June, 2008, Earthsprings
Today I harvested from the garden at Earthsprings this year’s first beans, squash, and tomatoes. Meantime, I discovered that, overnight, deer had eaten three lovely young cucumber vines, and bugs had gotten to another pepper plant. Yesterday’s hot, dry winds had pushed the bean poles around quite a bit, so that I had some sorting out to do to restore any hope of orderly progress in that part of the garden. As usual, while I worked, various meaningful metaphors came to mind, metaphors that, as always, I want to share with you.
As I’ve told you before, my younger daughter once said, “For my Mom, life is but a metaphor!”—she, of course, having heard so many metaphorical teaching stories from me through her young years. I protested her remark at the time, I seem to remember, but eventually I realized that she was partially correct. By now I’m proud of my “metaphoric mind.”
The ability to see metaphorical connections, to perceive that in some way “this is like that,” and to draw conclusions from that awareness, and then to apply those conclusions for good and creative purposes—this is one of the oldest and most important achievements of the human race. It was the process of being able to see similarities and connections that allowed humans to gain control of fire, to domesticate animals and plants, to create tools.
So, this morning as I worked in my garden, I thought about metaphors, and about a comment I received in an email recently, praising the “homely wisdom” in my writings. Again, I thought at first to protest, wanting whatever “wisdom” I may have to be seen as more universal than merely homely, but, this morning, as I bent to the task of thinning the bean plants, I smiled at my own foolishness. “The universe is my home,” I thought, “and so that leaves me plenty of room to be wise in a homely fashion.”
To have that view, that the universe is “home,” with all the loving concern and appreciation that a sense of “home” involves, and to advocate from a position of caring about Mother Earth as our home, is a noble thing, and to write from that place is good, surely. To “see the world in a grain of sand,” as the poet says, is to learn not only wisdom but also contentment.
My writings may have, in fact, years ago been too often weighted down with abstract quotes from Carl Jung, or some famous physicist or other, or from the esoteric secrets of ancient times (all still important to me, mind you), but these days in my writings I seem to be calling more attention to the patterns of the wind or the attraction of certain butterflies to the color red, or to any of the limitless interactions of the natural elements around me than I do to any abstract philosophical concepts not rooted in an experiential context, that are too far removed from my own natural world.
It used to be that all peoples throughout the world used nature as the source for “teaching stories,” drawing inferences for human conduct from the bear or the owl or the fox or whatever. But contemporary society largely relegates such teaching stories to a sort of second-class “animistic” folk tale tradition, hopelessly anthropomorphic, simplistic, and moralistic.
Granted, as writer Philip Martin has said, such stories as were told by Ojibwe or Cherokee or Nigerian “tend to be small and quiet—like beaver and his friends. Gathered together, however, “ Martin continues, “such stories begin to unveil a greater, invisible order of things: the ways of the world, an interlocked community of animal, plant, and human nations. The stories gently introduce values for a more considerate walk of life.”
These “more considerate” values we today must learn if we are to survive on this planet.
Native American Lakota elder Bear Heart is quoted in this regard:
The old people used to teach by telling stories—that’s how we learned our legends. There was no television then, and those stories, told mostly in the wintertime, were our entertainment. The stories also held lessons as to what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior among our people, so the children were getting an education at the same time…The environment was our starting point in learning as much as we could from what was around us—the seasons, the things that grow, the animals, the birds, and various other life forms. Then we would begin the long process of trying to learn about that which is within ourselves. We didn’t have any textbooks, we didn’t have any great psychiatrists who lived years ago and presented theories in this and that. We had to rely on something else, and that was our senses…we sensed those things within and around us.
Thankfully, many modern people are finally coming to realize that we must once again regain such “homely wisdom” from the benefits of the telling of stories based on an intimate knowledge of how the natural world actually works. We are coming to see that, as Joanna Macy has said, “It is hard to renew the spirit if its ancient connection with earth has been severed, and hard to work for the healing of the natural world when we are wrenched away from our place within it.”
Matthew Fox has said, “
What would an ecological religion look like? Humankind has been involved in a gross desacralization of the planet, of the universe, and of our own souls for the last three hundred years. Herein lies the origin of our ecological violence. Can we recover the sense of the sacred?…Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century said that ‘Revelation comes in two volumes—the bible and nature.’ We have forgotten that second source of revelation, that of nature itself…Meister Eckhart said, ‘Every creature is a word of God,’ …You need a silent heart to listen to the wisdom of the wind and the wisdom of the trees and the wisdom of the waters and of the soil…
And then there’s the witness of Aldo Leopold, who said in 1941: “…a society rooted in the soil is more stable than one rooted in pavements; stability seems to vary inversely to the mental distance from fields and woods.”
I thought about all that while I was thinning the bean plants. I don’t care much for thinning beans, or thinning anything else for that matter. Thinning and pruning are my least favorite chores in the garden. But it has to be done, and so I do it “sacramentally,” if you will, with prayers and concern, for thinning is necessary. If bean plants, for example, come up too thickly and are not thinned, then any one plant will not get enough water or nutrients to produce beans properly.
Last fall I tossed out a handful of tiny red poppy seeds onto the ground in the flower garden in front of the house. I neglected to mix the seeds with sand before I threw them onto the carefully prepared soil. To have mixed them with sand would have meant that the seeds would have been thinned out with the sand, and the poppy plants would not have come up so close together as they did. At first I thought it was fine. Seemingly thousands of little plants emerged, all close together. “I will thin them in a few days,” I thought. But then I got sick and was unable to do anything in the garden for awhile. Consequently no thinning occurred. Time passed, and I saw that of those thousands of little red poppy seedlings, almost none lived to bloom. They were too crowded. They couldn’t get enough room for their roots to establish, to get food and water from the soil, because other seedlings were trying to do the same thing in the same place. Only here and there, around the edges of the area where I had thrown the seeds, were there plants that had had plenty of room to grow, and those bloomed beautifully. The others were simply crowded out of existence; they disappeared, and rank weeds soon took over in that spot instead.
Now the metaphor there seems obvious enough. Population that exceeds the resources needed to sustain it, especially including water and food, will not survive. Perhaps some of our cities, I thought as I thinned out the beans, are like that spot in the flower bed where too many little plants crowded together in too small a space, and so none could flourish properly. Many of our cities are already vying for control of limited water sources, knowing that no matter what, there will not be enough water if things continue as they are going. Some over-populated places in the world are already experiencing starvation and disease in horrifying proportions. Water shortages, drought, global warming—our human family here on Earth needs, perhaps to think on the simple homely truth that we need to keep ourselves in right relation to our resources. But limitation is not something we humans care much for.
When I am pruning trees or vines, a task that is done for much the same purpose as thinning seedlings, I don’t like doing it. I don’t want to limit the possibilities of any branch of a tree or vine. I used to “let Mother Nature take its course,” but I soon discovered that without pruning, the weight the many, many peaches on one limb, for example, simply breaks that limb off completely, and the tree often dies from the disease that sets in at the broken place. Thinning out some of the possible peaches, pruning some of the over-abundant branches—these tasks carefully done allow the tree to live and bear fruit for a long time. (The “carefully done” is important, mind you. Last summer I pruned a peach tree out of season, and the resulting shock killed the tree. I learned an important lesson about timing any pruning with the season and the weather. Nature is complex, and any over-simplified formula is in trouble—that I learned early, living in the woods, working in the fields.)
I don’t take this pruning responsibility lightly. But I do it anyway when necessary. I often think that perhaps Mother Nature feels the same way that I do when I am cutting back the overgrowth of things—a bit sad, but determined not to sacrifice the whole for the sake of the one part that is growing out of control.
Which brings me to the new puppy here at Earthsprings, who is certainly out of control most of the time. Happy is his name. And he is happy indeed to be dashing around Earthsprings, investigating all the many wonders he discovers. He is tireless in his enthusiasm, wrestling with empty flower pots, garden rakes, pine cones, random shoes, and anything else that is loose enough for him to drag around, toss in the air, and then chew on for awhile. Needless to say, he has run afoul of my temper all too frequently, as, for example, when he trounced my bed of beautiful, colorful, blooming impatients–plants that I had spent weeks cultivating and that were just coming into their many-colored glory. He hears the word “No!” out of me more than “Good dog!” I’m afraid.
This puppy thinks that the whole world is there for his pleasure and entertainment. He has no sense at all of limitation, of the need to protect or preserve or balance anything. It’s all just fun and games. That is what puppyhood is, quite naturally. Only gradually will he learn that he must live in harmony and balance with the rest of us, with limitations on his pleasure and entertainment. (The tomcat, Tux, is delighted to educate the puppy in that regard, of course!) Only gradually, with maturity, will Happy come to understand boundaries.
You’re there ahead of me, I’m sure, drawing a metaphor easily. For too long we humans have been like immature puppies, taking and using and enjoying the natural world and its abundance of resources with little regard for ecological concerns, with little sense of the needs or desires of other aspects of nature. Will we grow up in time, I wonder, will Mother Nature instruct us firmly but gently, as I want to do with the puppy, or will we have be dealt with more severely before we get it?
I’ve decided to set another boundary here at Earthsprings. I’m building a fence around the only area with enough sun that I can have a vegetable garden. The fence will be uncommonly high to keep out the deer, since deer can leap over six-foot fences with ease. So the posts will be eight feet high, and single strands of wire will be across the top, above the six-foot wire mesh fence. Jim Lemon and his crew are helping to build the fence, and Jim envisions some of us hanging decorative objects or “medicine objects” off the wire around the top of the fence to make it beautiful and to help the deer see that the wire is there.
I don’t like fences either, of course. This fence will obstruct part of my view from the house, a view I cherish, a view that allows me often to see the beauty of a whole herd of deer meandering along, knowing they are safe from me and the old dog and even from the frisky young puppy.
So I designed the fence as a compromise all the way around. I would have fenced in a larger area if I could have afforded it, because the deer will still be able to eat the flowers in front of my house when I’m not looking, and the fig and plum and peach trees will still be within their reach. But I will have an area where the deer can’t roam.
Another compromise. I placed the fence close enough in so that the vegetable garden will have the sun close to the house, but beyond the fence, the deer can still graze freely and wander in my view, in the midground, so to speak, between me and the forest in the distance. The fence will be in the way of my view to some extent, but it will be wire, more easily seen through than a rail fence. And I will have a space where I can put my grandmother’s antique bulbs of milk-and-honey lilies that the deer like to eat down to the ground, and I can grow various other new plants that need protection. Oh, there will still be bunnies and moles and bugs and various other predators, of course. No fence can give absolute protection. But I am trying here to be in balance—give some, take some, share some. Balance, honoring all.
I’ll do without a lot of other things in order to pay for the fence, but it’s worth it, I thought this morning, as I picked the squash and basil and thyme and parsley and lettuce and peppers that have so far survived the deer’s grazing. Now I’ve come inside to feast on freshness from the garden, my mouth full of freshly picked strawberries, and my mind full of metaphors.
May we all, I pray, pay attention and care for the natural world around us, seeing our connection and inter-dependence with all else. May we learn balance and sharing and kindness and limitation, and may we learn in gentle ways, as the ancient people did, paying attention to the simple teaching stories.
I’m going to try to remember that “gentle” business a few minutes from now, when I go outside to pick up all those plastic bags that were meant for recycling but that, I can see through my window, the puppy has discovered and scattered all over the yard. It seems he, and, I guess, we have a bit more to go before we mature enough to get the metaphor of self-restraint and learn to live within its most healthy limitations.