Tag Archive | Gardening

A Garden in Boston

IMG_0759 (800x600)I lived in Boston for eight years. As I see the unceasing chatter about the Boston Marathon bombings overwhelm all the channels people use to broadcast information and feelings these days, my mind is naturally going back there. I never attended the Boston Marathon while I lived there. God knows I never ran it, although I know people who did.  I remember the first year I was serving as the Pastor of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Boston. On the day of the Boston Marathon that year, I went to visit one of the members of our congregation who had come home to stay with her niece while she recovered from a broken hip. I think she was about 96 years old then. The whole time I was in their small apartment in a triple-decker in Jamaica Plain, the Boston Marathon was playing on the television in the background. I was there to remind an isolated old woman that she was not alone in the world, and the Boston Marathon was somehow part of that work.

One of the reflections I have read in the past couple of days is this blog post by a fellow Presbyterian minister, Marcia Mount Shoop. She reflects on the bad dream of her eight-year-old daughter the night after the bombing. What sticks in my mind is the way she describes her daughter’s fears and questions. The girl was not asking the “why” questions:  Why did a child have to die? Why would anyone want to do this to us? Maybe those are adult questions the little girl wouldn’t think to ask. Maybe they are questions that we do not really want to know the answer to, or maybe those questions are too cynical for some of us. Or maybe it is just too soon for any of us to ask questions like that.

Instead, Rev. Shoop’s daughter was asking “how” questions:  how could I protect the people who are supposed to protect me? How do I feel safe in a world where things like this happen? How do I keep hoping that everything will be o.k. in my life? I don’t think those are questions which only children ask at a time like this. In many ways, I think those questions are what fuels the comfort which we feel when we see that now-ubiquitous quote from Mister Rogers. “Look for the helpers,” Rev. Rogers is quoted as saying. “There are always helpers.” And those helpers are central to satisfying the thirst we all have in these days to resolve the how questions.

As I think about the how questions, those questions about protection and safety and hope, I think about the garden I planted at our house in Boston. It was not long after we bought the house; maybe it was 2004 or 2005.  I had spent all winter making plans: finding the sunniest spot on our sloping back yard, crafting the shape out of the hillside, thinking about how to prepare the soil, deciding what perennials to plant so there would be something in bloom all season, and designing the placement so the low growing plants would be in the front and the taller ones in the back up against the neighbors’ stone retaining wall.

It was March, and I was impatient. That impatience is normal for gardeners in Boston. Winter seems to last forever; the last frost date isn’t until about Mother’s Day, and the daffodils don’t even come into full bloom most years until about the time of the Marathon. But in March, the snow doesn’t cover the ground as constantly and the temperatures start to warm a bit during the day, so the shovels and rakes and garden gloves started to fill my obsessive mind. I decided I didn’t have to wait until spring to start to turn over the soil in the new garden and add manure and other amendments which would make the garden flourish.

So one sunny day off, I found my spade in the back of the garage, and out I went. I started at the bottom of the hill. As I worked my way up, I would hit solid spots here and there. Sometimes, these were large rocks. But sometimes they were clods of dirt which hadn’t thawed yet under their blanket of pine needles from the trees back there. In fact, that first pass at loosening the soil only got me a few inches deep; below that, the ground was still frozen. It would take weeks before the whole patch thawed enough for me to properly turn it over.

But eventually I got the manure worked in, and I started to plant some things.  By the next year, it was beautiful. In April, the perennials would start to emerge from the frozen ground. The creeping phlox was the first to bloom, usually by the end of that month, with carpets of light blues and pinks. The English Daisies would come up from seeds the previous year’s plants had scattered and add to the charm with their little pink, fuchsia, and white balls. May would bring my favorites:  the Dutch Iris and especially the Crested Iris I picked up from a native plant nursery in the suburbs. Big drifts of those unique blue, white, and yellow fleur de lis moved from the very bottom of the hillside as it started to increase in elevation. Later in the season there were astilbe, foxgloves, and the columbines which I planted to remind me of the years I lived in Colorado when I was a child. The Shasta Daisies bloomed in the summer. The delphinium never did very well, but that wasn’t a big surprise; you always have something that resists your efforts, don’t you?

I am impatient in the face of the Boston Marathon bombs.  I cannot yet resolve my need for assurance about protection and safety and hope. In my impatience, I want to go dig around. I know there is work to be done in my waiting: to name the bad dreams of children as well as adults, to listen to the unceasing chatter when I can, and to step away from it all when it starts to overwhelm me. I have to speak the questions that form, the whys as well as the hows, even if I can’t yet find any resolution, much less any answers, for those questions.

But I know this about Boston, and about the world we live in: despite the long, cold season, despite the clods of frozen dirt, despite the layer of still-icy soil, beauty will emerge. It will grow, and it will flourish. It will start by poking up a few shoots from the moldy leaves of before, and then a few, small flowers will emerge. Later, even more beauty will come. It will not happen when I want it to happen. Some things that were there before won’t come back this year, and it will have a few holes where things don’t emerge quite right. That is frustrating, but it’s the way it all happens. But beauty will come again. That is the how of hope.

As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  I pray for the people of Boston and for all of us who are impatient for hope.

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Embarrassing Faith

IMG_5384 (800x533)Early spring is an embarrassing time for gardeners.  O.k., maybe not for all of them.  Maybe it’s just me.  If I really knew what I was doing, I would be able to time my plantings so that something spectacular would always cover the stuff that is not so spectacular, at least not yet.  The big, empty spaces where the black-eyed susans have not yet come back up would only serve to highlight the spectacular blooms of the azaleas.  The camellia blooms would linger long enough so that the spindly mess of roses would have time to leaf out and bloom.  The densely-planted pack of daffodils would distract one’s eye from the variegated liriope which hasn’t yet come back from its post-freeze shearing.  Then, the daylily greens would be up and full and ready to shoot forth stems of blossoms just in time to hide the dying daffodil foliage, which, the stern voices of the experts who write the newspaper columns warn, one ought never to cut off.  The dying foliage gathers sunlight to feed the bulb, which stores energy for next year’s blooms.  If you cut that process short, you risk a whole year of wimpy daffodils (gasp!  oh, the horror!).  So, you have to put up with dying foliage, and if you are clever, you find a way to make sure it is hidden.

I have never been that clever.  A couple of weeks ago, I started cleaning out my perennial beds in the front yard.  I usually leave the woody branches of hibiscus, the dried-out stalks of cannas, and the spindly nest of lantana stems right where they are through the winter.  Their own leaves drop and cover the ground around their bases, and they collect the stiff, brown leaves from the oak trees as they blow down the street.  Again, the experts warn against this practice; leaves can harbor diseases and hold in too much moisture, causing the roots of the perennials to rot over the winter.  But I take my chances, figuring that the leaves will also insulate the tropical plants from the freezing air which occasionally infiltrates our semi-tropical climate.

But then, in early spring, after the danger of frost is past, as the heather and hibiscus and lantana are just starting to shoot forth bright, green leaves into that brown, rotten mess, I clean things up.  I cut the heather back to the ground, and I push the oak leaves to the center of the bed so they can work their way into the soil.  I cut the lantana back to the ground, too, so its new shoots will come strong and healthy from the center of the plant, keeping its more-or-less mounded form rather than continuing to spread all over creation from last year’s branches.  I cut off the towering, dead stalks of the cannas, I remove the dead leaves of the gerbera daisies, and I cut off the clematis, leaving only about six inches of each stem from which the new growth can emerge and spread up the trellis.  I pull the clover and chickweed and dichondra which has spread into the beds, and I lay out fresh mulch where last year’s has become thin enough for these weeds to push through, being careful to see if the calla lilies and oriental lilies are poking up through the dirt to announce that they will, in fact, come back for another year.

In my mind’s eye, at the end of all of that hard work, I see the potential:  the many colors and textures of foliage and blooms that will take us through the late spring and into the summer and fall.  But to look at my yard in its present form, you couldn’t prove that any of that beauty is ever going to be real.  I have to acknowledge in this season that I may be deluding myself.  Things may not turn out as I envision them right now.  Something might have died over the winter; some of the pretty things I planted last year may not come up again.  Or worse, a few of them might come up, but others might have rotted into the soil, so that there will be awkward holes in my landscape by the middle of the summer when it is too late to do anything about them.

Faith is like that.  I was preparing for my Easter sermon the other day by listening to the Working Preacher podcast.  The seminary professors who participate in the conversation pointed out that Easter requires us to admit that faith is risky.  We believe what we proclaim, but the fact is, we may be wrong.  We may be wrong to talk with such certainty about a savior who was raised from the dead.  We may be wrong to conjure such authority when we talk about a God who loves unconditionally.  We may be wrong to say with any conviction at all that sometime in the future, as things are coming to an end, everything will work out o.k. because God is in charge.

We may be wrong because we don’t see those things right now.  We know them; we feel them; we believe them; we even experience them.  But we do not see them.  We cannot prove to anyone that the stories we tell are truth, or that the love we perceive breathing life into being is real, or that the hope which strengthens us will ever be realized.  We have to admit, if we are honest, that it is possible that we are deluding ourselves, and things may not turn out to be the way we envision them.  That is why it is called faith, not certainty or authority or any of those other, more definite words.

And I wonder if that is why a lot of people are not willing to commit to it.  It is hard to embrace something while admitting that I may be wrong.  Faith requires vulnerability.  It requires me to risk embarrassment; just like the whole world can see my naked front yard, with all its big, empty spaces and sheared ornamentals and spindly roses and dying daffodil foliage, the whole world might also see my faith proven wrong.  But for me, faith is worth the risk; my knowledge and feeling and belief and experience of God summon a courage that is enough for me, just like the beautiful colors and textures I see emerging in my mind’s eye right now are enough to take me into the next seasons of life in my yard.  Everything may not turn out as I expect; in fact, I am pretty sure I will be wrong about some things.  But that is part of the strength of vision and faith, and the reason I am willing to risk so much for it:  more often than not, even when it doesn’t turn out the way I expected, its unanticipated revelations are more lovely than I ever could have imagined.

When I cleaned out my flower beds a couple of weeks ago, I looked carefully for the calla lilies which grow next to the heather and gerbera daisies near my mailbox.  They hadn’t poked their pointed leaf shoots up through the surface of the ground.  Frankly, I was disappointed, but I made my peace with it.  Perhaps they are only supposed to live a couple of years.  Maybe an accidental tromp through the flower bed last summer crushed them for good.  But their absence would leave a hole, and I was beginning to doubt that the flower bed will be as I hoped this year.

Then, just the other day, I looked again, and there they were, just jutting the tips of their shoots about a half an inch above the mulch I had spread.  Those points will grow taller and taller, no bigger around than a pencil, and once they are tall enough, they will unfurl into sword-shaped leaves whose flat surfaces will absorb the sun’s heat and light.  And then, once they pull enough stored energy from the bulbs underground, more shoots will emerge from the base of the leaves, and they will reveal fascinatingly beautiful petals curled around erect stamens.  Calla lilies are some of my favorite flowers.

At least I think that is what will happen.  Only time will tell.

Fear

One of the things that surprises me about the campaign season which just passed is the amount of fear that was revealed.  In many ways, it is a political candidate’s job to highlight our fears.  Fear is very persuasive; if a candidate can get us to fear the other person, then we have a powerful motivation to vote for that candidate.  With enough fear, we might even be willing to overlook the candidate’s mistakes, inconsistencies, and disconnect from our own values and visions.

And it seems that it was not hard for this year’s candidates to get us to be afraid.  Based on the conversations I had and comments I saw, people are afraid.  People are afraid of taxes and people are afraid of deficits.  People are afraid of military action and people are afraid of military inaction.  People are afraid of gun control and people are afraid of guns.  People are afraid of the heath care system and people are afraid of having no health care at all.  People are afraid of change and people are afraid that things will never change.  People are afraid of the wealthy and people are afraid of the poor.  People are afraid of immigrants and people are afraid of hipster urbanites and people are afraid of country folk and people are afraid of the well-educated and people are afraid of the not-so-well-educated and people are afraid of black folks and white folks and gay folks and straight folks and all other manner of folks.  People are even afraid of communism; I thought we stopped fearing the communists twenty years ago, but I guess I was wrong.

This level of fear fascinates me.  It is not normal.  Most of the time, most people I know do not allow those kinds of fear to motivate them.  People I know have faced really scary times:  illnesses, job losses, divorces, the death of loved ones, the kinds of situations that make a person feel like the floor has dropped out from under them.  They have faced those situations with amazing courage, hope, trust, and faith.  But when the campaign was on everyone’s minds, those same people were decrying the damage that would be done by the other candidate if he was elected.  These people who have been through so much allowed pictures to form in their minds of mass poverty, of anarchy, of oppression, and of all manner of other world-ending forces of evil.  O.k., so maybe I exaggerate.  But I am struck by the ways that courage, hope, trust, and even faith were so easily pushed aside in the sweep of the campaigns.

As a gardener, I have had days when I have looked at the future and seen it as bleak.  I remember when I was getting ready to get married.  My soon-to-be-wife and I had shared a particularly joyful time as we began dating which involved Black-Eyed Susans.  So, she wanted them to be featured prominently in the bouquets of flowers carried by our attendants.  The problem was that Black-Eyed Susans were not available from any florist; they are considered by that industry to be wild flowers, and therefore beneath the dignity of such professionals.  But I was a gardener, albeit a bit of a newbie, and Black-Eyed Susans would be in season around the time of the Big Day, so why not get them from a nursery and grow them myself?

About a week before the wedding, we found some beautiful plants, full of blooms, at a local nursery.  We bought four of the plants, giving us way more flowers than we would ever need.  I brought them home, planted them at various places throughout my yard, watered them, and cooed at my bride about what a beautiful wedding it would be.

Two days later, though, I checked on the plants, and they were a wilted disaster.  The leaves drooped.  The flowers bent and sagged.  The whole mess was starting to lose its colors. I was devastated and afraid. I was afraid that the wedding would be ruined.  I was afraid that my bride would have to carry grocery-store carnations with shame on her face.  I was afraid that my marriage was over before it even began.

I don’t want to trivialize the fears people expressed in the weeks leading up to the election.  I am a gardener, not a farmer; I work the land from my place of privilege, not from a need to feed my family.  Therefore, my fears about the health of my flowers compare not at all to the fears of people who honestly believe their security and livelihood is in jeopardy, except in one way.  As a gardener, I have come to learn that no matter how many things I do the wrong way, and no matter how many times I fail to do things the right way, and no matter how many times things don’t go my way, none of it will prevent beauty from blooming in the world.

The fact is that the president just isn’t that powerful.  Congress isn’t that powerful.  Beauty and generosity and compassion and grace will bloom and grow no matter what party has persuaded the most people to check its boxes in the voting booth.  As a Christian, I believe the world was created in beauty and generosity, the world was saved with compassion and grace, and the world will end in the same ways, too.  But the fear which the candidates stirred up in us to get our votes will prevent us from seeing that beauty or generosity or compassion or grace.  Fear distracts us, and makes us forgetful, and clouds our vision.  Such things can only be seen with hope, trust, faith, and even courage that has helped us overcome fear before.

I warily told my fiancee about the Black-Eyed Susan debacle, and it turns out she is not shallow.  She assured me everything would be just fine because, no matter what else, we were getting married.  And then, I drenched the droopy plants with water, and a little while later, they were as perky and bright as ever.  It seems that Black-Eyed Susans are notoriously unhappy when they are transplanted.  Their roots take a while to overcome the shock of being disturbed and adjust to their new location.  In the mean time, they have to be watered well, and eventually, they will be just fine.  After a week of daily watering, my friend Marc and I went out early on the morning of my wedding day, cut the stems of glowing flowers at the base, put them in pitchers of water, and delivered them to the church building, where I knew my bride and her friends would find them and arrange them into bouquets worthy of the joy of the occasion.

The Freaks and the Nones

My neighbors think I am a freak.  They are too polite to say it; this is the South, after all, bless your heart.  But I know what they are thinking when they see me working in my yard using some techniques and tools which most people around here don’t use.  And I wonder if I need to get used to being considered a freak, not just because of my gardening methods, but also because of my faith.

For instance, I have a mulching lawn mower, so I never rake the leaves off of my lawn.  The lawn mower is electric, and everyone else around here has a gas mower.  And a key part of my strategy for weed control in my flower beds involves newspapers.  Yes, newspapers.  When I lived up north, I read one of those helpful columns in the newspaper giving advice on gardening.  One week, the writer suggested spreading newspaper on a new flower bed before spreading mulch and planting.  The newspaper smothers the weeds and prevents new weeds from growing.  Then, over time, it decomposes, adding nutrients to the flower bed after the need for smothering what is under the newspaper is passed.

The process is simple:  after I dig a new bed, I add some manure, compost, or other soil booster.  Then, I spread the papers on the bare ground.  I usually use at least two layers of paper at a time, overlapping them so that there are at least four layers in any given place in the bed with no gaps between the papers for weeds to sneak up.  For a bed with a lot of weeds, I have laid 8 or 10 layers of newspaper.  As I spread the sheets of paper, I periodically sprinkle them with water so they are heavy and will not blow away.  Once I have the paper spread all over the bed, I put 2 – 3 inches of pine straw or other mulch on top to hide the newspaper, hold it in place, and further snuff out the weeds.  I have even done the whole process without digging up the bed first; I simply spread composted manure on the grass in the place where I wanted the bed to be, then put a thick dressing of newspaper and the mulch on top.  By the following spring, the grass was gone, having decomposed and become a part of the soil after it died from lack of air and light under the newspaper.  That bed has prospered well with Black-Eyed Susans, Mexican Heather, Gerbera Daisies, some Calla Lillies, Cannas, Hibiscus, and a few other pretty things.

It was during the construction of that flower bed that I first got the snickering comments from my neighbor across the street.  As I was carefully laying newspaper on the green grass one breezy November day, he was washing his car in his driveway.  I imagined as he kept looking across the street that he was mocking me.  To be fair, he may have simply been curious.  I don’t remember now how he finally broke the silence to find out what I was doing, but I believe it was some comment made in jest about the strangeness of my activity.  I was, after all, spreading newspaper on my lawn, an activity made all the more freakish by the breeze.  The papers kept trying to fly away, so I had to do some gymnastics to hold them in place while I reached for the hose to weigh them down with water.  I explained that I had seen this idea in the paper one time.  I did not mention that the article was in a Northern newspaper, since that detail would make it automatically suspect as some hippie liberal conspiracy to further denigrate the Southern man.  My neighbor seemed satisfied, and he even complemented me the next year on the beauty of the bed I created so oddly.

Earlier this year, I used a layer of newspapers in another flower bed, this time next to the house.  I had re-planted the bed last summer, but I had never been able to control the weeds effectively.  As I was spreading the papers one spring morning, my next-door neighbor made some suggestion that there were better ways to read the newspaper than by spreading it all over the front yard.  He was polite and jovial, but again, there was that snickering tone.  I explained the strategy to him, this time leaving out the details about the source of the idea, and he didn’t push any further.  I could tell, though, that he was not convinced this would ever be considered a conventional method for weed control, and I have since seen the more standard method applied to his yard:  the True-Green Lawn Service truck came and spread God-knows-what kind of petrochemicals on his lawn.

Last Friday, I was once again spreading newspapers as I continued with my project of renewing an old flower bed that had gone to weeds.  Fortunately, I was spared the strange looks of my neighbors because I was working in the back yard.  But I also had a news story on my mind.  Last week, the Pew Research folks published the results of a recent survey saying that 20% of Americans do not currently identify with any religious tradition (for an article on the survey from Religion News Service, click here).  It is not that these people are refusing to choose between the Presbyterians and the Methodists; they do not claim any religious affiliation at all.  They are not Christian any more than they are Jewish or Buddhist or Unitarian or anything else.  Based on how they answered the surveyors’ questions, they are simply considered “nones.”

There have been a lot of comments about the findings.  Many of us are not surprised; this is a trend which has been growing since I was in college, and in other parts of the country where I have lived, the number of “nones” passed 20% a long time ago.  The day after the findings were released, one person at my church lamented to me “it’s such a shame that so many people don’t have any faith at all.”  Two hours later, someone else proclaimed excitedly, “well, the church has to take advantage of the opportunities to reach those people!”  Whether it is a great tragedy for society or a great opportunity for evangelism I will let others say.  I simply want to lift up this new reality and imagine how it will affect us as people of faith.

The fact is that Christians are a bit strange, and if current trends continue, we may even slide into the category of freaks.  We are odd because we spend so much time at the church when we could be doing things which are more gratifying.  We are different because we see more happening in the world than we can observe or prove scientifically.  We are strange because we are committed to an institution which seems, at various times, quaint, untrustworthy, corrupt, rigid, oppressive, too liberal, too conservative, too wishy-washy, archaic, and arcane.  And don’t get me started about just how bizarre the practice and theory of worship is in the modern world, if you really think about it.

For clergy, this oddness is not a new thing.  When people we meet outside the church find out what my wife and I do for a living, they often become fascinated, intimidated, self-righteous, condescending, or all of the above, all at once.  At the very least, they rarely react in the same way as I imagine they would if we said we were a pair of accountants or teachers or baristas.  Two or three years after we moved in, we were talking with the wife of our neighbor across the street who first observed my newspaper trick.  She admitted that, when she first heard two ministers had bought the house across the street, she would carefully hide the cases of beer she occasionally brought home from the grocery store in heavy paper bags and tuck them under her coat.  We were strange to her; she didn’t think she could behave normally in front of us.

In the future, if current trends continue, I wonder if all Christians will have to accept a new identity as social freaks.  I wonder if people will start to smirk and tease the way my neighbors do when I start spreading my layers of newspaper in my front yard.  And I wonder if there might be something freeing about being freaks in a world of nones.  I wonder if we will be able to be Christians because we want to be, and we feel called to be, not because that is the way everyone else is.  I wonder if we will claim our identities with a greater sense of purpose.  I wonder if we will be freed to simply live lives which are worthy of the gospel, loving our neighbors as we have been loved by our God, whether it is the popular thing to do or not.  I wonder if we will recognize that most of what we are called by Jesus to do is very counter-cultural, if not counter-intuitive.  I wonder if we will discover that, if we do it right, our faith will not help us in our business networking or efforts to climb the ladder of power and prestige, and it might even get in the way.  I wonder if we will have to learn to put into words why our faith is important to us in ways we can’t currently articulate.  I wonder if we will invite others into our alternative lifestyle only after they watch us for a while and inquire about why we live so strangely.

I wish my neighbors would just try using newspaper to control weeds rather than using the hazardous chemicals or back-breaking efforts they currently employ.  I think they would find it more effective, more healthy, and more enjoyable.  But based on their snickers and teasing, I don’t think they will try it anytime soon.  I will simply have to wait until they see that, as odd as it seems, it works, and then I can encourage them to try it for themselves.

Seasons

I have learned since moving to coastal Georgia six years ago that the schedule of gardening is different here than the schedule up north.  When I lived in Boston, the annual rhythm was much like it is in other places in the US.  When the ground was reliably thawed in the spring, sometime between the end of March and the middle of April, perennials could go in the ground.  On Mother’s Day, annuals were planted, and with regular water, they would provide bright colors in the landscape all summer.  The summer was spent mowing, weeding, watering, deadheading, trimming, and doing other chores to keep things looking good; I have photos of Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies blooming in early July.  By late August, the fall flowers went in the ground:  chrysanthemum and aster, mostly, which provided the yellow, orange, and rust tones for jacket weather.  By late October, the first frost killed all of the annuals and told the perennials that it was time to go to sleep for the winter.  The mulching mower chopped up its last leaves by early November, and the only tasks left were cleaning up the skeletal remains of the plantings, storing the tender summer bulbs in the basement, and waiting for the snow.  December through March were the months for reading the reflective prose of all those gardening writers, looking through seed catalogs, planning for new beds to be carved out of the dirt deep under the snowdrifts, and for resting, too.  The only reason to spend significant time outside in the winter was to shovel or play in snow.

In the South, there are two seasons which keep the gardener inside.  As in other places, there is the cold of winter.  From mid-December, when the last leaves have fallen and the mowing and edging machines are parked in the garage for the last time, through late February, when the frost usually stops, there really isn’t so much to do in the garden beds.  Those are good weeks to stay in the heated indoors.

But summer is another time to stay inside around here.  It’s hot out there, so I haven’t really been spending any more time working outside than I have to.  When I do venture out there, it is to do only the most essential work, and then, I don’t do it more often than absolutely necessary.  I refuse to mow more than once every two weeks, and lately it has been more like three weeks between cuts of the grass.  The edging, a necessity with the spreading southern lawn grasses, only happens once a month or less.  When there are no thunderstorms to keep things green, I water the flower and vegetable beds twice each week, but I rely on the sprinkler system to get water anywhere else it needs to be.  This is the time of year when I usually give up on weeding; if there are enough weeds in any bed to take over, they just take over, and I put the spreading of mulch in that bed on the “To Do” list for fall or spring.

Otherwise, June, July and August are times to stay inside.  They are good months for more of that reading or planning.  A few weeks ago, on an afternoon when I was home alone, I started digging around the bird bath in the back yard.  For at least the past six years, it has been surrounded by a complicated mess of ivy, ferns, confederate jasmine, dollar weed, and some liriope gone wild.  A stray palmetto or two shot spikes up every few months, some acorns turned to small oak trees here and there, and one pine tree grew to be taller than me before I lopped it down last fall, leaving a stump behind.  To craft a more ordered bed out of the chaos out there will take some work, and my free afternoon seemed like a good time to start that work.

Big mistake.  I used my shovel to turn over the dirt and bury the weeds in about half of the space, a total of no more than twenty square feet, before I felt myself starting to feel woozy.  I don’t like feeling woozy, and I know that, given how much sweat was soaking my clothes, hair, face, and numerous other places, woozy was not a good sign.  I put the shovel back in its shed, headed into the air conditioning, got a drink of water and a shower, and pulled one of those books of reflective gardening prose off of the bookshelf.  And I haven’t been back out there since, even as the weeds are trying to heal the scar I left on their territory.

It has taken me several years to get used to this new schedule of gardening seasons.  But in this season of my life, I have found this new schedule to work well.  Because my son was born soon after we moved here.  Those first couple of years after he was born, any work that happened in my garden would be described as sporadic at best.  But then, he started going to various forms of preschool.  At first, he went two mornings each week, but then, about the time he turned four, he started going five mornings each week.  Since Friday is one of my days off of work, I suddenly found myself with time to work on projects in the yard.  Hallelujah, and pass the trowel!  I carved a new flower bed out of my lawn that year to celebrate.  Last year, he was in an all-day Pre-K program in the public schools, and things are looking better and better all the time out there.

During the summer, though, there is no school.  That reality makes this a convenient time for us to take a long vacation.  It also means that our church sponsors Vacation Bible School, and all three of us throw ourselves into the art projects, the songs, and the storytelling of our faith community for a full week.  We have found interesting camps and programs for our boy to attend the rest of the summer, just to keep everyone from getting bored, but those are half-day activities at most, and there just isn’t much time to putter in the garden.

But in this season, gardening is just not the thing to do.  Did I mention it’s hot out there?  The thing to do right now is to make sure I have some free time to go play in the pool with my son, or take a picnic supper and a toy bucket and shovel to the beach, or invite some friends over to put our Hot Wheels cars and moveable dinosaurs, not to mention our air conditioner, to good use.

The other day, as I was on my way from the air-conditioned house to turn on the air conditioning in the car, I stopped for a minute in the steamy air to look at a hibiscus blooming next to the driveway.  The hibiscus is one of the few flowers which blooms during the summer here, in spite of the heat and my negligence.  The flower was gorgeous.  The petals were a light orange color, not smooth in texture, but crepe-like and crinkled.  The center was a vivid red, like it was actually living blood, and it was surrounded by a narrow border of pink, almost white, separating it from the orange.  The stamen stuck up in that immodest way, with bright colors at the tip advertising its availability to passing bees and butterflies.

After a moment, as I started to feel the sweat forming on my face and under my t-shirt, I went on to the car.  There wasn’t much else to look at; the Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies lost their blooms weeks ago, and their leaves are looking a little withered by now.  But as much as I appreciated the beauty of that flower, I realized that the schedule of gardening in the South works well for me in this season of my life, when my boy is young and I get to be his daddy.

As the Teacher said, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Absence

I recently returned to my home and my yard from a 19-day trip.  In that time, the only attention the yard received was from the automatic sprinkler system.  Even that system misses some parts of the yard; when I tested the zone which covers the front flower beds and the lawn next to the driveway last spring, it had very low water pressure.  The low pressure told me there is likely a leak in the system somewhere under ground.  It could be in the lawn; it could be under the bushes somewhere; it could even be under the driveway.  The whole problem of finding and repairing such a leak so overwhelmed me that I just never programmed that zone of sprinklers to come on.

Besides the spotty sprinklers, nothing else happened in my yard for almost three weeks.  Nothing was mowed.  Nothing was trimmed.  Nothing was deadheaded.  The neighborhood cats and hungry slugs were given the full run of the place.

And to no one’s surprise, it really didn’t look good.  I noticed as we pulled into the driveway that the Black-Eyed Susans drooped.   Because of the diversity of species living in my lawn, the whole thing was uneven, with parts practically sticking up to my son’s knees while other parts were covered with their usual low-growing leafy things.  Crabgrass had taken over where the basil and parsley used to grow.  The Stokesia had ceased blooming, and seed pods stood on the long stalks which used to support the beautiful, lavender blooms.  And the most awful part was waiting for me under one of the palm trees in the back yard:  the carcass of a dead squirrel, mostly gutted by birds and other scavengers, surrounded by a putrid odor that spread to every corner of the yard.  I could go on; suffice it to say the place was a mess, and it smelled bad, too.

Gardens are funny things.  They are a part of nature; they are made up of the same stuff as forests and meadows and natural spaces like that.  But the beauty of gardens comes from everything that separates them from nature.  Left on their own to go “wild” like their ecosystem cousins, they lose their beauty.  Their flowers won’t bloom unless they are pruned and watered and weeded.  Their lawns become eyesores if they are not mowed.  Their vegetables won’t bear fruit unless they are tended.  Even when the gardener is absent for a short time, the garden requires work to bring it back to its best.  Gardens are a part of nature, but they are not natural.

I wonder if faith is the same way.  My faith feels like it is just a part of who I am; I can’t imagine the past or the present of my life without it.  Mystics and theologians and poets have described faith through the centuries as something that meets a need we seem to have been made with: a need to connect with something greater than ourselves.  It feels like faith is a natural part of being human.  But perhaps it is not entirely natural to live with faith.  Living with faith means transplanting things into our lives which, without our intentional effort, would never be there.  It means pulling things out of our lives which just seem to pop up and, left alone, would take over and smother everything else around it.  It means spending time holding a hose or pushing a lawn mower or trying to deal with the overwhelming complexities of a broken sprinkler system.  It is less of a natural process and more of a responsibility requiring discipline and work:  work that is hard sometimes, and tedious at other times, and sometimes has to deal with the putrid odors of the carcasses of the dead.  Maybe we can even take a vacation from living with faith sometimes, but when we come back, there is much work to do to get things back to a condition where they can reveal beauty and produce good, nourishing fruit.

With some work over the past few days, things in my yard are looking pretty good again.  The squirrel carcass was promptly buried, and the smell dissipated almost immediately.  The flowers have been watered, and the grass has been mowed.  The Black-Eyed Susans are no longer drooping, the seed pods have been pruned from the cannas, and the hibiscus is starting to bloom.  We harvested a couple of ripe tomatoes from the vegetable garden, and my wife and son have enjoyed eating them with our meals this weekend.  Overall, it feels like the work is worth it.

Mosquitoes & Rats

One morning last week, I was getting ready to mow the back yard.  The first step in that labor, of course, is to find where the dog has done what dogs do and pick up the treasures hidden in the grass.  Equipped with my trowel and shopping bag, I headed to one of our canine’s recent favorite spots:  under the enormous fans of a low-growing palm tree, near the place where the lawn is cut out around a bird bath.

As I approached the first deposit I found, I noticed something:  hovering in the air, reflecting the rising morning light off of their whiny little wings, were scores of mosquitoes.  As I knelt down to address the dog’s business, I remembered reading somewhere that mosquitoes, like our ubiquitous sand gnats and all manner of other creatures which annoy me, are attracted to carbon dioxide.  I tried holding my breath for a moment, but I knew that was futile.  I let the contents of my lungs go, and sure enough, they found me.

The presence of the mosquitoes most immediately reminded me that I had not been vigilant in the previous week or two about changing the water in the bird bath.  In our sub-tropical climate, the water really has to be changed daily to keep it from becoming a cesspool of mosquito breeding.  I spent the obligatory moment chastising myself for my laziness, because every failure in the garden must reflect a fundamental flaw in my character, right?  But once I was finished with that, I started reflecting more on what was going on in my back yard that morning.

We keep the two bird bath, as well as two bird feeders and a hummingbird feeder, because we enjoy watching the birds.  My wife has one of those books which identifies the birds found in Georgia. It even provides a check list at the end of the book for her to mark when she sees a specimen of each variety.  She and my son have found great pleasure in seeing new and interesting birds take their repast at the feeders or a splash around the bird baths and looking them up in the book.  I am less scientific about the whole operation, but I just like sitting back and watching the wildlife as it plays outside the living room window.

But recently, we noticed something different eating on the feeder that is further from the house.  It was small, it was brown and furry, and it could fit inside the feeder to get a really good meal.  One night, there was only one; I took a closer look, and found that its long tail was bare.  My wife informed me that meant it was a rat.  The next night, there were two, and by the next night, there were four climbing up and around that far feeder.  We don’t want rats that near our house; in fact, we would rather pretend they don’t even live in our part of town.  I am almost embarrassed to admit that they came on our property.  We certainly do not want them multiplying exponentially as they find their sustenance at our bird feeders.  Through some research, I found out that there is no way to really get rid of the rats without risking collateral damage to the populations of squirrels, cats, dogs, and children which use our back yard for a variety of purposes.  The fact is that we had a mild winter, so the rat population is going to be larger than normal, and they will come closer to humans as they look for food.  The only safe solution was to stop filling the bird feeders.  I made sure the feeders were empty.  The bird baths and hummingbird feeder would have to suffice for some time, until the neighborhood cats help the rats find a new place to eat breakfast.

Then the mosquitoes made their early morning attack.  I felt the frustration rise:  I can’t fill the bird feeders because the food attracts rats.  I can’t fill the bird baths because the water is breeding ground for mosquitoes.  So how can we enjoy the wildlife without all the pests?

As a person of faith, I could have gone from there into those kinds of questions that pop up in our minds every now and then, like why did God make useless things like mosquitoes and rats?  But I didn’t want to because I am not sure those kinds of questions can be answered this side of our glory.  So I settled on a different reflection.

Gardening is one of many attempts by us humans to manipulate nature for our own pleasure.  I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with our attempts to manipulate nature for our pleasure, any more than there is anything wrong with manipulating nature to meet basic needs for food and shelter and the like.  But in nature, everything we do has consequences which are beyond our control.  The rats and the mosquitoes are among those consequences.  The rats and mosquitoes probably serve some great purpose in the larger scheme of creation.  My encounters with them function to remind me that, while there is nothing wrong with manipulating nature for my own pleasure, nature was not created solely for my pleasure.  The world does not revolve around the whims of my pleasures, or even around the persistence of my needs.  There is something much bigger than me operating in the world; I have the privilege of being a part of that something bigger, but it is not operating for me alone.  So if I try to attract birds and find myself with mosquitoes and rats too, there has not been some great failure of the way things ought to be.  In fact, the way things ought to be has worked itself out, and I can choose to either accept the consequences or stop leaving bird seed and standing water outside.

Having reluctantly removed myself from the center of the universe once again, I think I have decided what I will do.  I will leave the bird feeders empty for a while, perhaps even leaving the one farthest from the house empty until winter, when I hope the frost will do its job with the rats more completely this year.  But I will fill the bird bath again, with a commitment to fill it with fresh water daily.  Perhaps I can even find pleasure in the discipline of the nightly work in the back yard.