Gardening demands a quality of attention rarely found outside of poetry. Perhaps that is why so many extraordinary writers have also been gardeners. The gardener, like the poet, must pay attention to the minutest details of her garden, from soil texture to the striations and cracking of tree bark. But she must also see the invisible: the total picture of what her garden can be and mean.
My work as monastery groundskeeper is teaching me this quality of attention. I have learned, for instance, that soil can be both powdery and rocky at the same time. Further, I have noticed the particular beauty of the way that water beads up on powdery soil, and also my frustration that that water never actually sinks in to slake the thirsty roots below its surface. I have come to see that the great chunks of rock I dig out of the packed earth with astonishing frequency provide the perfect platform for iris, who seem to adore twining their rhizomes every which way. This summer in particular I have come to appreciate an exuberant swath of Queen Anne’s lace (that sometimes weed) when it gives me one more year to figure out what to do with a certain spot of the perennial border. There is nothing truly good or bad in the garden. All things have their beauty and their use.
I remind myself of this axiom when I find myself feeling overwhelmed by infestations of insects, mold, and other blights on the landscape. These grounds survived without me for millennia, and if I don’t eradicate every Japanese beetle from the property, the roses will still bloom next year. Every problem is, after all, an opportunity to learn a new skill, to see in a new way.
Lately I have been learning to prune. I have found little in the gardening world that so stretches my ability truly to pay attention, as pruning trees. As such, I find the work engrossing and fulfilling. To prune, one first has to notice all the dead wood in the tree. Just when you think you’ve cut it all out, there’s more. It’s amazing to me that I could have spent many years walking past these same trees and never have looked at them closely enough to notice how many bare branches they hold.
After I have cut out the dead wood, I have to look closely at the shape of the tree. Where do branches cross? Where do limbs grow inward? What shape does the tree want to take naturally? This kind of seeing is even more difficult than looking out all the dead wood, because it requires me to pay attention at the same time to the movement of individual branches and the shape of the entire tree.
The final step, though, proves most challenging of all. What will the tree look like in ten or twenty years, when the small twigs protruding from its branches are branches in their own right? How will the cuts I make now, or don’t make, affect the tree–and, indeed, the entire landscape of the grounds–in the years to come? This kind of seeing requires not just attention, but imagination.
My gardening makes me a more attentive person in the rest of my life. I am quicker to see opportunity where once I would only have seen problems and slower to judge the rights and wrongs of how I or others live. Most important, though, I am more attuned to the profligate, wanton abundance of beauty in this world. And I am more apt to sing its praise.
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