And I in such a poverty of grace
. . . shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps; loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
– Silvius, As You Like It, III.5
Last Saturday Erin and I woke up early to pick strawberries on a local farm. It was a respite I had looked forward to all week, a leisure ripe from anticipation—and to my younger self it would have been a chore I cringed at all week, a drudgery soured by dread. Such is the miracle of adulthood: those boring pastimes so inscrutable to children are reborn as delights.
When I was ten, gardening was the black spot on my summers, the scourge of my Saturdays. We didn’t grow anything at my house, but my grandfather grew everything at his, and through the perpetual conspiracy between him and my mother, my brother and I were conscripted as laborers.
Every Saturday in high summer, we were roused and shuttled to Grandpa’s never ending rows of beans, corn, squash, beans, cucumbers, and more beans. (The actual size of that small farm is impossible to verify now. To my childhood mind, the place could only have been measured in acres. That it all managed to fit in Grandpa’s back yard casts some doubt on that now, but the important thing is that it felt like acres.)
Worse than the scope of the labor was the climate. This was Texas, and East Texas, so Texas hot and Louisiana humid. It was truly oppressive. Picking beans for an hour felt like swimming in a bog of quicksand while wearing a lead apron. Add the constant scratch of stalks and tendrils and the continual menace of bees and wasps, and you see the just grounds we had for revolt against child slave labor.
We, however, never did revolt, choosing instead the high road of nonviolence—namely, complaining.
To that beleaguered child, it must seem a scandal and a betrayal that, without even a whimper of protest, I would reenact those same persecutions now, moved by not an ounce of obligation but only by what must be recognized as joy. And what explains the change? Maybe gardening can be cataloged with the other chores of domestic life—mowing the yard, washing dishes and laundry, dusting off bookshelves—that earn some affection merely by familiarity and rhythm.
But there is something more here. Gardening—planting and waiting and worrying and harvesting—is unique. Gardening is a world ordinary and even dull at first glance, but saturated with meaning and fertile with metaphor when dwelt in.
The heart of hortiphilia, I think, is really an encounter with mystery. We say we grow things. That is an imprecision. We plant things, we water them, we prune them, we harvest them; they do the growing themselves. There is something entirely outside us at work, something that may respond to our skill and art (or may not) and may be described by our science but cannot be mastered by either will or study. Growth is a phenomenon, shrouded from our senses, that is fundamentally an encounter with grace. We prepare what we can, we participate where we see how, but ultimately we simply receive what we are given.
A garden, then, is a perfect metaphor for the whole of life and a tireless teacher in how to live it. The endless didacticism of the garden seems mostly to burden children, for whom it means work instead of play, but to a slightly jaded adult searching for a gentle voice, its lessons are a balm. When I was a child, thinking and acting like a child, patience was superfluous. No need to work or wait for something; something else just as interesting could always be done. When I became a man, patience, if not more natural, at least became more necessary for happiness.
Patience is harvested in bushels from a garden. There is the more obvious patience, the patience of investing, of waiting to reap what you’ve sown. But there is another varietal, one with less florid fruit but deeper roots. That is the patience of not reaping what you’ve sown, the patience of failure.
Last year, our first year in amateur agriculture, we were all hope and no expectation. Failure seemed just as likely as success. But Michigan, that “other Eden in the summertime,” rains on both sinner and saint, and the harvest was bountiful in spite of our clumsiness.
This year looks even more promising. But things started poorly. My pet project failed decisively. We had planned an addition to our leafy greens—strawberries grown in lengths of vinyl gutter—but I mounted the gutters too high on the fence, right along the top, where the squirrels can run. It was a perfect buffet. Not a single bud survived, we missed the window for re-planting, and now the gutter sits there, sagging under the weight of barren soil until next year when I can try a different spot.
And that is the thing about failing in a garden. Sometimes you can’t fix things until next year, and that fix might fail as well. With the cycle of trial and error stretched to such long intervals, error can feel almost permanent. This staggered me.
Why was I distraught over a lost handful of berries? It was more than the fruitless expense of time, labor, and money. It was, I finally saw, that this particular kind of failure is a brush with mortality. It reveals things as finite—the limit of your abilities and your window to improve them. When you can try again tomorrow, failure is negligible, success almost assured. There are plenty of tomorrows, each coming immediately, and that sequence quietly elides failure into the arc of success.
But you can number your summers, and they come so slowly. Success is no longer in your grasp. Until the next summer does come, you have to live in your deficiency.
The simpler things I work and wonder at are not this way. Wiki blurbs and YouTube tutorials can mend gaps in knowledge and skill instantaneously, painlessly. But this is the state of the truly important things—our philosophy, our theology, our friends, ourselves. We are beings “on the way,” as Pieper says in his essay “On Hope,” and the way is long, and its end is not actually in our view.
Recognizing this, once I had dug down to the root of my frustration, did not root out that frustration, but it did graft on a few shoots of hope. It’s good to be thwarted. It’s good to be stuck for a while, waiting and not even working. It’s good to pause and contemplate for a season the limits of labor and the limits of self. The frustration it arouses, when probed, comes to be felt as the pain of growth. A little more knowledge, a slightly fuller hold on reality. There it was, where I didn’t see it, happening anyway.