The Garden Dream and the Teaching Garden

 [Please scroll down for 2 more reflections: "The story of my orientation by water" and "A talk to myself when crisis in the life bardo grips my mind."]

I live in exurbia, in a townhouse in Northern Westchester. It is a beautiful area, with lots of trees and rolling hills and rivers and rock formations. In gardening season, I enjoy a twelve by twelve foot plot in a community garden run by the local Lewisboro Garden Club. I am not very diligent in tending it, since it is a twenty minute drive from my house. I have some success with green beans and zinnia.

            I dream of having a kitchen garden of my own. Why do I have this dream? It’s questionable whether I would find myself devoting to it the care it would require. My days are filled with meditation, reading, writing, yoga, walking in the woods, teaching and adoring my grandchildren. A garden needs to be tended.  It is suitably a metaphor for oneself and one’s world, weeds, bugs, blights, weathers and all.

            I have beautiful pictures of my maternal grandmother and my mother in their gardens. There are annuals and perennials, flowers and vegetables. My grandmother came from Hueffenhardt, a village in the Schwarzwald near Heidelberg, and my relatives there tend a wonderful household garden, including berries and fruit trees. My mother had a plot in a community garden across the street from our house in a suburb of Milwaukee. Bringing corn, beans and salads home, she used to run across the street so as to arrive with the full energy of their freshness.

            My father grew up on a grape farm in Fredonia in upstate New York. He built a kitchen garden for his mother. She died before I was born, so I never saw it as it was tended by her. Her family were florists and ran a greenhouse. She kept a Garden Club book in which she wrote down poems such as “Resurrection by W.D.Woodward:

When leaves go into mourning

            For the dying of the year,

They never clothe themselves in black,

            Nor sorrowful appear.

But like some happy children

            Exchanging work for play,

They dance and swirl, they prance and whirl,

            The gayest of the gay.


They seem to write this lesson

            On nature’s brilliant page.

We’ve done our duty truly,

            Why should we mourn at age?

There comes a resurrection

            In the springtime by and by,

When from our sleep again we’ll peep,

            And lift our heads on high.


            In 1821, before her family came over from Germany, the first natural gas well in the US, 27 feet deep, had been drilled in Fredonia near a “burning spring.” The first American natural gas company wasincorporated there in 1858. After my grandfather died, the grape farm wassubdivided for residential construction. Meanwhile Fredonia was expanding as a campus of the State University of New York.


            These threads—energy development, loss of farmlands, growth of higher education—have stitched their way across this country. From an early age, I had dreams of woodlands and fields being mowed down by fast-moving machines. I wept at my powerlessness as natural beauty was forced to give way. But as an adult, my focus became academic and urban, at some distance from the spiritual, symbolic, poetic kitchen garden world of my foremothers.

            As we raised our children, my husband and I bought a suburban house with a few wooded acres. He planted and tended a rose garden while I kept a salad and herb garden.  He tended his rose garden using toxic sprays to kill bugs and mildews, and made sweet bouquets for us to enjoy. Deer and lyme ticks began to take over. My husband died prematurely, the children became adults, and I moved to a low-maintenance townhouse. Now in my old age,  grandparenthood and environmental concerns have reawakened the garden dream. I joined the community garden because I wanted my granddaughters to learn how things grow, to learn the heritage of the mother line.

            Environmental concerns with a view to the coming generations led to my developing a course called Spirituality & Nature at SUNY Purchase College, where I teach.  Included in the course are documentaries and books on environmental issues. We particularly engage in food and water issues. This has led to a project of establishing a sustainable gardening course and a forty by fifty foot campus garden. It turns out that quite a few students, faculty and administrators have garden dreams, though few of us have the skills or wherewithal to implement them. Also most students and faculty are not there in the summer, the principle growing season, which is why previous student efforts to establish a garden have lost steam. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is in our neighborhood, and the four seasons grower there, Jack Algiere, has helped us find a campus gardener to set up and maintain the garden and teach Spring, Summer and Fall semester gardening courses. The hope is that the garden and the courses will make a meaningful contribution to campus life and to the surrounding community. It remains to be seen how this will work.

            I am, it must be admitted, habituated to a traditional humanistic academic focus on thought and words, rather than hands-on action. My field is Religious Studies and Philosophy. Even as I have come to believe in and teach the importance of environmental action, I find myself thinking more than acting. I have increasingly turned to Buddhist teachings and practices, in part as a pragmatic approach to questioning my habits of thought and feeling. Am I nostalgically attached to a romantic memory of the way things once were? Also to melancholy and fear that the way things are now can’t be remedied in this life? Also to an introspective proclivity that the lost garden exists only in my mind?  There was, when I was young, a romantic sense that America was beautiful, with spacious skies and fruited plains. Now I am not alone in being fixated with anger and horror at scenes of fracking and mineral extraction, taking off whole mountaintops, polluting rivers. Actually these horrors were already going on when I was younger, but I was unaware. This is the way things are.

            Sitting under the Bodhi tree, Buddha found a practice of mind that penetrates into its habitual attachments, illusions, dichotomies, inner conflicts, thoughts and emotions, to identify and liberate the causes of our mental sufferings. He looked realistically at the way things are. Although we try to think of them as otherwise, things, both external and internal, are not lasting. They are not independent but dynamically relative to one another. In his awakening, he experienced that freedom is not separate from the wheel of life, that nirvana is not separate from samsara, for both are equally empty of any solid reality, any fixed being of their own. He touched the Earth as witness that he had gone beyond the transient desires and aversions on which his illusory sense of self habitually fixated.  

            His model of non-violent insight and engagement applies particularly well as species, cultures and habitats are lost or poisoned in the onslaught of environmental, political and economic violence. The purpose of his teaching and practice, especially in its Great Vehicle version, is not to escape, but to touch the Earth as witness of a presence of mind awakened from extremes of longing and rage, romantic dream and nightmare.

            My husband wrote his doctoral dissertation on Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and “Hortus,” on Marvell’s wit in interplaying Epicurean hedonist and neo-Platonic spiritual conceits with the experiential lushness of the mind’s self-retreat in a garden, “annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade.” The poems celebrate a garden of solitude in reclusion from the commotions of human society. He later became a teacher of Milton and Paradise Lost, in which the Angel, having revealed to Adam God’s plan for man’s salvation, tells him, “thou…shalt possess / a paradise within thee, happier far.” This garden-paradise archetype in the mind is a peaceful and pleasurable solitary retreat, a place of contemplation, an enclosed wholeness and sacred inner space, a paradise within, from which we have been physically expelled. This cultural heritage is an aspect of my dream garden, part of a tendency to imagine a paradise, and also nirvana, as a locus rather than a dynamic presence.

            In a physical garden, with its work, sensations, seasons and difficulties, I learn of my kinship and interrelationship with all beings, from worms and microbes to fellow humans across the planet to the dusts of stars.  I learn of the cycles of life and death and the return of life, as in my grandma’s “Resurrection” poem. I become prepared for death, for my ashes or bones to be returned to the earthly ground. Perhaps my urge to engage with a teaching garden as I age is a preparation for my return to earth. It is my honoring of a legacy of mothers and nurturers and teachers since first they saved and planted seeds of food and contemplation, harvesting the nourishment in their cycles of resurrection.