LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 24 August 2005: Restoration in August
Nature’s Plough. If you are reading the newspapers too much during these dog days of August, you will learn that a whole covey of our politicians are making silly asses of themselves over so-called “intelligent design,” hoping, for no good reason, to set aside 150 years of evolutionary thought and lay waste to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Frankly, we are rather hoping that you are neither paying attention to them nor to evolution. After his initial work on all species, Darwin settled down to earthworms about whom he told all in an elegant little monograph called Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881). This down-to-earth treatise is a much more comforting work, calming amidst both the 90-plus-degree days we are having and the onslaught of world news that shows us to be going sideways rather than forward, as all hints of both design and evolution are shunted aside by societal chaos.
It is not until you read Darwin that you realize just how august a spirit lurks in the lowly, subterranean worm:
The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.
As we mentioned in “And the Earth Moved,” earthworms, which can number in the thousands and hundreds of thousands per acre, work their way through tons of earth over the course of a year, leaving your backyard richer and ready to host the new varietals you choose to set in the ground.
Some of the things to be learned in August from gardening. One gardening friend says gardening is all about “patience”: nothing of significance in the good earth can come about in a hurry. A painter living on Twin Peaks in San Francisco confided to us many summers ago that gardening afforded him immediate, sublime satisfaction: in no other arena of his life did he sense that he could get as much done and have such a tremendous sense of accomplishment—as gardening—when he set his mind to it. Two Carolinians who live at the edges of exurbia just recounted to us some of the agricultural lore that the Civil War and Reconstruction obliterated. Only slowly is some of the rich antebellum Southern agricultural knowledge that once made farming so cosmopolitan and diverse being recovered, quite a contrast to the monoculture that has afflicted the look and feel of the South ever since. A movement is afoot to also bring back some very rare livestock breeds (see “American Livestock Breeds Conservancy”). We hear that one antiquarian has prowled through old graveyards to recover old, regional, stronger varieties of roses that originally came in through the port of Charleston so very long ago. A garden in August not only affords protection against a dispirited world, but enlarges the soul, brain, and heart in such a multitude of ways.
Garden of Surprises. Any garden would be well advised to start with the domestic hollies and native latifolia that are at home throughout these United States. They are somewhat banal yeomen plants that steady the ground and give you a sense of privacy. But, as the plantings thicken, it’s as nice to walk around a corner and find an assortment of flora from all the world that are not native to one’s region. Japanese maples, green or red, seem gentle and soothing to the eye. Hellebores (see “Best Hellebore Farm within Driving Distance”) provide witty undergrowth along the paths in the woods. Princeton Elms, oddly enough out of Georgia (see “Elm Revival”), promise future grandeur to properties that lack any majesty today, cut over as they are by slash and burn developers. Of course, in this age of kudzu, one wants to look out for predatory plants from abroad that take over the landscape, as noted in “Weeding out the Invaders” (Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2005, p. W8), which recounts how Japanese barberries and Norway maples have climbed onto the do-not-plant lists. But, in general, one of the satisfactions of a garden in August is that it permits you to see the world without leaving your home.
The well-conceived garden is always a surprise, even to the toiler who put the seeds in the ground. Out to walk the setter in still heavy night air, one is suddenly struck by the perfume of the tall brugmansias from Ecuador near the footpath, which put out rich scent in the evening but are quiet by day, the bell shaped yellow and creme heads hiding their potency. At sunrise, the strutting, very tall Formosa lilies that can shoot up as high as 7 feet in the front beds wave their very white heads, wishing a good bye as burghers make their way off to commercial pastimes. Both flowers are too exceptional to be the fruit of human imagination.
The Hobbit Garden. Full of evergreens, the Hobbit Garden (http://home.att.net/~hobbitgarden) is a bit of magic a ways out of Raleigh, North Carolina where the tortured land has been over-farmed and is now being over subdivided. Two very passionate gardeners started the Hobbit downtown, then moved it, kit and caboodle, to the outskirts in order to do many more plantings. This was a tremendous undertaking which involved raising the earth, channeling the pathways to catch water, and growing vertically in order to create shade and to capture a monumental feeling. Better than 15 years in the making, this garden just received national attention in “Cuttings: A Lush Garden of Delights, Eager to Share its Secrets” (New York Times, July 21, 2005). Their work speaks to their relentless persistence, as they beat back all sorts of pests which would lay waste to their efforts, not the least of which is the confounded wire grass, nothing better than a weed, planted by the North Carolina Department of Highways ostensibly to ward off erosion. Apparently the “Hobbit” name stems from the penchant of the owners for using so many dwarf varieties, though they all range several feet in height.
Gardening, as it turns out, is very much about worms and water, the terrestrial infrastructure which makes all things possible. As well, its success depends on spiritual capacity, a devotion to healthy growth, that goes much beyond the quest for trophy plants and luxury landscapes undertaken by affluents in a hurry. Gardening is not “exterior decoration.” It is much more than intelligent design. Prettiness, in a real garden, is only a dividend, not the essence.
Our favorite regional architect, Bernard Maybeck, knew that he had built a successful house if his clients completed its landscaping successfully. (See “A Regional Solution to Modernity”.) Maybeck believed that the spirit of those who crafted a dwelling lurked in the crevices of that which they built. In like manner, he would ask that the gardening around a house embrace good craftsmanship as well as the spirit of those who shaped the garden.
Fukuoka. Though his teachings about agriculture probably have affected only 1% of Japan’s farms, Masanobu Fukuoka, who started as scientist but has given his life over to alternative farming, is probably as good a preacher as the world knows about the spiritual and infrastructure aspects of gardening/farming. Above all, his system has been a spiritual mandate that teaches “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings” (from One Straw Revolution: The Natural Way of Farming ). According to “Alternative Agriculture in Thailand and Japan” (www.solutions-site.org/artman/publish/article_15.shtml):
Following a philosophy of “do nothing farming” Mr. Masanobu Fukuoka first began natural farming in 1938, in Japan his homeland. He was educated as a microbiologist and soil scientist but gave up his career to practice simple agriculture as a spiritual undertaking.
… The practice of Fukuoka farming is based around the concept of minimal interference with nature, namely no ploughing, no weeding, no chemical pesticides, no chemical fertilizers and no pruning. He also pioneered the use of ‘seed balls’ which consist of the seeds of many different crop species being combined into a clay mixture and formed into a small ball. These are then scattered over the farm creating many different micro-ecosystems.
In general Fukuoka and other alternative farming leaders believe conventional farming techniques, to include the standard array of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have severely depleted soils throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and other developed societies. In this context, the gardener today stands on dying land that needs to be brought back to life.
The Restoration Garden. In August we realize that the garden is the place where we escape from it all. Indeed, just as the Stoics retreated into the mind to get away from the cares of the world, the Epicureans of old surrounded themselves with a garden to fence themselves away from life’s bitterness. The garden is a spiritual retreat.
But as we think of worms, and water, and worn-out land masses, we realize that our gardens, too, give us a restorative mission. The ground under our feet needs to be set to rights and made whole. As we strive to bring about a healthy society in this nation or that, we have the task as well of putting wellness back into the ground,.
P.S. If you want to stay cool and pay some virtual visits to handsome American gardens, then see the American Garden Museum.
P.P.S. The strains between establishment Protestantism and evangelical forces are probably as old as our country. A very fine article about the evolution of modern evangelism by Peter Boyer, “The Big Tent,” can be found in the New Yorker, August 22, 2005, pp. 42-55. As he passes from the scene, it makes clear just how central Billy Graham has been to post-World War II America. Arguments about creationism and intelligent design have been one thread in Protestantism’s simmering, sometimes fiery, ongoing debate.
Copyright 2005 GlobalProvince.com