Musings Under The Magnolias

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

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.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Pam/Digging May 2, 2008, 1:57 pm

What a thoughtful post to start off May with, Steve. It is amazing how often the garden allows us to experience “flow,” while the hours fly by in the space of a few minutes.

Thanks, Pam. Don’t know what it is about gardening–as opposed to so many other pursuits-that encourages that state of mind, or, rather, mindlessness, but I love it!–Steve

fsorin May 2, 2008, 2:51 pm


Love what you wrote! How true that the garden takes on the role of muse, friend and nurturer and at the same time allows us to enter an altered state of consciousness where time is no longer of consequence….nor are our egos. Thank you for a wonderful post! fran

You’re welcome, Fran. And thank you. Somebody called gardening the slowest of the performing arts, but I think it’s a fast track to a singular kind of contentment, which is perhaps its greatest reward.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow May 2, 2008, 3:52 pm

I love to get into that flow that takes you through the day. Aaaahhhh yes…good post, very well said.

Thanks, Lisa. Sometimes it’s like one long coast, you can come in and feel it was a day well spend, whether you accomplished a lot, a little, or even nothing.–Steve

Benjamin May 2, 2008, 5:11 pm

Steve, I like this idea of flow. I’d never heard of it, and I’m using it. I’ve been working on a book and doing lots of research about various religious viewpoints on nature; when you get down to the pure intensions of pretty much every major group, they all say and believe the same things. It’s like language. How wonderful to see we are all the same, in perfect balance and awareness and joy and fear–that seems a part of flow to me. Benedictine monks believe every act can bring praise and glory to god. So, couple that with Buddhist ideas of meditation and connection, you have a bona fide cross-cultural belief in mundane acts humbling us and opening us up to something greater (and to ourselves). Many Native American religions, many indigenous religions, certainly super subscribe to this. I’m rambling, but a thought-provoking post, thanks.

You’re welcome Benjamin. There’s actually an intriguing book about flow entitled, of all things, “Flow”. Check it out on Amazon. Your book sounds like an interesting project too, and a good reminder for us all at a time when religion has become such a divisive issue globally and, to a lesser degree, locally. Strip away all the dogma, and the similarity of the take-away message of most religions is amazing.–Steve

Jan May 2, 2008, 6:31 pm

You have put into words what I have only recently come to realize about gardening and life. Getting into the flow helps keep you in the present which is the only place we really can be.

Always Growing

Hey Jan-I like the dual meaning of your tagline. Yep, it’s all about the now and being present in each moment, no mattter what you’re doing. –Steve

Bonnie Story May 3, 2008, 7:49 pm

“Recognizing the transitory nature of both good things and bad things lies at the heart of (the gardening) life.” YES! Today I really wanted to hear that. What a wonderful synthesis of gardening and unassuming spirituality. When I walk in and look at my garden, I’m connecting with something really important to all of us. Thank you!!

Hi Bonnie–There’s something special about walking through the garden all right. I love my contemplative morning stroll perhaps more than any other moment of the day, especially in Spring. There’s always something new to discover!–Steve

Gail May 4, 2008, 2:22 pm

I have been musing over your musings for several days ….not a bad way to spend some time. Thanks,


Thank you, Gail. Musing is good!–Steve

Curtis May 4, 2008, 7:40 pm

Gardening calms the spirit and soothes the nerves. What a great post;.

Hi Curtis. Indeed it does both soothe and calm, plius it engages the intellect in unique way. Enjoy!–Steve

Jennifer May 6, 2008, 12:06 pm

I’ve had to take a couple of summers off from my gardens due to pregnancy, and now that I can get back into it, I have found that it really is a meditation of sorts for me. Mindless isn’t the right word, but “flow” may be. I totally forget about work, the laundry that needs to be folded, or anything else. After an hour or two, I wind up feeling more refreshed than if I had a long, rainy day nap (whith two under three, those are rare). Wonderful observations!

Gee–thanks, Jennifer. That must have been one looong pregnancy! It’s funny, my wife has managed to make even the laundry a kind of meditative thing. She hated doing that mundane task until a friend of hers confessed that she actually enjoyed laundering and folding. Then my wife said to herself, “Hey, why not? I’m going to try liking it.” And after a while it worked. I still prefer gardening though.–Steve

Lori May 7, 2008, 6:07 am

You’ve put your finger on why I describe gardening as necessary for my mental health. Digging a hole or weeding just calms me down the way nothing else does, and the view as I drink my morning coffee doesn’t hurt.

Hi Lori–Yes gardening is indeed therapeutic, and as you point out, the view’s not bad either. Ahhh–Steve

Mr. McGregor's Daughter May 13, 2008, 9:50 pm

Words of wisdom, obviously garnered through experience; I wish I could go with the flow all the time, but sometimes I do get stuck in the muck. Fortunately, that usually only happens (in the garden) in the middle of summer. Or, as my dear, departed sister used to say, “Sh– happens.”

Hey MMD, if we could be lost in the flow all the time, life would be quite different. Unfortunately, I too spend plenty of time mired in the..err, muck. But the path goes on…–Steve

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