Updated: Aug 23, 2021
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."
~William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
A Garden's Invitation to Meditation
I am not a skilled gardener. When we first bought our 1903 house, I was disappointed that there were only day lilies and a raggedy old lilac bush behind the kitchen, and so I determined to slowly build perennial gardens. The truth is, I know little about how to best care for them, and I have little time to learn during this busy season of our family’s life. I tend to plant, water, and hope for the best. “Someday I will have more time to devote to learning about plant care and can really make these gardens flourish,” I encourage myself. In the meantime, I am content just to watch the gardens slowly grow more robust with each passing year. Some perennials, like this year’s new addition of bee balm, beautifully take and spread. Others, like the irises I was so excited about, produce only leaves year in and year out. They have become a point of amusement to our family. “Look, mom! That iris is only giving us leaves again! No stalk, no buds!” And, as you can probably guess, our gardens are in no way manicured. They could be summed up as “cottage gardens” at best. A little bohemian, rather wild, the peonies mingle with the weeds, the Brown-eyed Susans threaten to crowd out the gladioli. (I actually think they have). I just tend to let all garden sprouts develop as they will.
Despite our garden’s less than prize-worthy offerings, I seldom feel more joy than when I am gazing at the haphazard gifts growing there. It could be from my kitchen window. It might be while I’m watering, or it might be while my hands are delving into the soil, the sun on my back, and I’m smelling earth and feeling sweat, and losing myself in thought. One of the glories of gardens is that they afford the opportunity for all our senses to be engaged at once. Sights, sounds, textures, scents mingle together, and if we choose, we can even taste some garden delights: nasturtium and other edible flowers, herbs, vegetables. Elizabeth von Arnim, author of both The Enchanted April and the auto-biographical Elizabeth and Her German Garden, captures a glimpse of the full sensory experience that gardens provide.
“There has been rain in the night, and the whole garden seems to be singing -- not the untiring birds only, but the vigorous plants, the happy grass and trees, the lilac bushes -- oh, those lilac bushes! They are all out today, and the garden is drenched with the scent.”
A favorite passage from Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” found in Moments of Being recalls sensuous, glittering memories of Woolf’s childhood summers spent on St. Ives and encapsulates the lush, heady, rapturous experience of a garden:
“The next memory -- all these colour-and-sound memories hang together at St. Ives -- was much more robust; it was highly sensual...It still makes me feel warm; as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny; smelling so many smells at once; and all making a whole that even now makes me stop -- as I stopped then going down to the beach; I stopped at the top to look down at the gardens. They were sunk beneath the road. The apples were on level with one’s head. The gardens gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold; there were also pink flowers; and grey and silver leaves. The buzz, the croon, the smell, all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane; not to burst it; but to hum round one such a complete rapture of pleasure that I stopped, smelt; looked. But again I cannot describe that rapture” (66).
Woolf gorgeously communicates the sensuality of the garden experience and also the near mystical ineffability of it. Like Woolf, I find it tremendously difficult to capture the full impression of such a moment in words. But then, it is this quality of moment, and its pressing into consciousness of a beautiful “beyondness of things” that compels me daily, that I feel a drive to explore, and which I at least attempt to draw near to, and draw others near to, with limited language. Striking too, is Woolf’s reference to how all of this sensory input seems to “press voluptuously against some membrane:” striking, not only for the evident sexuality of this description, but also for the way in which it suggests that this garden reverie makes one feel posed on the brink of some discovery, some encounter beyond the veil, some making known of an ancient and pervasive mystery.
“There was never mystery
But ‘tis figured in the flowers;
Was never secret history
but birds tell it in the bowers.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Apology"
The images below are from Monk's House in Rodmell, England, where Virginia Woolf lived with Leonard Woolf and together kept beautiful gardens.
In my case, this sublime garden effect can be brought about by both the exquisitely orchestrated, geometrically precise, ornate gardens of a country estate and the rebellious helter-skelter gardens of a less fastidious gardener. This past week we visited Hildene in Manchester, Vermont for the first time, the estate of Robert Lincoln, Abraham’s oldest son. Of course I enjoyed the tour of the home and its intricate furnishings, and I was struck by its lovely exterior. But when I stopped in the midst of the European-inspired gardens (designed to look like panels of colored stained glass from above), and I looked through the vibrant pageant of the flowers and the pristinely manicured hedges to the vast hillside beyond, I gasped and was transfixed. I breathed in deeply, rooted to the earth for a few minutes. I needed to savor it. Like Woolf, I was struck breathless by the ripeness, the thrum, the color, the “smelling of so many smells at once.” I had seldom seen a sight so crammed with peace, sensation, order, and beauty. If ever a garden moment felt like an invitation to meditation this was it.
Gardening as an Act of Meditation
Gardens, as destinations, as places to visit for a refreshing reprieve, are of course a common source of nourishment for people the world over. But what also interests me, beyond the soothing and exhilarating power of gardens, is how the act of gardening can function like meditation. Gardening is one of those activities that lends itself to experiencing “flow.” The popular meditation app, “Headspace” defines a flow state in the following helpful way:
“You may have experienced a flow state at some point — that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state and it’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re engaged in a physical activity, a creative pursuit, or even a simple day-to-day task.”
When I am working with the earth, I feel the shift from being up in my head too much, (a state I live in much of the time), to being more grounded in my body, working with my hands, all the while finding that my thoughts move almost dreamlike, in a stream of consciousness: nonjudgmental and in sync with my senses. New York Times writer, Ann Raver, explains, “When I garden, I set out to do one thing and pretty soon I’m doing something else. This meandering -- a kind of free association between earth, tools, body, and mind - is for me, an act of meditation.” You might hit that flow state while on a run, while knitting, or while kneading bread or soil.
Just as we strive to achieve with meditation, there is a sense of being fully present within the body, with mind and body moving seamlessly together, in satisfying harmony. In Inheriting Paradise: Reflections on Gardening, Vigen Guroian elucidates, “When I garden, earth and earthworm pass between my fingers and I realize that I am made of the same stuff. When I pinch the cucumber vine and the water drips from capillaries to soil, I can feel the blood coursing through my body.” We become grounded in both body and clay.
It is also common to experience a sense of being outside of normal time which can be experienced as a respite, a rest from time’s tyranny in modern life. In her essay, “Paradise,” Olivia Laing explains,
“Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition or loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.”
The combination of hitting “flow” while gardening, which makes time pass unconsciously, and the irregularity of garden time: plants long forgotten suddenly resurface, others fussed over and lovingly cultivated refuse to appear or grow at maddeningly slow speeds, make gardening rich physical and spiritual material for one long meditation with the earth. It encourages us to follow Emerson’s admonition to “adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In a world hellbent on moving at a frenetic pace, gardening can be a healing act of defiance. Gardening says, “No. I am in this for the long haul. And I will accept what comes my way as it comes and be grateful for whatever turns up. I will not cling to whatever does not materialize but will look with hope to what will prosper.” As Richard Jeffries writes in The Pageant of Summer, “Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate flower or petal, is an inscription of hope.”
The contemplation of flowers offers rejuvenation and soul-food. This is a truth experienced by gardeners and garden guests across religions and around the world. The Koran contains the lovely notion, “If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one and buy hyacinths, for they would feed my soul.” That bloom others might pass by, viewing as too commonplace, too everyday to notice, the soulful person can prize as sustenance. Or, as the book of Matthew describes, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” (6:28). The flower’s absence of striving, of worry, does something to the observer, whether consciously or not. It beckons the observer to follow suit. To breathe in and to let go, if only for a moment, of the cares and ambitions of modern life. Sigmund Freud is often attributed with saying, “Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.”
Beneath, I close with a poem I wrote this spring when our school’s poet in residence for the year, Brian Evans-Jones, challenged the seventh grade students to write a pantoum. This was a form with which I was not familiar, and at first, I found the form challenging in its restrictiveness, however, I liked how it caused me to produce a different sort of poem. With a pantoum, the meaning of the lines repeat in a prescribed pattern. Sometimes lines are repeated exactly word for word. Other times poets choose to repeat the essence of a line but change the wording, which is what I chose to do here. The order of the repeating lines I have marked numerically, although normally a poet would leave those out. I thought the form itself might be of interest to some readers. I liked how the closed nature of a pantoum allowed me to convey how, when I am gardening, it feels akin to being under the dome of a terrarium: removed from the day to day and somehow time out of time. I also liked how the repetitive nature of the pantoum provided a circular, meditative quality representative of my thoughts while cultivating a garden.
Gardening: A Pantoum
1 Fragrance of baked earth and geraniums: essence of summer
2 The soil below is cool and supple, the top arid and dead.
3 Beneath teems with life. A life under life.
4 Worms wiggle, grubs curl like a cat in the sun.
2 Peculiar bugs unearthed in the rich underworld.
5 I’m under the dome of a terrarium, sweat droplets along hairline
4 I mind the insects less here than in my home or on clothes.
6 My mind wanders along rare terrain.
5 Moistness on brow, microcosm of lushness anywhere.
7 I do something less cerebral for once.
6 My mind and soul form a still pool, reflecting sunlight clear up to heaven.
8 Underearth like chocolate, the best kind, sustenance for vegetation.
7 Retreat of monkey mind replaced with meditation.
3 Life unearthed by hands going deep instead of surface skimming.
8 Soil wealth a prescription for growth. Just what nature ordered.
1 I breathe in communion with this fecund world of distilled life.
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