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The Point of Gardens: Wandering and Pondering
August 11, 2003 by Evelyn J. Hadden

In one of my favorite gardening books, Why We Garden, author Jim Nollman writes, "If gardening is the experience of growing plants, landscaping is the experience of growing gardens."

Nollman's book is one of my top five gardening books ever. Here are the other four:

These may have emerged as favorites simply because of their initial impact—I read each at the "right time", when I was ready to appreciate its messages. However, these books have also withstood being read through again and again during the last decade. In fact, I'd say I could pick any one of them up and riffle through the pages (still!) and find a sentence to get my mind wandering and pondering. They are like freeze-dried packets of inspiration and reassurance.

Yes, they reassure me, gardening (well, landscaping, to take Nollman's definition of my avocation) is a worthwhile pursuit and continues to teach and fulfill me in myriad ways—senses, mind, spirit. Yes, there are many things wrong with the world, but these garden books inspire me to practice small-scale solutions.

In my garden, I can think long-term. I can grow vegetables and herbs without pesticides. I can refuse to water my lawn (ever!) or even refuse to have a lawn. I can choose to work manually without resorting to fuel-powered engines.

If more animals seem interested in visiting or living here, I can plant more food, supply more water, build more shelter, in an attempt to help them all share the resources peaceably.

I can go out into the garden and pretend there is no other world.

But back to Nollman's sentence, his definition of gardening and landscaping. He's onto something here. After my first few years of gardening, I began to sense that a standard garden of pretty and prettily arranged plants wouldn't do it for me. Whatever need had driven me to obsess over gardens and plants, to devour landscapes and books about landscapes, to peruse seed and plant catalogues deep into the night, to chat endlessly about only garden-related topics, that need was powerful and primitive. It wouldn't be slaked if I could spend any amount of money to have someone come in and install a "dream garden," even a garden I had designed.

We didn't test this theory, but I feel certain it's true. There would have been none of the connection that I forged with my land during the building of my garden.

If I had planted plants that continued to need my help to survive from year to year—crying water me! feed me! stake me up! take me inside for the winter!—I wouldn't have put up with them for long. The plants must be tough or I lose all respect for them. Scrabble around and find your own place in the landscape, I would tell them.

The point is this: for some reason, what I was seeking required me to work hard, to sweat, to carry soil and rocks around, to bury my arms to the elbows in mud, to swat flies and mosquitoes and leave black dirt smudges across my face and clothing. I had to be out there working alongside those plants, getting to know each square foot of ground, analyzing it and figuring out what it needed and, like the humblest servant, giving it what it needed. That's what I needed.

I needed to be brought down out of my high-flying thoughts, down from the concerns of the social and cultural systems we humans have constructed, and grounded in what is the most real thing: the enduring earth, the implacable rhythm of the seasons.

I needed to listen to what they were telling me. You are just one creature among millions. You are alive during the briefest eyeblink of history, your purpose—were they even telling me my purpose?—your purpose is to connect with this earthly rhythm, to participate feverishly and wholly in the dance of the universe. You are not to be distracted by petty concerns. This dance, this act of gardening and all the pondering and wandering it produces, THIS is what's important.

So as you see, I have taken a sentence that leapt out as I thumbed through Nollman's book this morning, and I have followed it through twists and turns of thought until I uncovered my purpose for living. Now THAT is a good book! (So are the other four.)

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