It’s not easy being green these days.
For many years my stepson had been an organic farmer in Vermont. More recently, he has become the sales manager for a large organic seed company serving commercial interests internationally. The company supplies home gardeners as well. When the pandemic hit, he told me how orders for seeds skyrocketed. The orders were not all from commercial customers, but from home gardeners as well, who began placing orders in unprecedented numbers.
This is not true only for the States, but also in Britain. Eight out of ten Brits have home gardens and today they’re finding seeds difficult to get.
Rebecca Mead, writing in the New Yorker magazine recently, discusses gardening’s significance.
Mead tells us about Sue Stuart-Smith who wrote a book called “The Well-Gardened Mind.” Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and gardener, goes beyond the cliché of how gardening is “good for you.” She is intrigued by the unconscious dimensions of gardening, “the symbolism and the level of metaphor.” Stuart-Smith writes how she sees the gardening experience as profoundly healing for body and mind, and a source of spiritual sustenance.
Edward Steichen, the pioneer American photographer, in his last years, became enthralled with a single bush.
At age 90 and until his death at 94, Steichen focused his entire photographic activity on a shadbush that he’d planted years earlier at his home. Steichen photographed the bush in varying light, in all seasons, in snow and rain. He said, “Here was something in nature that repeated everything that happened in life.” Exactly what the bush repeated isn’t clear, but I’d venture a guess: if nothing else, gardening is an expression of hope in a future and classical photography is an exercise in expectation. As a life-long photographer, I live expectantly after I take any picture. I hope, but there’s no certainty a satisfactory image will emerge. Like gardeners do, I sow in hope while uncertain of what I’ll reap.
The shadbush belongs to the rose family. Poet, Robert Herrick once wrote how we would do well “to gather rosebuds while ye may –– old time is still a-flying and this same flower that smiles today –– tomorrow will be dying.”
Nevertheless, “When we sow a seed,” observes Stuart Smith, “we plant a narrative of future possibility.” Tentativeness is as characteristic of gardening as it is of classical photography and life itself. Hope is the operative word. Where there’s hope, there’s possibility.
My life plays out like fugues in musical compositions – different melodies weave in and out. As they cross, my life assumes distinctive tones.
I’ve been actively photographing since I was eleven. I’ve been an octogenarian for six years. The pandemic struck the world in March. The confluence of these circumstances has rendered a new tonal quality to my life. I now appreciate gardens and what they signify.
I’m not a gardener. My wife loves gardening; she’s a life-long gardener. During the pandemic, I’ve lived, literally, as “close to home” as I ever have. The house, the trees, the lawn and the gardens that my wife tends, define my daily parameters. As result, I’ve grown very conscious of being embraced by a green world (all the greener for the rain). I’ve never seen my world in quite the same way before. My world, grown smaller, is yet larger. I see more in less.
Pandemics bring the matter of our mortality home in an unprecedented way. For me, as I’m sure it did for Steichen, mortality hovered at the edges of our consciousness. What happens as we age? To use a photographic term, our depth of focus increases. We see the distant past, and also what’s closer, both with similar clarity.
Stuart-Smith suggests a similar dynamic. In the gardening experience, the gardener is in an in-between space. Gardening allows the inner and outer worlds to coexist simultaneously, “. . . a meeting place for our innermost dream infused selves and the real physical world.” To put this another way: gardening is one way of being fully alive…and feeling it in the moment.
In last week’s column, I described at some length how I’d become enthralled with black-eyed Susans my wife had grown and had arranged in a vase. The picture appears above. Like Steichen’s tree, I felt driven to photograph them. I told my wife I was planning on making a picture of them. She commented, innocently but prophetically, “Better hurry, they don’t last long.”
I’d not been actively photographing for some time. The natural beauty of the flowers was stunning and I wanted to create an image that reflected how they made me feel. I also think I wanted to immortalize the moment of my discovery. I felt fully alive in the process.
Sue Stuart-Smith was not surprised when the pandemic had led Britons to become even more consumed with gardening than usual. “Whenever there’s a crisis –– be it a war or the aftermath of a war, or natural disaster––we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia (a desire to communicate with nature.) She notes how in the first World War, infantrymen created gardens in their trenches, growing not just vegetables to eat, but also flowers. Growth, itself regenerative, restores those engaging with it.
“When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility,” Stuart Smith writes.
A dear friend of ours, a nun, died two years ago. She’d lived a simple life. She had two or three plants. Over thirty years ago she gave us two sprigs from her jade plant. They have grown large and generated others. Today would have been her 94th birthday.
I see the jades. I feel her presence.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.