What makes gardening such a precise mirror for the soul? There are many biblical parables that invoke the imagery of the garden – the pruning of vines, sowing of seeds, and harvesting of grapes. Taoists believe that miniature gardens are the Earthly copy of Paradise. In Islam the four gardens of Paradise – Soul, Heart, Spirit, and Essence – symbolize the mystical journey of the soul. And then there’s my retired neighbor Angelo who once told me that gardening was the most humble of tasks. “Your head is always bowed and sometimes you have to go down on your knees.”
And as the gardener creates, so does the garden transform the inner life of its creator. The word ‘create’ actually derives from the Latin creare which means to produce, to make life. The garden’s cycle mirrors our own growth, complete with floods, heat, drought, infestation, dying, resurrecting, blossoming, blooming, maturing, rotting, bounty, beauty, and miracles. In our deeper psyche we tend to our life’s garden of sorrows and joys. We pull out, cut back, dig up, bury, sow, support, and nourish hoping one day to harvest our life’s experiences into wisdom. Without all this soul/gardening work, our spirits are swamped under the weeds, our creative gifts choked, our true selves unable to flourish.
As we relate to the Earth with hoe, shovel and watering can, the Earth begins to teach us about ourselves. Working the Earth is like dreaming, it can act as a medium between self and soul. When we take time to garden, we are allowing our souls to speak to our conscious selves, to display outwardly where in the soul process we really are. And as we gain in awareness, we can equally influence the soul to move to its next necessary task by outwardly performing the chore in the garden.
There were days when I found myself tearing at weeds, only moments later to feel the fierce roots of long-buried anger and resentment clinging to my heart. Other days I was filled with joy, longing to spill seeds upon every patch of bare Earth. By gardening we unearth a place where our inner and outer worlds can merge. And in this space, with time and nourishment, we encourage the self closer to universal truths.
Similarly, while the garden is a connection to our lives, it is also a connection to death. There must be a balance between the two, and the time for each must be acknowledged, observed, and honored. One summer afternoon while visiting Giuseppa, I heard the mew of a newborn kitten coming from under the pigeon coop. Its mother had abandoned it to die; it was blind and starving. I scooped it up and held it against me as it feebly sought mother’s milk. Distraught, I turned to Giuseppa and said, “Oh, Giuseppa, what should I do? What should I do with this kitten?”
I remembered Giuseppa telling me how as a young girl during and after the Second World War, her job was to take care of the beasts. “We had large bulls to pull the plow, goats, rabbits, pigs, and of course chickens,” she said. “My two brothers were afraid of the bulls, but I used to love to walk with them, pulling them by their nose rings. They were really gentle creatures. You know, with animals, you can always tell how they’re going to behave. It’s with people that you can never be certain.”
But this time, Giuseppa looked at me as if I were a small child who had dropped all the fresh eggs. “What should you do, Caterì?” she asked. “Why, put it down.”
It was a direct and poignant reply. I instantly recognized the need to allow nature to take its own course, to trust that the mother cat’s instincts were better than mine, to recognize that with sacrifice comes strength and renewal. I put the cat down.
In fact, this cycle of Life and Death on our planet was once ritualized and celebrated by our ancestors. Today the remnants of such sacred rites are the play of children — dances around May Poles and parades in Halloween costumes. Even though we might rationally interact with our gardens – we logically know we need seeds, sun, water, and rich Earth – still there remains a mystery as to how, when, why, and what really flourishes.
Note: This story was written while I was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the second part of a three part series to be continued next time…