Saturday, March 05, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/6/2011)

“I just knew it! I just knew it! I’ve told you so many times that you never listen!” Meine Űberfrau was responding to the news that I’ve lost some hearing in my left ear for high decibel, highly pitched voices and sounds, the ear I use when listening to her. “It’s not only that,” she continued, “you just tune out lots of times, like in restaurants and noisy meetings, like you’re floating in midair in an alternate reality. It’s like where are you?”

When the audiologist peered into my ears, he said, “Oh, good, they’re clean.” Like the dentist, no matter how hard I brush and floss, my dentist, J. Thomas Montfort, always finds debris sequestered amongst my molars. He uses a wire-thin, hooked instrument resembling a miniature Spanish garrote. He calls them explorers which is better than voyagers, expeditions, or worse yet, King Arthur’s Excalibur.

That aside, I don’t have a tin ear. It’s just muffled enough to shut out what I don’t want to hear. I’m old, and after sixty years of listening to the squeaks and gibbers of all sorts and conditions of people, my ears have had enough.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was close, “There is no new thing under the sun.” While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. There’s too much noise. There’s not enough time to think, let alone to think before speaking. We live in a society of hard surfaces and rectangles, reverberating harsh messages in strident voices, the clipped brutalities of corporate functionaries.

The silence of life in a garden is a boon to the ear, left or right. It’s not the absence of sound, but the silence of life. There is a great line in Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The prophet imagined hearing a footfall, the brush of branches against a thigh, a sigh on catching the scent of a rose, the hushed flurry of insects, all indicating a Presence yet unseen. It’s quiet in the cool of the day when the noise of the day is over. It’s in that pause after the heat and clamor when the gloaming draws nigh. Eugene Mason, an English poet at the turn of the 20th century, said it well: “I all but touch Him with my outstretched arm.”

Such a time is the reward of gardening. It’s that time when one can sit down and gather the pieces of oneself, having been scattered throughout the day. There’s something special about a garden in the cool of the day. It’s elemental, connecting all the five senses to the sensations of the garden. It’s gardening with the left ear when everything has been said, shutting out the hard-surfaced noises of shiny, impenetrable buildings, and listening to the silences of life. It’s Elijah listening for the Lord’s presence in “a small voice of stillness.”

Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence is about an urban bleakscape where the voices are “talking without speaking,” and “hearing without listening,” silences of indifference, deafened by the racket of subway walls. The voices of a garden’s silences are different, not hard-edged, but soft, the kind that one strains to hear for the listening.

Every garden needs a bench, a chair, or a large rock on which one sat sit and listen to the silences of nature. Cicero, the Roman nobleman, statesman, and father of rhetoric, said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

As with everything in life, it’s the small things: the scent of a rose haunting the air, the songs of birds, the scurrying of squirrels chasing each other upon and down the trunk of ponderosa pine tree, that carry the weight of that soft touch of love on a shoulder. The garden isn’t a refuge so much as it’s a place to make connections with oneself. It’s gardening with the left ear, cutting out all the grating, hard-edged noises and listening to the small voice of stillness, the voice of a Presence unseen yet heard.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

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