The Spiritual Gardener: Treasure and History in the Garden
Under these bluebells is where I found buried treasure in my garden. The treasure trove of history is everywhere in the garden, but you have to find it.
Just like the simple folk in that old American TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies”, I have found real treasure on my land.
Unlike them, I was not able to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills, but I did find buried treasure all the same. On Saturday, when dividing some bluebells in front of our old stone porch, which is original to this 1888 house, I dug up an 1822 penny, the kind that is roughly the size of our modern quarter and is worth more than $100 to coin collectors today. Of course, I hoped there were many more and dug deeper, but no, there was only that one. Still, I treasure it.
And the part of our back yard by the rose arch was obviously the home’s rubbish tip many years ago, because digging there I find so much broken glass and crockery that I finally have a firm rule of always wearing gloves when digging and weeding there. But even the rubbish buried in this garden is beautiful. I have turned up lovely old broken bits of Delft porcelain, blue and white Chinese export pottery and interesting old-fashioned bottles, sanded smooth from a hundred years in the gritty soil.
There is also history in the garden. Every garden, and all land, has a history before the current gardener arrived on the scene. Once as a college student in Denver, I went to the Denver Public Library, which is justly famous for its collection of western Americana. In one reading room, there was a wall-sized map of North America, but instead of being divided into the states and provinces we are familiar with, it showed all the tribal areas of the Native Americans, as they were before the first European explorers and settlers arrived. I was fascinated by this very different way of seeing North America, now of course completely changed and largely vanished.
After the Lenape inhabited our town, its European settlement took hold. Our town is located a few miles from the left bank of the mighty Delaware River, on a ridge in southern New Jersey, with two abundant, sweet water springs that still exist and in ancient times would have been essential for wildlife and human settlement alike. One of these springs now feeds a long, serpentine lake and the other, just a few blocks from my garden, has been trained into a series of lovely ornamental ponds. I suppose the people who live next to them now are largely oblivious of their natural origin or the fact that the reason our town exists where it does is thanks to these two fresh, life-giving springs.
Two syndicates of Quaker businessmen bought the two parts of New Jersey, East New Jersey and West New Jersey in the 1680s, and European settlement began here in earnest, essentially all of it in those early days fueled by Quakers longing to escape from the official persecution of the Established English Church and the English Crown. And one of the first foundations after these purchases was the town where we now live. That was in 1682, just a few generations after the landing at Jamestown and still a full century before the Revolutionary War would convulse the entire Delaware Valley. Then, General Washington would storm back and forth through our small town on the King’s Highway from Trenton to Camden and on to Philadelphia, then the seat of government for the colonies in revolt.
One of the Quakers’ greatest revolutionary ideas was education for all instead of just for the upper classes. The Quaker educational ideals and philosophy of brotherhood and equality were to shape the political culture of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which in turn shaped the founding documents of the new American Republic. The Mid-Atlantic is still full of great Quaker schools that carry on these philosophical and educational traditions in the modern day, and our kids attended one of them for many years, just blocks from our house. The Quakers would later become bitter and implacable opponents of slavery, and in our town, like many in New Jersey towns, Quaker farms eagerly enlisted in the Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves from the South, and up through new England to freedom in Canada.
What is now our acre of land, along with a new house that was built upon it, was originally a wedding gift in 1888 to the son of the family who owned the big farm next door on our side of the street. Imagine having the wealth to give an acre of land and a gorgeous house as a wedding present.
Possibly America’s greatest botanist, John Bartram, came from this region and from the Quaker tradition. His travels ranged widely, from the shores of Lake Ontario southward to Eastern Florida, and west to the Ohio River. He did more than anyone else in that time of open scientific inquiry to explore and taxonomize the North American flora and to promote the exchange of information between botanists in England and in the American colonies. He lived just across the Delaware in Philadelphia, and there is a street in our small town named in his honor, just a couple of blocks from my current garden.
And there is another distinguished explorer and naturalist that is linked to our town: Edward Harris, who was a local farmer that struck up a friendship with the ornithologist John James Audubon and helped fund the publication of his timeless classic Birds of America. He accompanied Audubon on his famous birding expeditions to the Gulf of Mexico (1837) and along the Missouri River (1843).
This is the history of my garden – Lenape Indians, Quaker non-conformists, revolution, Penn and Washington, Bartram and Harris, a philosophy of egalitarianism, human dignity and a love of the land, the pre-eminence of education – these are the ideals that percolate here in the very soil, that resonate here in the rich marine air, and that still bubble forth in the long forgotten town springs, as sweet and as fresh as ever.
It is not black gold, but it is real treasure nonetheless!