For most of last year I lived in a little flat in a suburban backyard. Slabs of bark periodically carpeted the lawn and tiny jacaranda leaves gathered in drifts, everywhere. This is when I noticed a new enjoyment in gardening and it’s why, after two unsuccessful attempts to make something of this year, I’ve taken to horticulture with more intention and focus.
Everyday since I arrived back in Sydney, I’ve hacked and dug and chopped and raked with reckless abandon, mixing sweat and dirt into a kind of salty mud that cakes my limbs and face before disappearing down the shower drain in a satisfying, filthy stream.
Why didn’t I get into this sooner?
As a kid I hated gardening. Following my dad around the lawn binning the leaves he’d raked into mounds felt like punishment, not helping. I think that’s because, when I was a child, I had very little life experience (obvs) and lacked a vocabulary for metaphor. Gardening was just boring and leaves were just annoying. Nothing nuanced or conceptual about it. Now that I’m older, I see the poetry in slashing roots from exhumed clivia in wormy clumps the size of dinosaur skulls. Purge the soil, level the ground, begin afresh. Literally, and figuratively.
Greater appreciation for the aptness of agricultural analogies is another thing I’m unearthing. In a world of abstractions and anomalies, there’s something uncontroversial, concrete about the vegetable realm – a plant is either alive or dead. Much of what Jesus said is cryptic, but I can mostly follow what he says using plant imagery – ‘good tree, good fruit; bad tree, bad fruit’, ‘plants grow well in fertile soil, not in thorny areas’ etc.
And even though a plant might be alive or dead, it can also look dead while being very much alive. Years ago my friend Cate put me onto Mark Buchanan’s book Spiritual Rhythm, in which the author employs the metaphor of seasons to say that constant growth and flowering is neither normal nor healthy. We know from experience that healthy plants need to endure seasons of pruning, fruitlessness, to live their best lives. We also know from experience that constant physical nourishment and expansion is not optimal for human beings, as the phenomenon of obesity amply demonstrates. So too are the times of relational pruning, emotional withering, creative fruitlessness beats in the rhythm of existence. Gardens teach us that death is part of life. There’s a season for all of it. Everything belongs.
Then there’s the way redoing a garden is like my own rebirth-by-proxy. The New Yorker magazine recently featured an article on the therapeutic benefits of gardening. (They didn’t mention the positive impact of gardening for people with anger issues, so I will of course write to advise them of my discovery re: catharsis of root-slashing.) I learned that infantrymen in the First World War grew flowers and edible plants in the trenches, probably because “we gain sustenance from nature’s regeneration”. I also learned that, if your life is fraught with relational conflict, gardening can remind you of your capacity for tenderness and gentle care for another living thing. That’s got to be healing.
So far, I’ve cleared the back third of the garden of clivia and other clumpy stuff, excavated a big stack of bricks (which I’ll reuse to make a raised garden bed and a path), burned mounds and mounds of leaf litter, supervised a team of arborists removing dead branches and grinding stubborn tree roots (with a machine called the Stump Humper 3000!), pulled out armfuls of weeds, chopped down lots of overgrown cordylines, sawed a big pile of firewood, and repotted the arum lilies my mum wanted to rescue.
And whether you read that list literally or metaphorically, we can all agree I’ve already done a lot of work.