Thursday, June 10, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/10/10)

As an old friend of mine was being led away on a gurney for a cataract operation, the surgeon said, “You might see of bright light in the center of your field of vision.” My friend, a devout Roman Catholic, began chuckling, and the surgeon asked, “What’re you laughing at?” “Oh,” he replied, “do you mean that I might have a vision of God?” The surgeon replied, “Not in here you won’t.” After the operation, he said to the surgeon, “Well, I didn’t see God after all.” The surgeon said, “I should hope not.”

As Ecclesiastes reports, “For everything there is a season and a time, (3:1),” and being wheeled on a gurney into an operating room would seem an appropriate season for a vision of God.

My friend, a retired professor of philosophy, and I, an inveterate Calvinist, often have flourishing, non-polemical, theological conversations, because both of us know that we “see through a glass darkly,” to use Saint Paul’s phrase. It is important to know that one doesn’t know, that all of us live by assumptions and faith, and that we deal mostly with mystery which brings us to gardening.

Gardening, in many ways, is a journey into terra incognita, an actus fidei, to quote my friend. We may not know clearly where we’re going, but at least we’re on the way. As Abraham “went out, not knowing where was to go (Heb. 11:80)”, so, too, do gardeners. Sometimes things don’t work in the garden, and, then, there are those serendipitous accidents when plants thrive for reasons unknown to everyone. It’s called the unseen hand.

People often say, “I just can’t grow a thing. I must have a black thumb.” They tried, failed, and gave up. “O, ye of little faith.” There are many reasons for giving up, as in “a fool’s errand” and “a certain defeat,” but failure isn’t one of them. Sad to say, some failures are from ineptitude, as in not preparing, and, worse yet, some from sluggardliness and sloth.

For the sluggards, my aunt Emily, a myopic Fundamentalist with halitosis, was fond of quoting Proverbs 6:6 while poking me with her cane when she found me sleeping behind a giant eucalyptus tree, “Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.”

Gardening requires hard physical work, and if people are layabouts and laggards, they should own up to it instead of whining about having black thumbs. Several onerous activities, such as raking and gathering pine needles, shoveling compost into the soil, and picking weeds are part and parcel of gardening. A distinguished woman once asked me what she should do about her weeds. I replied, “Pick them,” to which she said, “Ugh!” Getting down and dirty on your knees is the heart of gardening and the prerequisite of beauty.

If we’re about to go out not knowing where we’re going, it’s best to take the proper equipment. As my grandfather, an oldtime mariner, was wont to say, “You’ll be needing a sextant, a compass, and a fathom line to make sure you’re beyond your depth.” While his milieu was the ocean, the gardener’s milieu, soil, needs to be deep as well, deep with organic matter and compost. The soil is the first item in the gardener’s equipment.

In addition to the standard tools, such as shovels, rakes, and hoes, water, as a tool, comes next after soil. Gardening occurs in that splendid fusion of water and soil, a fusion scarce in the universe, and a fusion in which human beings were first formed or from which they first emerged. Whatever came to pass, there would be nothing but desolation without that fusion.

The secret’s in managing that fusion. Many plants are killed or thwarted by too much or too little water and by hard soil devoid of organic matter. Plants are more likely to thrive in rich soil with the right amount of water. Mariners need an ocean. Gardeners need soil and water, and as mariners respect the deep, so gardeners respect the soil by enriching it, and water by using it wisely, so that the mystery may endure.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

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