Contemplation and Gardening

I remember learning about Thoreau’s On Walden Pond. It was a survey class, so we didn’t pause long enough to fully read and examine the text, but I remember hearing how Thoreau retreated into a simple life connected to nature. Even when I learned that Thoreau considered “without support of any kind” to include his mother providing him with food and doing his laundry, I was still drawn to the idea of a space where I let go of my regular pursuits and focused instead on a life of contemplation. I always pictured traveling somewhere to achieve this. Yet when I did go to writing retreats, I often discovered myself beset with anxiety. Social anxiety around living with other people, and anxiety for the tasks and people I’d left behind. Anxiety and contemplation don’t co-exist very well.

One of the surprises of having all my travel canceled has been an increased connection to my house and my gardens. Neither is particularly large, nor particularly natural. Yet my house is surrounded by green things. Most of them are green things that I planted years ago that have thrived through benign neglect.

This evening I went to look at my grape vines. I was looking to see if there were any seedless grapes left. I thought there might be in the overgrown corner where the grape vines had swamped both a lilac bush and a rose of sharon bush. The under layers of the bushes had died for lack of sunlight leaving a twiggy impenetrable tangle where ripe grapes might be hiding. I’d only intended to seek grapes, instead I found myself slowly clipping away dead twigs and branches. I accumulated quite a pile that would make excellent starter material for a fire in our fire pit. In the process I created and arched hideaway where I could stand out of sight of most everything. Greenery overhead and on all sides. It was the kind of secret garden space I always longed for as a child. It was calming and contemplative to slowly transform the space clip after clip, twig after twig.

Last night I had a friend over for a visit. I placed our fire pit on the new patio flanked with chairs on opposite sides, a good six feet apart. We sat and talked for hours my friend and I as flames consumed branches that we cut from our trees years ago and stacked. Those stacks gathered spiders and bugs and dust. Now they are finally getting used. I want to burn all the old pest ridden sticks. It will make space for a new accumulation of dead wood from various corners of my garden. The contemplative act of tending my plants provides material for contemplating next to a fire. Strange how profoundly peaceful it can be to sit by a fire surrounded by darkness, even when the darkness is only my yard, and is ringed on most sides by street lamps and lights from signs or cars.

For so many years I had abandoned gardening as something I did not have time for. Life was too hectic. I lost something in choosing to let go of that piece. I also failed to comprehend that “gardening” isn’t just growing a vegetable garden or flower beds. Gardening is tending my outdoor spaces. It can be trimming trees or digging a patio. It can be trimming back twigs and marking vines according to which flavor of grape they grew, so that next spring I can make cuttings to give to friends. Gardening is tending. And it happens right here at home in between all my other things. I didn’t need to find time to run away from all my things so that I could be contemplative. I had to rearrange and re-prioritize so that mundane, time-consuming tasks forced me to slow down in contemplative ways.

There are things we all want back when the pandemic is over. However there are also changes I don’t want to lose.