Back to the Garden
by Jerry DeNuccio
“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Joni Mitchell’s lyric, sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young, became the anthem of the assembled tribes of the Woodstock nation, gathered in 1969 on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. A blossom of idealism and youthful hope, perhaps; a restless yearning for prelapsarian innocence. I recently found myself getting back to the garden, and while I cannot claim it transformed me either to youth or to the condition of pre-fallen faultlessness, it did cause me to think about gardens and the reasons I have always found them so compelling.
How did I manage to get myself back to the garden?
A casual acquaintance of my step-daughter Alma asked if she could use my wife Kathy’s and my backyard for her wedding. Our back yard features two gardens: one a large and open-to-the-sun pastiche of various species of flora, the other a small and shaded retreat dominated by a redbud tree and ground cover. We created the gardens for Alma’s wedding several years previously. We consented to the request for two reasons. First, we were moved by the fact that the groom was serving in Afghanistan and had a three-week leave for the wedding. Second, it motivated us to do what we had long discussed but had never quite found the wherewithal to put into actual practice: to go beyond the sufficient tending we had typically done and prosecute a purposeful grooming and smartening that would refashion and enrich the gardens.
Working on weekends, evenings, and free afternoons we raked and shoveled and pruned and cropped and weeded and sheared and excised and remulched. We scoured the cement patio clean of several seasons’ worth of grime. We scrubbed and restained the weathered benches and flower boxes and pergola I had built around and over it some years before. We relandscaped. We added new plants, bordered paving stone and gravel paths, and created several nooks adorned with decorative items designed to add visual interest and character. Grandson Ted and I provided labor; Alma and Kathy provided labor and, most importantly, creative vision. In one month’s time, the mustered family efforts had recast the gardens. We had produced a garden makeover.
It was hard work, sometimes done in the cloudy cool of a lingering early spring, sometimes amid an unseasonable hug of humidity, and while my age-addled body grew tired, I never found myself mentally exhausted. My mind wandered, and I let it sprawl and unspool and ricochet, let it crystallize tightly or loosen and drift, with no officer to prowl for those truant thoughts and bring them under schooled discipline. My back bent to its tasks, my hands busied themselves, but that place where contemplation thrums, was busier still.
At one point in my labors, I thought of all the literature I had read that featured gardens and how, in one way or another, they invert, question, or reflect on that master symbol from Genesis, the Garden of Eden. And I realized that gardens themselves are narratives, plots with a plot, a sequenced series of logically-connected action that lead sometimes to a reversal of fortunes, sometimes to a gratifying conclusion.
It struck me that gardens are a halfway point between nature and artifice, much as we ourselves are of and in nature, but only partially so. We are natural creatures, but we stand outside of nature, and so situated, we are unable to adopt the self-contained placidity of animals that Walt Whitman so much admired. Blessed with reason, we see not just how things are, but how they ought to be, and we are willing to deploy our efforts in the service of that vision. We possess moral sentiments and intuitions about which we argue and seek justification, and for which we seek a disinterested, widespread application. Our imagination and language expand our minds and hearts, deepen our inwardness. Shakespeare accurately captures our partial break from nature by calling us the “paragon of the animals,” the consummate animal, above nature but still anchored to it. In a different way, Emerson, too, characterizes that partial break: “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” For Emerson, the garden we cultivate is ourselves.
Most ritual occurs at in-between points like gardens. In that threshold space, that chartless third space between opposed polarities, actions become ceremonial and signify, become experiences that connect us to something large, profound, deep, meaningful, ineffable. For me, back in the gardens, that connection was to beauty. Gardens are a preserve of beauty, hewn from the world, cordoned from the trailing dust of the events of our days and ways. The only real end of the gardens we created is simply to be gazed upon, to gladden with the sheer force of their allure, to be seized with the urgent impulse of their rich, fully sufficient thereness.
“We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell writes. But, Joni notes, we were “caught by the devil’s bargain,” exiled by consciousness of good and evil from the thoughtless innocence of the garden to experience distress and discord, to toil for our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. In getting back to the garden, the brows of my little family beaded with perspiration. But we had made no bargain with the devil. We imagined, we planned, we worked, and we created a beautiful space, a distilled space of reverie and sensation which, with continued care, we can get ourselves back to for a long time to come.