The Spiritual Gardener: Hope, Persistence, and Stoicism
June, of course, brings some of the finest days of the year for the garden and the gardener. Today, it is simply spectacular outside, a brilliant summer day. To celebrate, we successfully released the fledgling wren that Cosimo and I rescued last weekend and were nurturing in a birdcage on the patio. He flew away after a moment’s hesitation, and it was a great feeling to see him successfully restored to his parents and to nature. Cosimo, of course, was thrilled and fascinated, his eyes glowing with joy and, I even thought, a kind of paternal pride. He had found the creature in its distress, and had led me to it and to its rescue, so his ownership of its restoration was well-deserved.“Cosimo, of course, was thrilled and fascinated, his eyes glowing with joy and, I even thought, a kind of paternal pride.”
I am glad to see I lived long enough with this garden to see the immature wisteria on the garage bloom, though it was not much of a bloom. In fact, it was only a single panicle of blossom, but it reminded me strongly of the gorgeous wisteria that grows on the ancient stone embrasures of the cloisters at Magdalen College, Oxford, and how, every spring when it bloomed, the cloisters were filled with its distinctive perfume. We would throw the windows open to spring for the first time after the long, grueling English winter, and the perfume of wisteria always speaks of the fresh advent of spring to me, in a distinctive way. It reminds me of a fragrant oil cooking in a hot skillet more than a floral perfume, and I have always loved it, though not everyone does. Sometimes, we know, beauty in the garden comes in small, singular ways, like that single panicle of wisteria-bloom. Or the single stalk of Allium cristophii in the oval bed that was somehow overlooked by our normally very thorough chipmunks, blooming magnificently in all its singular glory. It can’t escape its fate another year, surely, so we must admire it while we can.
The glories of the season have put me in a philosophical mood. It is a fact universally acknowledged that gardeners are the most likable and admirable people one could hope to know. But why is this so? How could so many virtues and laudable character traits be packed into a single sort of person in this excessive and attractive way? It really is most remarkable. As a group, we are steady, well-adjusted, extremely hard-working, persistent, thrifty, brave, cheerful, kind, and generous.“…the single stalk of Allium cristophii in the oval bed that was somehow overlooked by our normally very thorough chipmunks, blooming magnificently in all its singular glory.”
Okay, perhaps we gardeners are a bit shaky on the last one or two of those virtues, generosity being especially difficult for some of us where plant material is concerned. I certainly struggle with that, and it is like pulling teeth for me to part with any plants, even ones I don’t like very much, absurdly. Probably in my case, that comes from being raised as a gardener plagued with extremely poor soil, scarce water and even worse weather conditions, things that induce lifelong character traits of horticultural miserliness and avarice that are perhaps a bit unattractive, but surely forgivable. Or at least understandable.
To garden is to hope. The planting of a seed or the tending of a small plot of vegetables or flowers is founded on hope—a belief, and a certainty about a better future. It is a curious thing about gardening that the reality often disappoints—a color scheme does not look quite right after all, a hoped-for beauty does not materialize, a beloved tree is destroyed by pests or hungry animals in winter; or all our best laid plans are so often ruined by the ravages of weather, disease, and the gardener’s poor judgment or deficient skill—and yet even a lifetime of disappointment strangely only feeds the gardener’s hope rather than diminishes it. We are cheered to plan the garden of midsummer in the depths of winter; we lay the plans for next year’s spring garden glories in the shambles of the exhausted and dying autumnal garden; we ignore our failures and revel only in our successes. In our mind’s eye, we can see the world as it ought to be. We are bedazzled by the beauty of optimistic hope.“We are bedazzled by the beauty of optimistic hope.”
And yet, gardeners are firmly planted with their feet on the ground, and never let their optimism become unhinged, deranged, or foolish. Rather, it is a different way of seeing altogether, a kind of far-seeing idealism that takes in the world as it is, but lives within it as it really ought to be and can perhaps be. That slip of a ponderosa seedling that I found growing in a hopelessly wrong location and transplanted to an open spot in the garden was only pencil-sized at the time; three years later, it is four feet tall and is off and running now, with foot-long candles of fresh new growth put on just this spring. It is going to be a huge success, you can see it already, and it cheers my heart every time I walk past it. Long after I have left this garden and probably left this life, it will still stand, strong and true, and I see its future grandeur plainly already. I know it.“His face is aglow with a knowing and slightly odd expression of joy, for he is holding a paper bag of cherished crocus bulbs in one hand and a bucket of daffodil bulbs in the other.”
Hope is surely one of the keys to a happy life and persistence goes well with hope; combine the two and you have a very powerful mixture for goodness and happiness. Every year—indeed every week—brings heartbreak and disappointment in the garden: death, loss, frustration, and disappointment. But every season also brings with it delightful surprises, unplanned beauties, and undeserved successes that mix with the disappointments and offset them, obscure them. It does not actually matter if the successes exceed the disappointments, as long as the gardener will only have the temperament to focus on and retain the former and endure and ignore the latter. This sort of disciplined, impressionistic editing is essential to gardening happiness, or to life happiness, for that matter, and leads to persistence and to taking the long perspective.
And finally comes stoicism, by which I mean a courageous acceptance of what must be, what is ordained, what just cannot be otherwise. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his magisterial memoirs, left us one of western civilization’s great gifts of thought and one of its most inspiring and personal accounts. The personal philosophy of this philosopher-emperor is impressive and surprisingly modern in its outlook. For the gardener, it can be summed up like this: we may be as full of hopeful plans as we like, but when the blight strikes and our plans are dashed, the gardener knows to accept the judgment of nature, to bow to it and move on. We gardeners have each been humbled countless times in our gardening lives.
Stoical gardeners are alive to the passage of time in the garden and to the fact that the garden exists in and changes over time. In Europe in ancient times, when clocks and timepieces were extremely rare and largely beyond the means of individuals, prosperous towns would install a public clock in the main square, and often these timepieces had improving or admonitory slogans carved on them, like “Carpe Diem,” “Tempus Fugit,” or “Memento Mori.” A very common one was “Vulnerant Omnes, Ultima Necat” (“They All Wound, the Last Kills”), referring to the hours marked by the clock. That is rather too gloomy a concept of time for my liking, but at least it does remind us that each hour and each day is precious; they came to us as gifts freely given and we should not take them for granted.
Gardening has an improving way of sandpapering the pride and hubris right off of us. Other things do that too, of course: raising children, professional or personal disappointments, illness, and so on. But gardening does it in a thousand small ways, rasping and refining us gently but ineluctably into the smoothly polished and weathered old stoics we all become in the end if we are lucky enough and cooperate even just a little bit. At the last, provided we are paying attention and are not too stubborn, we are humbled even by our successes and joys, and we accept them too as what is and must be, and not as an artifact of our will. It is required of us, in the difficult and complicated lives we lead, to accept stoically what must be while persistently toiling and planning and hoping for what yet might be and should be.
A gardener knows all this by instinct and experience. Hope, persistence and stoicism; these are the cardinal virtues of the gardener, the sustaining triangle of virtues, each one touching and reinforcing the other two and creating the moral tone, the fit tension, and the inner structure of a great gardener’s mind and sensibility.