Jun 29, 2011
There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say: “It is yet more difficult than you thought.”
--Wendell Berry, Poetry and Marriage
And so it is in the life of the gardener. So many visions. Not nearly enough time. Even less—yes, even less—understanding with each calendar round.
The essential paradox of living intimately with Nature is that the truth one seeks is actually not contained in the list of facts one acquires, season after season, year after year.
Sure, the raw data, the facts and figures compile and accrue, becoming a sort of transcript, proof that one has showed up to class, certainly, but indicating nothing whatsoever about lessons learned. Tempting as it is to comfort oneself with such a litany of credits, to do so is pure hubris, and every bit as dangerous as Siren song to sailors who have no idea how lost they are, let alone how near the deadly rocks loom.
The idea that the more one learns the less she knows she knows is not a new one. When I learn one fact about nutrient deficiency in tomatoes, I glimpse a world of soil science virtually unknown to me. With every new fact I acquire, I am confronted with the depth and breadth of my ignorance. This is not the essence of the paradox I’m addressing.
The paradox at the heart of a gardener’s relationship with Nature is much more primal, and centers around the idea that every fact I acquire, everything I think I know says more about Me than about Nature. Every item on the ever-expanding transcript amounts to a projection of sorts, a desperate attempt to impose predictable order on a system viewed solely from one, very limited human perspective.
Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with that. I shudder to imagine life without Field Guides and How-to Manuals and Google searches. The challenge is remembering that the acquisition of such human-derived knowledge will only take me so far, and not one step farther, on the overgrown, nearly impenetrable path to truth.
The best brush hog is a mind that doesn’t presume to know, a mind that doesn’t project, but absorbs. A mind that, instead of insisting how it all works, marvels that it works at all.
Such wonder is the fertile earth in which humility grows. And although I’d certainly be lying if I claimed not to derive great pleasure from my tomatoes and snowpeas and unusual squash, the older I become, the more I’m beginning to “get” that the most valuable fruit of my garden is how humble I feel when I sink my bare hands into its dirt.
Of this garden’s many mysteries, I understand nothing at all. Increasingly, I gotta tell you, I’m good to go with that.
Yesterday, as I tied up grape vines gone wild and pinched back tomato suckers run amok in just a few days’ time—how does this happen?—I tried to come up with a metaphor that might convey not just my lack of understanding, but also my necessary acceptance of it. As a tree sparrow babbled at me from the vineyard wires, I came up with this:
Imagine a confectioner who has spent years icing and decorating, but never baking, cakes. Having adorned dozens of types of cakes of myriad textures and shapes, she might begin to believe she “knows a thing or two about cakes.” And, indeed, she does. No way to argue with that. But her knowledge, if she’s honest about it, is only icing-deep. Having never baked a cake herself, she can’t truthfully claim to understand what a cake is. A humble confectioner would be well advised to acknowledge her debt to cakes.
Having never germinated myself, I can’t truthfully claim to understand what a bean is. As a humble-gardener-in-training, I would do well to honor the bean I can never be, and thus never truly understand.
Oh, sure, I can learn a thing or two about cotyledons and seed coats and secondary roots and radicles. I can plant the bean seed in carefully-crafted, nutrient rich dirt. I can kneel with my nose to the ground and search for the delicate bent neck of an emerging stem. I can spray the new leaves with compost tea. I can even speak to the young plants in cheerleader tones: Grow beans, grow! I can implore them lovingly: Please!
What do I understand about the miracle of a seed becoming a plant that bears fruit I can eat and seeds I can plant again? I understand much more about cakes. And, fact is, I always will.
This year I’ve given up wearing gloves in the garden. Not for the sake of knowledge, not even for the sake of understanding, but simply because I crave the feeling of dirt against my skin. The dipped holy water of another context. A physical acknowledgment of my mendicant status. A simple sacrament that celebrates the mystery of life.
Increasingly, I gotta tell you, I’m good to go with that.