Three years ago, my husband and I moved from our urban setting near Washington, D.C. to a decidedly suburban environment in Ohio. This brought about a number of changes in our lives, not the least of which was that we were able to rent a house rather than an apartment, property being far less expensive in Dayton, Ohio than it is in Arlington, Virginia. With the house came both a front and back yard, and for the first time in my life, I began to think about gardening.
Although I did not grow up in a large city, I was pretty far removed from an agricultural mentality. My mother had always been a wonderful gardener, but I rarely helped her growing up, and she can attest to my decided lack of interest. I was much happier indoors reading a book. Yet, renting a house forced me to think about how that house looked, for no one wants to be the eyesore of the neighborhood. With some extra time on my hands, I decided to start growing a few plants for food in addition to all those flowers and shrubs. My aspiration was no greater than having some fresh basil to put on my pizza.
Soon, I was planting tomatoes, strawberries, green beans, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, sweet peppers, cucumbers, and despite all the cautions I received from people who knew, I even planted some corn. The corn was ultimately a disappointment, tasting nothing like the sweet variety I could get from the farm down the road, but many of my efforts paid dividends. I became one of those people who always have dirt under their fingernails and dream of what they might grow next year.
This was when I received my second surprise. Not only did I actually like gardening, but it was teaching me things about life. I had always heard my grandmother tell stories about growing up on a farm during the Great Depression, scraping by on the last canned vegetables from the previous summer, and treasuring the single orange she would get from Santa Claus. Although she had not lived on that farm for many years, her soul still seemed to belong to the land. The more farmers I met, the more I found this to be the case, and I began to see a certain nobility in the calling to tend the earth.
Gardening is the most intimate way that human beings interact with our environment. There is something almost sacred about the process by which we work the earth, coaxing life into being. On its own, a seed appears no different than a stone: dead to the world, immovable, without the potential for change. To watch that same seed spring forth with life, become a plant, and produce a hundred more seeds – it is enough to make one stand in wonder. Yet, when was the last time you ever stared in wonder at a common plant?
Seeds are not so different from human beings. They have within them great potential. They are somewhat bound by nature – a tomato seed will always grow into a tomato plant – and yet there is much about their story that is left to chance, dependent on environmental circumstances. A seed will never become anything else unless it is acted upon by an outside force. Every year, for no obvious reason, I have seeds that perform better than others, and I am left to consider whether it was some difference in water or sunlight, some flaw in the seed’s genetic makeup, or indeed the very will of God that caused one to flourish while another floundered.
More than simply revealing life lessons, my experiences helped me as a Christian to arrive at a deeper knowledge of scripture. You cannot understand the Bible until you know something about gardening. The authors lived in an agricultural society and were writing to people who likely grew at least some of their own food. Without the benefits of modern technology, more people had to farm, there was a lower yield per acre, and food could not be transported over such long distances as it is today. If you wanted fruits or vegetables, you had to grow them yourself or buy them from someone in the neighborhood. If your farm had a bad year, you might just go hungry. The success or failure of a farm might well be a matter of life or death.
Today, if we were to have a famine in the United States, we could have wheat shipped in from Russia, China, or Australia. The problem in the world today is not so much that we have too little food, but that we cannot get it to the right people when they need it. We can have blueberries in winter and pumpkin pie for Easter. This would not have been possible a few centuries earlier. We have lost touch with both the land and the seasons.
We now live in a post-agricultural society. The industrial revolution is complete in our portion of the world, and we have moved on to the digital revolution. In all of this, our distance from the land grows, and as we begin to feel that distance, we seek out some truly odd ways to close it. We go on “survival” excursions in the woods, trying perhaps to connect with some distant past. Yet, it was in that distant past that our ancestors had the good sense to move indoors. We seek out only the most natural and organic foods, but like anything else, nature contains both good and bad. After all, arsenic is perfectly natural. We embrace new forms of spiritualism with conceptions of Mother Earth, the common life within us all, the secret wisdom in every branch and twig. Well, there is wisdom to be gained from branches and twigs, but it is neither novel nor secret.
In contrast, gardening is something we can all get behind. It brings us closer to nature while also speaking to deeper truths. More to the point, it tastes amazing. When was the last time you had a homegrown strawberry or tomato? There is no comparison with what you get at the store, unless your store is a local farm stand or receives its produce from a nearby source. Anything else is usually picked before it ripens in order to make the long journey, and it never tastes quite as good.
The great Humanist philosopher of the Renaissance age, Erasmus of Rotterdam, would often speak of his ideal pastime: a walk in the garden, away from the busyness of town, where he might converse with his friends in a kind of “Platonic serenity”. He was but one of many such esteemed minds who took comfort in their time among nature. I am no equal of those philosophers, but I know the great joy of going outside on a summer morning – the music of Dvořák or Stravinsky coursing through my ears (courtesy of modern technology) – to water my peonies, my geraniums, my herbs, my peppers. Without entering into mysticism, I will acknowledge that there is something about this process that does make one feel slightly closer to God, or at least puts one in the right mental state to praise and adore him.
The world of the garden can be a place for great intellectual inspiration, but of itself it is entirely practical. Carrots don’t require theoretical examination. They require water, good soil, and the warmth of the sun. I think this is part of the reason that Christ told so many parables about plants. These are truths that can be grasped by the simplest person, and yet frustrate those who have never gotten their hands dirty. They speak to the most basic level of human existence: the need for sustenance, the need to keep living. They also speak to the truth of God’s creation, in which he is revealed to us day by day – that is, if we would only see it.
Consider the lessons Jesus gave that were rooted in agriculture: the Parable of the Weeds, the Parable of the Sower, the analogy of the Vine and the Branches, the Cursing of the Fig Tree, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The prophet Isaiah often compared the people of Israel to a vineyard being tended by God. (See, for example, chapter five of that book.) The Apostle Paul compared himself and other Christian leaders to workers in a field. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7) Scripture frequently speaks of good fruit and bad fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), grain and chaff (Psalm 1), and the harvest that will take place at the end of time. (Revelation 14:14-20)
It is certainly possible to understand all of these metaphors without having any experience gardening, at least on a basic level. However, the more time I spend in the garden, the more these analogies seem to hit home for me. Take the Parable of the Weeds, more traditionally called the Parable of the Tares. Christ speaks of good plants and weeds growing side by side, and a great sorting out that will occur at the end of time. He also addressed weeds in the Parable of the Sower, when he referred to crops that are choked by thorns.
Before I began gardening, I understood weeds in theory. I knew they were problematic. Yet, it was not until I had struggled daily to pull up those weeds – the thistles cutting into my skin, the taproots refusing to give way – that I truly comprehended how pernicious they are. No matter how many weeds I pulled, they just kept coming back, and if I left them to grow too long, they would be that much more difficult to remove. Thus, I became somewhat crazy about weeds. Whenever I saw one, I could not simply walk by and leave it be. I had to pull it right then and there. Unfortunately, this was also true when I passed another person’s flower beds, and more than once my husband had to pull me away to keep me from fulfilling this primal urge.
When sin entered the world, the book of Genesis tells us that God placed a curse upon the earth:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.
Quite often, when I am making my latest effort to remove the weeds from my vegetable beds, I am reminded of that divine oracle. Yes, the ground is cursed. It brings forth not only the thing I desire, but many things that I do not desire. Thorns and thistles are par for the course, and if I am to reap anything good from the ground, it will certainly be with sweat on my face. The best I can usually do is to simply keep the weeds in check and ensure that the good plants win the battle. Is that not a lot like life?
Worse still are the invaders who would rob me of all my hard work. I love rabbits: their cute fluffy tales, the way their little noses twitch, the way they hop from place to place. But if I see a rabbit in my garden, I will chase after it with loud vocalizations. I become like Mr. McGregor in the Peter Rabbit tales.
Yet, while chicken wire can keep the rabbits at bay, it will do you no good against the hordes of insects that perpetually descend. I have tried to maintain a mostly organic gardening policy. I avoid pesticides and herbicides. The only thing I typically add other than water is some fertilizer. Part of my concern is to protect the bee population, which has dropped off significantly in recent years. However, I am considering a change in strategy due to what happened this past year.
I had four zucchini plants – my pride and joy. They were bearing such wonderful squash. Then one day I noticed that they were not forming as many flowers. The vines began to wilt and it soon became obvious that they were dead. In despair, I pulled on one of the plants and it broke off at the root, revealing a handful of white grubs that had been gorging themselves. I do not mind telling you that I was angry. I had been tending those plants for weeks in the hope of delicious grilled zucchini. How the squash beetles know to come to my yard, I shall never fully understand, but they always show up in large numbers and lay their eggs. Thus, I may not have any choice but to purchase some kind of trap, or as a last resort, to spray something that will not hurt the bees.
So yes, I hate weeds and I hate pests. For all the limited misery I experienced with the loss of my zucchini plants, just imagine if I was a farmer who lost everything in my field and had no other means of feeding my family! Those were the kind of people to whom Christ gave the Parable of the Sower. When he speaks of seed that is eaten by the birds rather than taking root, it is a very serious matter. His audience had such a strong connection with the land – a connection that we have now lost. If we wish to comprehend scripture on an even deeper level, then perhaps it is time we went back to the earth, not as some way to make ourselves feel more enlightened or fully human, but as a way of simply glorying in God’s good creation and seeking to know him better.
My garden has taught me so much about God, sin, life and death, and even humanity itself. Perhaps this is why so many great Christians over the years, from Saint Francis of Assisi to J.R.R. Tolkien, have had a deep concern for the created world. I am encouraged to see among my generation many young men and women who want to care for the environment and steward it wisely. This is not about making a political statement, but rather about treasuring the gifts that God has given us. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1a) and so is the land.
The trees are meant to point us to heaven. The weeds are meant to reveal our hearts. The life that returns each spring is the promise of renewal and resurrection. That is what I have learned from my garden, and I seek always to grow in that knowledge and to see God in the most ordinary, or extraordinary, things. When I walk in the garden and meditate on scripture, it comes alive for me. So if you enjoy a good homegrown tomato, I heartily encourage you to buy a plant and start your own garden. You may be surprised at what you reap.
 Johan Huizinga. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Translated by F. Hopman. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Page 18.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.