Every spring I receive my best gardening instruction from walking along the edge of our cultivated farmland. I walk just inside the fields, right up against the nine-foot-high deer fence, running my hand over the woven wire as I go. On this ragged borderline, I am forced to slow down. Sometimes I walk so slowly I can close my eyes. I smell the wild pennyroyal mint rising out of the wet eye sockets of small mountain springs just outside the fence. On the rim of these springs grows fetid adder’s tongue, Scoliopus bigelovi, thrusting its ill-scented flowers into the new spring air. The stench of rotting meat hovers over the strange, brown-speckled blooms as they uncurl, luring the flies that will pollinate them. I can feel the slow water of the pennyroyal springs seep out of the hillside and saturate the farm soil on my side of the fence. A good place for summer leeks, I tell myself. The mountain will keep the land wet well past June.
All good gardening happens at the edge of the world, on that seam line where land we long to cultivate meets the untamable wilderness outside the fence. The twelfth-century poet and Ch’an master Hongzhi Zhengjue speaks of patch-robed monks who “make their thinking dry and cool and rest from the remnants of conditioned existence.” But his forthright poetry also summons gardeners of the world to pick up their tools and get to work.
Gardening is about relationship—about challenge and change and coincidence. Gardeners interact with the raw stuff of this world: steaming horse poop and black fly maggots, ropes of noxious bindweed and fifteen-inch layers of yellow gumbo clay soil. When you begin to garden, no matter where you dig in, you open yourself to the unknown. There isn’t any choice. A garden is a beastly paradox. You dream of gathering the unbruised fruit of paradise even while you split open virgin loam to cultivate the garden.
Years of gardening at the edge convince me that there is no way out of this paradox. I can never escape from east of Eden. I am enclosed in this garden and wholly willing to be so. Even as I watch the wider garden of our world be pulled apart in the last hours of this millennium, I’m not looking for a way out from the “remnants of conditioned existence.” The garden is not a metaphor. There is real dirt under my fingernails. I enclose myself in the living mind of King Richard leeks planted on the bottomland soil, black with springwater from the coastal headlands. I enclose myself in this relationship again and again. And I grow in the enclosure.
I have an old friend, a scholar of Greek and Latin and, most recently, of the Pali scriptures. To complement his profession of real estate law, my friend tracks the song pattern of migrating white-crowned sparrows and monitors the unfolding of the wildflowers of Redwood Creek Watershed. Years ago he wrote me this letter, which I reread and ponder every gardening season.
I have been wondering recently about what a garden does when closing in and shutting out. What are the rhythms and alternations, the choices, conscious or unconscious, which a gardener makes, and the accidents and fortuities, wind-blown, bird-bourne, manure-ferried as they may be, that determine what arises in a garden? I find myself asking when is a plant a weed, when is it a flower. Bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa) grow wild in Frank’s Valley and tame at Green Gulch. The plant is the same in each place. What is the difference that enclosure makes?
Or am I looking at the question the wrong way round? The owl’s flight is silent so the owl can hear his prey. The enclosure serves to let me know I am inside a garden. But it is equally true that the owl’s flight is silent so the prey cannot hear the owl. Is the garden wall therefore not actually also a gateway, an aperture, a passage which joins us to the transcendent particulars of coming into bloom and fading, slowly or quickly, wild or tame, inside or out?
What do you think?
Wendy Johnson was the head gardener at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California. She is currently at work on a book about meditation and gardening.
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