“I knew it! I just knew it! I’ve told you so often 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 lots of people. “It’s not only that,” she continued, “you just tune out lots of times, like in restaurants and noisy meetings, like you’re floating around in midair in some kind of alternate reality. It’s like you’re not there, and I wonder where you are.”
When the audiologist peered into my ears, she said, “Oh, good, they’re clean.” What a relief! After sitting in a claustrophobic cell straining to hear barely audible sounds, she showed me a chart on which the lines plummeted at high-pitched sounds. Then she asked me if I could hear what people were saying in the next room. Puzzled at the question, I said, “Why should I?” I’ve heard enough for a lifetime.
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. We are overwhelmed by noise. The Swiss philosopher, Max Picard, wrote: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.”
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, wrote: “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, to Elijah’s “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.” It is the silences of indifference, deafened in 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.”
A good resolution for the New Year is a life attuned to the silences of a garden, a winter’s snowfall, 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 a tree. What Picard said of the forest can be said of a garden: “The forest is like a great reservoir of silence out of which the silence trickles.” In a society geared to the harsh, to strident voices, to false promises, to everything hard-edged, the garden is a place to hear a Presence unseen yet heard in silence.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011
Dana Prom Smith edits the column, GARDENING ETCETERA, for the Arizona Daily Sun in whcih the above article appeared on December 31, 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .