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Gardening as a Spiritual Tool
by Peg Streep

We don’t know precisely when the first human being planted a seed and became an active participant in the mystery and magic of the cycle of nature, capable of transforming the landscape. We don’t even know how this knowledge, which ultimately would change the course of human history, was acquired. In a quiet moment we wonder: Was it gleaned or wrested from the earth? Was it simply a matter of the observant eye: watching the pod fall unaided from the plant and insinuating itself into the soil, only to grow up as if by a miracle? Or was it an accident: the seed gathered and then scattered by human hands, flourishing months later, the germ of the idea vivid in the mind? Was it patience and belief set to the rhythm of failure and success: bits of the flower, fruit, or plant harvested and then the slow waiting, time and again, generation after generation? 

The discovery of planting was probably born of need but it couldn’t have been long before the first gardeners, over 10,000 years ago, recognized that more than just the hunger in their bellies was being fed. We know that, in time, the storytellers acknowledged the mysterious forces that gave them the gifts of seed and plant, of earth and water, the cycles of the seasons, and of the moon and sun. Humans gave these forces names and forms, and offered them thanks. These ancient but once-sacred stories—preserved for us only as statues of now-nameless grain goddesses—are lost to us, but later sacred stories—of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris, the Greek Demeter, or the Native American Changing Woman—remind us that humanity has always understood the provenance of earth’s gifts as sacral in nature. 

Understanding the awesome power of the seed—its literal and symbolic promise of renewal—changed both how human beings lived on the face of the earth and their spiritual understanding. Sowing the seed permitted them to settle, farm, and claim land as their own. This knowledge altered for many—though not all at once—what had always been the rhythm of human life, shaped by the constant search for new sources of forage and food. The symbolic meaning of the seed—the ever-renewing cycle of nature—changed the human spiritual vision of the cycle of life and death as it affected each individual. From the Neolithic onward, seasonal renewal—the reseeding of earth—became a potent metaphor for human resurrection, reflected in the much later custom of the ancient Greeks, who kept a pot of seeds representing the household’s dead near the hearth. 

The cycle of nature—the progress from seed to fruition to dying-off and then renewal in the spring—was mirrored in the wild fields and the cultivated garden alike, while the fragility of harvest—the possible interruption of the cycle by drought, wind, or other natural calamities—established the pattern of how humans understood the workings of the cosmos. The oldest of surviving sacred stories have their roots in the garden and reflect how humanity sought to understand the changeable patterns of their world and, at the same time, to imagine a world no longer subject to change. It’s no accident that our own word “paradise” comes from a Persian word for an enclosed garden. 

It took thousands of years from the first cultivation of seeds to the earliest creation of what we call a garden—an enclosed place of cultivation, rather than a field—and even then the earliest gardens recorded still reflected the sacral nature of planting. Gardens in ancient Egypt were often located near both tombs and temples, suggesting that the gardens, as well as the plants grown within them, served both funerary and religious purposes. Gardens, like the temples, honored the gods. And even as they performed secular functions such as displaying wealth, providing pleasure, and even testifying to the power that was Egypt (the booty of armies included the indigenous plants and shrubs of conquered lands), the cultivated flowers ands shrubs grown in these gardens were also used for religious purposes. Similarly, in ancient Mesopotamia, even though walled garden were sites of pleasure—Assurbanipal and his wife are depicted feasting in their garden in a seventh-century B.C. relief—they were also understood as places of sanctuary and the source of the flowers and leaves used in daily worship of the gods. In ancient Greece the uncultivated sacred grove of trees coexisted with courtyard gardens sacred to Adonis and public parks in which statues of the gods and goddesses testified to the sacrality of cultivated outdoor space. Even though the Romans secularized the garden and invented the idea of the garden as an exterior “room”—horticulture for the Romans was, in many instances, purely ornamental and a testament to pleasure and wealth—the gods were still felt to be present in the gardens where their floral offerings were grown. 

The rebirth of “civilization” called the Renaissance marked the triumph of the secular in the garden and the displacement of the spiritual (outside of those gardens cultivated by members of religious communities). Human artistry was celebrated in the garden’s design and details; beauty and comfort were its primary objectives. And while the miracle of life still took place in the garden, outdoor space was, first and foremost, a reflection of its owner. Nowhere is this more evident than in the grandeur of seventeenth-century Versailles, perhaps, in terms of the influence of its garden design, one of the most significant gardens ever created. 

Rediscovering “gardening as an instrument of grace,” to use May Sarton’s words, requires that we go back in time to recover our sense of wonder. Much separates us from those who discovered the power of the seed but now, thousands of years later at the dawn of a new millennium, more and more of us are experiencing the sense of spirit our ancestors on the planet acknowledged in the soil beneath their feet and in the seed itself. Gardening engages all five of the human senses as few activities do. We see, smell, feel, hear, and even taste as we garden, and, because all of our senses are involved, what we experience is vivid and specific. The simple acts of gardening—digging, tamping, working the dirt, and watering—have echoes that reach back to childhood, whether we played in the suburbs or in a city park. As we garden we experience time past and present. Touching the earth—digging, planting, harvesting—connects us literally and spiritually to all those who have dug, planted, and harvested before us. Working in the garden permits us to begin to understand the woven pattern of relationships in nature, and teaches us that nothing in nature is either independent or isolated. 

When we garden we reconnect ourselves to the slow rhythms of the cosmos. Our knees in the dirt, our faces close to the ground, we dig in the soil and see the myriad forms of life hidden to us when we are upright and walking: the earthworm tunneling through the soil, the outlined whiteness of the grub, the sticky trail of the slug. The perfumes of the garden—the rich loamy smell of water-laden soil or the acrid bite of the geranium—revive us and remind us that the world has a palette of scent as well as color. The sweetness of a berry and the cool note of mint encompass a range of taste and feeling, and teach a lesson in opposites. We breathe deep as our fingers work the soil, and marvel at the texture of the visible world: the soft fuzz of a begonia’s leaf, the pansy’s fragile velvet, the feathery lightness of dill. And then there is the music of a garden, set apart from the noise-filled world in which we usually live: the evening call of the summer cicada or the whisper of grasses, the crackle of fallen leaves underfoot. 

Gardening also helps us come to terms with the cycle of human life. Many of  us tend to see our lives as linear, moving from points A to B in progression, with birth and death at opposite ends of the continuum, but the garden teaches another lesson entirely. In nature, beginnings and endings, birth and death, are inseparable: implicit in the flower’s blooming is its dying-off as well as its eventual renewal. The perennials in our winter garden—dead aboveground, still awake below—teach us about time and hidden mysteries. The withered annual is a symbol of the larger pattern that extends beyond us and our gardens: Seeds borne by the wind and birds bring small pieces of our lives into other places and other lives, making new, if unseen, connections. Planting seeds makes us active participants in the cycle of life, while tending our gardens teaches us about larger patterns of the cycle that are beyond our control. We learn patience from the long wait from planting to sprouting to blooming, as we learn acceptance when nature takes its own course. We gain humility when we catch a true glimpse of the extraordinary complexity of the natural world. 

With all of our senses engaged, seeing becomes understanding in the garden. Just as the medieval monks could see God’s presence in His handiwork and could make it the starting point for a meditation, so, too, we are learning to go into the garden to glimpse the “larger pattern”—regardless of what we name it—which seems to elude us in the other details of our everyday lives. This book was written and designed so that these experiences could be shared; our lives are enriched when we understand that the seeds in our hands are the promise of tomorrow.

Copyright © PegStreep.  Reprinted by permission of Time Life Custom Publishing, all rights reserved.  No portions of this may be used without the express written permission of the author and publisher.

Peg Streep
holds advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is author of many spiritual titles, including "Spiritual Gardening: Creating Sacred Space Outdoors," "Altars Made Easy: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Sacred Space," "Mary, Queen of Heaven," and "Sanctuaries of the Goddess: The Sacred Landscapes and Objects."  She lives in a suburb outside of New York City where she devotes equal time to motherhood and writing.


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