One of the great things about garden making is not knowing where my efforts might lead. As a designer, I’m strictly fly-by-wire, so I never really am sure, exactly, how things will turn out. Many of my gardens have evolved in unexpected ways over the years. In the same vein, many of the paths I’ve made in those gardens have led me to places I never expected to go.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that a large part of gardening’s allure for me is the chance to commune with nature. I glory in the shifting seasons, especially Spring, which brings the vibrant colors of magnolias, the fragrance of viburnums, and the too-fleeting beauty of tulips. Because I spend so much time roaming my landscape, I know where the deer walk, where the hawk waits, and where the hooting owl hides.
I know all this and more, thanks to my garden. When I’m out there planting a seedling, prying out a rock, or just plain daydreaming, time sometimes stops. The veil that separates me from the world slips away. It’s like a shadow has lifted. The past fades, the future disappears, and all that’s left is a great onrushing now.
No, I am not having a psychotic episode. Nor is it a Prozac moment. It’s what psychologists call “flow,” an apt description for a state of mind that’s outside of time, outside of thought. But I recognize it as something else. Though I’ve never been especially spiritual, at least in the church-going sense, I understand that the garden path I follow may lead far beyond the cobalt blue container I put there as a focal point.
Yep, gardening, for me, has become a form of meditation. I’m not the first to get that idea. There’s a long tradition of recognizing labor as a contemplative pursuit. Zen monks spoke of a “chop wood, carry water” spiritual path, acknowledging that one can experience a mystical tranquility in the mindful pursuit of the most simple, mundane task. Weeding anyone?
My wife, Kate, a student of Buddhism, points out that the gardener’s path and the Buddhist’s path cover a lot of the same ground. And the more I learn about finding peace and contentment in the face of gardening’s ongoing frustrations–deer, infernal weather, Japanese beetles, you name it–the more I realize she may be right.
For starters, there’s the concept of Dukkha, which one might translate very, very loosely as “bad things happen,” or, more succinctly, as suffering. Gardening, or life for that matter, is not all a bed of roses, so instead of agonizing over the inevitable problems, I try to accept setbacks and challenges. It helps to remember that obstacles often provide our greatest spurs to growth. Just think of the revered lotus, whose perfect blooms rise from the rankest and most unpromising muck. My own little ‘Momo Botan’ lotus does that each summer. A couple years ago, our treasured tulip tree, the one we worked so hard to save during the construction of our house more than a decade ago, up and died. The lovingly crafted shade garden we built in its shadow baked under a blazing sun. But I’ve learned to see opportunity in that kind of tragedy. Hello! A whole new garden! How bad can that be?
Getting through those Dukkha days is easier when I remember that all things must pass. The peony blossoms come and they go, just like the iris borers, the slugs and the aphids. Recognizing the transitory nature of both good things and bad things lies at the heart of the gardening life. It gives me a reason to celebrate my successes and to let go of my failures.
Buddhists talk about learning to live with imperfection. There’s the real, and the ideal. They’re saying, “Get real.” And I hear them. I can remember fretting about preparations for an Open Garden day. I’d wander the garden’s paths after days of work and see only the remaining weeds, the awkward plant combinations, the ungroomed container planting. Kate would help by pointing out instead the garden’s strengths and beauties that were the true fruits of my labors. So I’ve learned to accept that my garden will never be perfect. It is what it is. No more, but no less either. I can live with that.
So, I no longer obsess about pursuing perfection. I’m OK with a few weeds. My mantra has become “Nurture what’s good, don’t fret the rest.” When our lab Hannah was a pup, she loved chewing trees and rampaged through the garden with the grace of a runaway chainsaw. I learned to take a pass on the anger that provoked and now just try to praise her when she chews her Kong toy instead of the Japanese maple. We’re both much happier.
Lastly, Buddhists embrace the idea that everything is connected in the great whirling cosmos. That idea brings me back to my own moments in the onrushing now, and to my garden path, the one headed to an unknown destination. I finally have an inkling of where it goes. In my garden, all roads lead me home.