Last Friday, I finally got a chance to work on the new flower bed I have planned for the area around the bird bath in the back yard. I had started the project in June, but after clearing just half of the area, the summer heat got to me, and I had to come inside and take a cool shower. The area was clearly a tended flower bed before. Soon after we moved into our home, I “borrowed” some yellow lantana from that area and planted it in the front of the house. It flourished there until it was so big that it would block the windows by this time of year. I finally dug it up last summer when I rearranged that bed, and it was clear that I could not salvage it to re-plant it elsewhere. For several years, a caladium would shoot a few leaves out of the dirt near that area around the bird bath, too, trimmed in green, with white backgrounds stippled with red and pink spots. As I began clearing out that area in June, I dug out some variegated vines which I have seen in the groundcover section of our local nurseries and put them in pots, planning to use them in the final arrangement of the bed. Unfortunately, most of those fell victim to the heat of the summer and some long stretches when the sprinkler system was turned off, but a couple survived, and there are new, young shoots coming up from the base of the long stems. A daylily remains where I carefully dug around it, trying not to destroy it with my shovel. And as I dug the other day, I unearthed a number of those white tags which nurseries use to identify plants, so I know that someone planted petunias, pansies, snapdragons, and other annuals back there in the past.
But most of what I was looking at around the bird bath was weeds. I have watched over the past several years as whatever variety of creeping fern we have among the trees along the back fence have gradually moved their way into that space around the bird bath. English ivy and confederate jasmine intermingled there, creating an interesting mix of cultures probably not seen around here since before the “War of Northern Aggression.” A couple of palmettos have stuck their leaves high in the air in front and alongside the bird bath in recent years, and last fall, after my wife insisted it was simply a weed in the wrong place, I finally broke out the saw to cut down a pine tree which grew there for three or four years. Dollar weed spread through that area and into the grass, creeping its way from that source year by year on its quest to stretch from one end of the lawn to the other. Even the once-neat liriope trimming a semi-circular border to the bed has gone a bit wild, spreading wide in some places and filled with a variety of species in almost every place. And I won’t mention the prickly things.
I decided the best way to deal with the whole thing was not to try to pull up what was there, but to simply kill the mess of plants by turning it all over. I dug up the old tangle of roots and vines, rhythmically sticking my shovel in the ground with a complete disregard for what I was chopping apart in the process, then twisting the handle to reveal the brown dirt. As I went, though, I realized that what I was creating was really ugly. The dirt was uneven. Dismembered stems and severed ends of fern fronds and jasmine branches littered the area. Webs of fine roots which once fed heaven-knows-what kind of invasive vine were sticking up in the air, suffocating like so many fish out of water. My sneakers trampled flat the plants which grew where I had not yet stuck my shovel. In a word, it was just ugly.
Nonetheless, I started to feel a unique connection with God that I think one can only feel when one has taken on the task of being creative with mud and plant matter. The Bible has great stories about the creation that happened in a beautiful garden, about God’s acts of making creatures out of water and mud and a little gust of wind. Logic would tell us that God must have made that garden to begin with, too, so God must have shared that experience of revealing brown dirt as a blank canvas.
I wondered: does God have to create ugliness before God creates beauty, too? Much of what is beautiful in life and in the world has gone through its times of ugliness. Naturalists will tell us that most of the beautiful places in the world have at one time or another been leveled by fires, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, or ice flows, and we can imagine that those world-changing “disasters” left some ashen, muddy ugliness behind before the mountains and lakes and forests and fields filled the space again. The best forms of natural fertilizer smell nothing other than nasty before they let their nutrients dissipate into the soil to be used by beautiful flowers and useful fruits. And what about the beauty God creates in human lives? Sex has a bit of a mess to it, pregnancy is not pretty, and as much as some want to romanticize it, much of the process of giving birth is just plain ugly. But the baby who comes out on the other side of it all is usually pretty darn cute, and every life that is made through that process has an intrinsic beauty to it. As parents, we were told to endure the discomfort of early sicknesses, and the corresponding unpleasantness of the snot and “thin stool,” because they will build a strong immune system in our little boy. The most treasured relationships in my life have been through times of conflict, distance, and strain, before my life and the lives of the people involved in them were so beautifully intertwined. Death is not pretty, whether it is literal or figurative, but without it we can’t experience the promise of resurrection. And I wouldn’t wish the pain of grief on anyone, but I also can testify that people often come out on the other side with a deeper ability to love, a greater freedom to enjoy, or a more profound appreciation of the beauty of life.
So does God create ugliness in order to bring beauty? I am not willing to surrender to a platitude that simple; I will leave it to theologians more sophisticated than I am to debate the finer logic of the questions of the source of suffering. But my reflections on the ugliness I was creating made the routine of sticking the shovel in the ground and turning over each pile of dirt more interesting. I found hope in my wondering: as the area I worked was becoming more ugly, I knew I was participating in only a transitional phase in a larger process, and there will not be a permanent scar on my landscape.
When I finished turning over the dirt and the weeds, I had run out of time to work on such things for that day. I quickly pulled and pushed my rake across the patch of earth, trying my best to level it a bit before taking my tools back to the shed and heading in to shower and change. Later this month, I will dig in some pine bark and manure, strengthen the base of the bird bath with rocks and sand, better define the back edge of the bed with a thick board salvaged from an old fence, tidy the liriope border, and cover the mess with newspaper and finally pine straw so the weeds will not come back. Then next spring, I can have some fun at the nursery, choosing flowers and plants whose roots will make their home in that ugly dirt as the mud and water and even the wind work together for the beauty I know I can expect.