by Hannah VanderHart
It is spring, and I read too much Walden in the winter. I am digging through the foot-deep leaves and pine needles in the yard in search of my individual strength. I strive, I strive, I whisper as I work. The thirty-gallon bags seem to fill themselves, although I’m tired, so clearly they don’t. My 16-month-old busies himself with rocks, his watering can, dirt, a combination of the first three, and plucking bits from my grape hyacinths.
I love to see the landscape change beneath my hands. To free the periwinkles from the fallen pine and give them back to the sun. To rake out the mats of molding pine needles—earthily, they come and go. In Paradise Lost, Milton carefully positions work before the fall because he views it as part of God’s created good, and in conversation with Eve one evening, Milton’s Adam explains how
…other creatures all day long
Rove idle unemployed, and less need rest;
Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his dignity,
And the regard of Heav’n on all his ways;
While other animals unactive range,
And of their doings God takes no account. (Book IV.616-622)
Is this not a captivating idea of what work is? We work, and our work “declares” our dignity.
Heaven regards us for it. God takes account. And we rest more deeply than the animals to whom work is not appointed, who “rove idle unemployed.” I also love that Adam is talking to Eve about their labor together in the garden. Who knew the dignity in a bag of musty leaves, or in the pine-cone pricked finger.
I think of the Andrew Hudgins’ poem that reads
…I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
Of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here—what lives, what dies,
and how. But it goes deeper even than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
To lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it—
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
It seems an appropriate text, on the heels of Easter: the flip of the spade in the sunlight, earth turned over, inside out, life and air breathed back into the soil to which all life returns. Gardening is, after all, about “what lives, what dies / and how.”
Adam and Eve began life together in a garden, and Christ’s knees were in garden soil in Gethsemane. Hudgins’ line of description “pass[ing] through one death and out the other side,” strikes at the heart of the gardener.
If my memory at all serves, Thoreau began his log cabin in early March, and finished it mid-April. He upcycled boards from a shanty he bought, and also felled, stripped, and planed his own boards from trees at Walden. I found this so inspiring: a cabin rising out of a single man’s hands in a month and a half in new England spring (read: snow). Reading Walden
, you can see Thoreau’s foggy breath and hear the chopping of his borrowed axe—which he returns sharper than when he borrowed it, Thoreau quickly adds.
I had planned on paying someone to haul away my leaves for me. Too much of a task for me—too many gallons of wet leaves, my toddler crying on my hip. But I watched Thoreau’s cabin rise in a small clearing. I saw Thoreau learn to bake his own bread and learn not to keep a bottle of yeast in his pocket. I saw him plant and pick and sell beans and decide never to grow more than he needed for himself again. And I picked up a rake for my little urban yard, and began my own gardening.
We each have a cabin in the woods waiting for us.
Addendum: while writing the above during my son’s nap hour, my neighbor brought his mower over and mowed my entire lawn for me; I am humbled by the extended gift of his gardening!
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