rugged presence moment by moment.

 

Each morning I wonder: what has happened in the garden while I slept? Last night’s white sky: did it bring the first snowfall? Have the hellebores been nipped by a late winter freeze? Are the first blossoms on the cherry tree opening? Have the bees arrived?

 

I remember 27 years ago, in the early 1980s, when I came in from the back yard at dusk—exhausted from all the gardening I could fit into one day, my husband would ask: “Aren’t you tired?” My response was always the same: “Yes, but it is a good tired!” I was just learning to garden and I was an exuberant beginner! Whenever I woke in the middle of the night, my thoughts would inevitably turn to the garden. I would get up to check something in one of my garden books. Did I put the right fertilizer on the roses? What about the lilies? Did I plant the bulbs correctly? Each question led from one book to another, and soon it was daylight.

 

The garden suffused my life in a powerful way. At first, I dreamed my way through garden books, mesmerized by the color photographs. The detailed text I was just beginning to understand. These books calmed me right down. My spirits soared—even in the middle of the night. I began to keep meticulous garden journals, read garden magazines cover to cover, and slowly worked my way through dense books on special garden topics. I thoroughly relished all my garden tasks! In the evenings my husband and I would sit out by the fountain. He sat in a wicker rocking chair; I sat on the flat stones near him, pulling grass out of moss growing between the stones.

 

I laid aside everything for this new, compelling pastime:  gardening. Little did I realize that after twenty-seven years, the garden would be my main inspiration for writing poetry. I have often asked myself—who, and what am I without my back garden? I have made the garden my life! I need these trees and plants for my spirit, but they also need me. Our need is reciprocal. A real deepening has taken place.  Genuine intimacy has evolved. We are part of an indivisible union. As Yeats wrote in “Among School Children”:

 

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

how shall I tell the dancer from the dance?”

 

ii.

 

The garden is a sacred place. I look upon my garden tasks as a form of spiritual practice. I pull weeds from damp ground. Old clumps of plants need to be divided. New, smaller clumps I plant in a different spot, and soon, the entire bed has been redesigned. In winter I brush snow off the path, make a narrow file down the center, just wide enough for my Collie and me. Small shrubs need only a light pruning. A simple task like picking leaves out of dense needles on the nest spruce need not be tedious. No work, however small or seemingly insignificant, is wasted, said St. John of the Cross, if done with attention and love. In this spirit, everything can be an opening to a more abundant life.

 

As I sit on the small stone bench under the linden tree, I am humbled by the sound of bees gathering pollen from the linden blossoms. Often I sit there in the evening and look at Mount Sentinel, one of the two mountains bordering the town of Missoula. I squint to see deer on the mountain. The deer usually move in small groups—tiny dots we can barely detect on a completely golden hillside. When I go in for the night, I know the deer have already bedded down. I am reassured knowing that the bees will be buzzing by mid-day tomorrow. In the morning on the shade porch, I listen to a pair of chickadees. I like to think that these birds are the offspring of chickadees that nested in the garden years ago. I remember watching these former chickadees make their first gigantic, (two-foot) leap to the crabapple. One bird after another. It was a thrill for the chickadees. And for us.

 

I know this ground is holy. The trees say: “Come! Open your heart, and come out with us….You belong!” I have never felt more loved and needed than by my garden. The garden is beautiful because I am devoted to her.

 

To care for a tree is to love it. To give it ample water, food, and a good pruning each season is not enough. To acknowledge a tree’s presence in my life, I must realize how much I need her. I sit in cool shade under a canopy of leaves—an overwhelming sweep of green. The generosity of trees! Shade! Trees share all of themselves. They hold nothing back. A tree is a lesson in humility.

 

To be out in the garden, I often cannot help but become aware of something “other.” A definite, but unknown opening to another world. It is a silent, distinct murmur—an entire universe, which I detect only in rare moments. And even then—I am given only a partial glimpse. Working close to the ground—slowly picking grass out of a groundcover, or muddying in a new plant with B1—I sense that I am part of a unique drama. When I stop—really stop—become absolutely motionless, I can become aware of this other world: a Presence that engenders an expanding vision in my finite mind—a vision of potentiality—of “what can be” on our fragile planet. Perhaps earth, as an organic, growing being dreams humankind is waking to the realization of what it means to be human—of discovering communion in belonging to the family of earth.

 

When I feel on fire with love of life, the garden responds in kind. I feel the exhilaration! Together, we dream apple trees and mountains—mother, father, child. Do we understand our Oneness as dreamer? Our dreams enlarge my spirit, and energize my mind. They soften my ragged edges. The garden breaks open my heart. I know my oak and I heal each other. Hand-watering this massive tree, I feel, in some small way, I nurture her deepest longings. She, in turn, by her regal stature and stateliness, allows me to share, if only for a moment, her realized life. Together we renew our trust, our gratitude.

 

I turn over some worms under a clump of moss. What would worms not know about existence in my garden? The entire earth is their garden! And one place is as good as any. Out of earthworm castings come the diminutive trout lilies, the sagacious hellebores. I affirm the earthworms. They sludge through soil—a loyal dominion. Always home.

 

The garden has shown me that there is no death. The two states—death and life—are part of a greater whole, each needing the other for completion. The threshold between the two is not dark—not fearful. It is Love. This simple realization is calming. Death seems quite natural. I feel no separation from the natural world. I tell myself that the time I spend in the garden will not come again. When the present moment has passed, it is gone. “Wake up,” the garden says, “we will not wait for you.” All of my small, daily actions affect the whole of life on earth, the entire universe. Nothing is secretly snuck in without it changing forever our lives and the lives of others. A greater awareness of this is something I must aspire to each continuing moment. My days will unfold whether I live them mindfully or not; let me spend these days with increased understanding. Let me die a fool for love of a garden.

 

 

iii.

 

No one can tell me that love is not behind the temporal beauty of clouds that lumber and disappear over mountain crests, hillside trees in snow, or the slow, deliberate movement of the tides. What I call my garden is a metaphor for something much larger, a deeper experience of love. What could be more freeing? “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens said. As a peony’s foliage darkens in the cold of late fall, and is cut to the ground, I know that spring will bring fat, red nubs or “eyes,” which will grow into a “new” peony. A tree peony called “Garden of the Monastery” once grew in my garden—a lush plant—lavender petals, with purple flares, and gold stamens. I loved this peony, and took great pains in caring for it. I am sure “Garden of the Monastery” helped birth my desire to create a contemplative garden.

 

Once, at dusk, at the end of a bulb-planting day, I looked at the small pile of crocus I had left to plant. I picked up one bulb. Rolling it between my fingers, I stroked the grainy, brown hairs—the tiny, curling tuft at one end. These roots were ready! And spring was not far off. Slowly, a wave of something other than my own self slipped over me—or was it a part of my greater self, a self I could only faintly intuit? A strange warmth permeated my entire body. I gripped my crocus a little more tightly. How rugged she was! And beautiful! My mud-crusted hands began to tremble. Was my crocus aware of how I felt? Was she feeling similarly, being held with such tenderness? We had connected, she and I! We had each become aware of the touch of another. Was the union I felt with my crocus part of the Oneness of all things?

 

This moment lasted less than a minute. I recognized our charged encounter as a mystery. Who and what was my crocus? And who am I? I asked. I am one gardener, in one backyard, in one town, in one state—Missoula, Montana. Nothing special. But my crocus! I was filled with reverence for her. I knew we were part of something far greater than I could imagine: the Self of timeless moments. This is why I garden, I said. This is why I write poems. I had been granted a glimpse of shared awareness. I gathered up the remaining bulbs and put them in a bag, placing my crocus on the very top. Slowly I walked toward the house. It was completely dark now. I looked at the night sky. Closed my eyes. “Be thankful,” I said. “Be very thankful.”

 

My crocus is not alone in her natural beauty. The peeling beige bark of the river birches, or the gnarly black swirls of the bark on the Norway maple; fuzzy, yellow seed-pods of the magnolia in early spring; a boulder’s streak of quartz, or its rocky, jagged edges that resemble miniature mountain cliffs: all have their own elegance. Plump, gray squirrels bury acorns from the oak tree, spread their bodies around large branches on the maple and take short naps. Their scurrying is appropriate. They let me know that they were some of the first proprietors of the place!

 

In summer, bees buzz on the linden tree’s yellow pendulant blossoms—also the magenta crabapple—aptly named Malus ‘thundercloud’. The bees sip on fruit tree blossoms. To watch bees and listen to their buzzing can be moments of ecstasy. What part of me shares consciousness with bees? Who are they? Once I sat under the linden on a hot June night at 2:00 AM; I scratched my old collie’s head. In this state of awareness, I knew a new set of circumstances would be drawn into my very ordinary life. There seemed to be no outside. Inside and outside merged; the dualities we think second nature disappeared. Now I no longer look out and see the linden teeming with bees; I have become the linden tree. We are not separate. I am the bees.

 

iv.

 

Standing under the trees on a rainy day, I feel raindrops seeping through the branches. If it begins to rain heavily, I retreat to the house. Often I choose to stay outside. After my father’s death, I found I could connect best with his spirit if I stayed close to trees. I remember him always watering the trees he had planted, both at our home in Kalispell, and at Flathead Lake—a large lake in northwestern Montana, named for the early Flathead Indians who settled there. Dad’s cherry orchard is on the west shore. His love of trees has carried over to all five children. Trees were very healing for Dad. His trees included him. And as I draw near to the fruit trees, I know that the entire cosmos is saturated with divinity. And it is a shared divinity. Our lives are raw, natural, exploding with creation! We are blessed. Do we know this? Really know it? On a clear night when the stars are out, this realization of blessing is powerful. Are we all not created from ash of ancient stars?  What more of a common bond do we need?

 

Tending a garden does not make me free from the cares and troubles of the world. No, it makes me ask some hard questions about my life. How do I wish to spend the rest of my days on the planet?  My garden brings me this answer: in all weather, all seasons—keep peace alive in my own heart. How can I be angry with a friend, when I can stand still, look down at the ground, and feel both of us—our lives—one with a white trillium? I take the three white petals of the trillium into my own body. Truly, I am the trillium. I am also a green leaf. A white petal fallen on the ground. I am but one aspect of a whole garden of green, growing things: grass, flower, dandelions and trees… The trillium has become my own breath. The person with whom I am angry: doesn’t a white trillium live in his or her body and mind also—green leaves and blossoms of three white petals as beautiful as any other? Do we—my friend and I—know our breath as one flower far exceeds any feelings of anger or resentment we may have? With understanding comes compassion. If our hearts can hold a garden full of living beings (the dream of earth), compassion can grow.

 

Real gardening is not about grasping; nor is it about finally getting it right. It is experiencing a life process and realizing that there are no right or wrong answers. When the yellow petals of the Graham Thomas roses fall, they are not bracing themselves against dissolution, going back to bleak soil, and giving up natural elegance. Change is internalized. When the two scarlet oaks turn a vivid orange and dark red in the fall, then lose their leaves in biting November winds, they are not between the acts of a serious play, with nothing of importance taking place. They are not being put on hold for a season. Tree roots grow deeply enough in the body of earth to understand.

 

A garden is about sharing. The deep shade of the Norway maple in the front yard is a comfort in the heat of summer. It shades everyone who walks through the front gate. Shade is a lesson in abundance: good shared is good expanding, a goodness that radiates out to include everyone. A garden is not about oneself, about one person. Gardens are about others—about everyone who walks through them. Each visitor contributes to the garden, and the garden mirrors back his or her deepest self.

 

                                                         

 

        v.

 

Gardening is where I become aware of the present moment. Past and future belong to Kronos—the time of clocks—arrival and departure. Plants emerge from black soil and begin the next phase of their lifecycle. Trees leaf out, shed green mantles in the fall. Birds and squirrels make nests. But there is another kind of time I experience in the garden: sacred, mysterious moments: the time of Kairos. The present floods all my perceptions. When these moments steal upon me, I must stop and partake of them as they unfold. I cannot speed them up or slow them down. They come on their own and then move on. An unknown reality moves through me, and everything seems to stand still. I realize that there is something of immense importance going on. I am standing in the center of unknowing. The manner in which I respond to this moment is what makes my life authentic. If I am unaware, or lethargic, or forgetful of these moments—it is death to the spirit. I have been touched by God.

 

Everything in the garden speaks of God. From each window of the house, I can see lilacs. They have become so old and gnarly—they look like trees. Old trees, like a beautifully aged, wrinkled face. So many wondrous faces! I do not own the lilacs. Perhaps they own me. I am lucky to be able to live close to them. Hanging from high branches, lilac blossoms—dark purple, lavender, and the deeply fragrant white— shelter all those passing by: people on the front sidewalk, or visitors walking around the house to the back garden. I clip some blossoms for bouquets, hammer the stems so water can more easily be drawn up the stems to the blossoms. Can I learn from the lilacs? I have no ultimate claim on anything in the natural world. The lilacs are to be shared. I simply love them.

 

In late fall I think about putting the garden to bed. The tasks at this time of year strengthen my connection to the earth. Watering each tree before the ground freezes is very important. All trees need this one last drink. Shredded oak leaves are especially good spread over bulbs. When new bulbs have been planted, and the leaves have been raked, the roses need to be mounded with compost. But this must be done after the ground freezes. Roses need insulation from winter and spring thaws, which throws off their inner clocks. I then check to see if I have missed anything before winter sets in. Late fall gardening is as intense as early spring. Slowly, as light decreases and the days become shorter, the lens through which I see the world changes. It is a time of rest for all things, gardeners included.

 

When the snows arrive, the garden becomes mysterious and ethereal. A faint blue haze covers the hollows of snow mounds. Dead flower stalks left standing give the garden a ghostly framework. The path through the woodland garden is not long, but long enough for winter to work its magic on me. As I brush snow to each side of the path, guessing where to walk by the position of trees and conifers, I know another world is under my feet. My dreams are not simply dreams of next year’s garden. They are not dreams waiting to be born. My dreams are as alive and fresh in winter as April’s green shoots bursting through rain-soaked soil. Contemplative gardening is about finding expression for our deepest desires. The silence of the winter garden is restful—quiet surrounds our lives. I see the garden as a metaphor for a soul filled to overflowing on this tiny piece of earth I care for and call home.

 

 

 

 

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