My neighbour is a quiet, thoughtful farmer who runs a biodynamic CSA. In one of our recent conversations, I discovered that he has a university degree in fine art. I asked him, when he decided to farm instead of pursuing his painting. He thought for a moment and then replied, “I just decided that the land would become the canvas”.
His desire to beautify the earth reminded me of the words of Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian, which reflect my own experience in the garden:
“In the beginning, in my first garden in Richmond, Virginia, I farmed for food on the table. But in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Eldersburg and Reisterstown, Maryland, and last, here in Culpeper, the garden has finally reformed my disposition toward it. It has entirely transfigured my vision of life… For the sake of beauty, I gladly leave the ruffled red cabbage to grow long beyond its time for harvest. I let the mustard reach high with bright yellow bouquets. I cultivate carefully the asparagus row not just for the taste of its buttery spears but also for the verdant fern foliage that shoots up after the spring cutting. I let volunteer sunflower, cosmos, and cleome seedlings grow where they choose. And I sneak orange nasturtiums into the hills of sweet-potato vines…
Gardening is not only making the world around us beautiful once more, but letting beauty transform us. Gardening grows from our deep longing for salvation, so that beauty fills our lives. In my garden, I take hope from Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross that he will be with his Lord in Paradise. I know that the sweat of my brow and tears of penance bring Paradise near in my backyard. For a garden is a profound sign and deep symbol of salvation, like none other, precisely because a garden was our first habitation, and God has deemed it to be our final home. Beauty is the aim of life. God imagined it so. God spoke the Word, and his invisible Image of Beauty became a visible garden.”
This beauty penetrates and seals my family. In the garden, we are moved out of our familial roles and become fellow workers. No longer wage-earner, primary care-giver or even children, we labour together to beautify our land beneath the canopy of creation’s temple. Like those first parents expelled from their paradise, we work by the sweat of our brow. Removed from the idea of ownership that exists even within the walls of our home (my books, Jacob’s shoes, Zina’s toys), we consecrate our efforts to create soil that nourishes, plants that thrive, food that fills our bellies and feeds our souls.
At the end of the day, I walk in the garden. I look out over the fields and see the hay baled for winter. Sprawling pumpkin vines, the heady scent of herbs, the tomato plants ripe with promise. I remember the words penned by Isaac Watts:
Awake, O, heav’nly wind! and come,
Blow on this garden of perfume;
Spirit divine! descend and breathe
A gracious gale on plants beneath.
Our Lord into His garden comes,
Well pleased to smell our poor perfumes,
And calls us to a feast divine,
Sweeter than honey, milk, or wine.