"Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
—Genesis 2:8 (NIV)
There is an oak tree in the middle of a field on our property in Tennessee. It rises from a stand of long prairie grasses native to that region. At one time, that field was a pasture for horses. Perhaps there was once a barn there. We find old rusty horseshoes in the dirt from time to time. We find nails, bits of board or leather from the straps of saddles. Wildflowers now populate the place around that tree—Spring Cress, Coneflower, Southern Blazing Star. In the spring, the tree is surrounded by the field-dwelling plants. We cut a small trail through the field, to the tree, around the trunk where once a swing hung. Now, only an aging rope hangs there, the swing's seat buried below the grass, a vague remembrance of the past.
When the cold weather comes the tree drops its leaves, the grass browns, and we cut down the large stand of the prairie to make room for new life that comes again when Earth moves back into the springtime cycle of this region. The tree is accessible in these cold weather months. I can put my hands on the cold bark and imagine what kind of life it might have led. I can look up to the bare branches and count them now. The tree, even while dormant like this, offers some clarity that was obscured in the distracting bloom of the warm weather.
The tree becomes a story—the roots, the trunk, the branches. And the field that surrounds this tree becomes the book that holds all the stories of the inhabitants of this place—the soil, the plants, the wildlife, the weather. The field is a garden here, tended by an unseen gardener. When I let the land bring itself back to life season after season, I discover something new with each passing moment. When the sun is hot, and the summer is sweltering, I walk on the path through the rising prairie grasses, purple coneflower and brilliant flight of butterflies to stand at the foot of the oak in that field. I think to myself—I am like this tree, with roots deep and branches reaching out and I am this place, this wide world garden. And this body that carries me into the field, into the kitchen, into the grocery store is a garden—living, breathing, seasonal, blossoming. This body is a garden.
The first garden I remember was that of my grandmother. She and my grandfather lived in the house next door to ours. The tiny brick ranch style house was a stark contrast to our white clapboard farmhouse. Their house was modern and well-kept. Ours was old and worn down and lived in. Compared to many of the houses on Briarcliff Avenue in the Shiloh neighborhood of Dayton, Ohio, the ranch-style house was relatively new. When my grandparents built it they already owned the farmhouse we now lived in. They already had the plot of land that the garden crops occupied and the greenhouse that sat just in front of that land. They built the new house and rented the old one to us. My grandmother tended that garden with great care and in later years she kept bees as well. We'd wander through the rows of corns and beans and rhubarb, touching the leaves with our small hands, feeling the dirt that crept into our shoes. I remember this garden in patches of memory, and it has remained in me as a kind of longing and not much more. I didn't inherit my grandmother's talent with plants and growing things. I'm a terrible gardener.
I am the great plant destroyer, killer of all things green and leafy. Though I am "she of the brown thumb" I am still drawn to living things, especially to plants and gardens. I paste pictures of them on my walls in the winter. In Chicago, the winter can be brutal. When I'm living in the city I'm often absent even to small hints of the promise of spring. Instead of grassy patches that begin to green around me as the seasons change, I see well-traveled hard-cracked concrete, sometimes covered in pollution-colored snow. Slush and mud and leftover road salt mark the alleys and roads as I drive my kids to school. When the ice and snow melt at last, making puddles and revealing winter's buried city litter—this is how I know that spring is coming.
Still, I try to garden. I feel a spark when I see pictures of flourishing gardens. I want to grow something beautiful, something that develops and reaches out leafy fingers toward the sun. The stark reality about gardening is much more brutal than the lovely pictures I see in the seed catalogues and gardening magazines. The seeds grow, tender and tentative and then, yes, they flower, but they also wither and die—and that's a hard pill to swallow. In my case, they wither and die quickly, usually from lack of water or attention. It is a matter of paying attention, I think. That's where I fall down.
When I was young (or maybe just when I was younger) I didn't think about aging or death. I thought only about the now, the here, the present tense. My skin was mostly clear; my body was adequate for my needs. I did not necessarily feel young, but I was young. Things were relatively new and worked the way they ought to work. That's a blessing I took for granted. The constant refrain of being young is to take our youth for granted. When we are young we spend our youth, like money we got in a birthday card from an elderly relative. As we age, we try to store that youth, now pennies on the dollar, now locked in a storehouse inside of us. It feels precious to me the older I become. Each new season, each new decade, holds some gathered wisdom. It transcends the merely physical. This set of hands builds things that bridge me to the world—in my parenting, my partnering, my prayer life. These things weave together as the garden weaves together with the air and the rain and the wild life—as one part influences all the other parts of the ecosystem.
Over time, I've come to see that how I care for and nurture my body has implications in all areas of my development—physical emotional and even spiritual. This realization ignited in me a new interest in reconciling the needs of the physical body with the needs of the spiritual life resident in that body. I am, once again, standing in the field or at the foot of that oak tree in Tennessee, hands on the bark of the trunk, feeling the texture and imagining that there must be more happening there under the surface. Life teems everywhere around me. This is not machinery. I am not machinery.
It's a popular notion, this idea that the body is a machine or a race car, whether fine-tuned or failing. But my body reveals to me a much different story. I am not metal-made, but organic and alive. If I am a spirit in a vessel, then that vessel is most decidedly more clay than contraption, more soil than soldered, more plant than plastic. This body is a garden.
The body I am tending is a living and organic revelation of the unseen spirit inside. We are sacraments of the One who made us—beautifully and wonderfully made, as the psalmist would say. I am given charge of this garden from season to season, from birth to death. So, what if I tend to the body the way an attentive gardener would his garden? What then? What is the watering? Where is the history buried here beneath the oak? How do I help to bring about the blooming of springtime flowers even as I embrace the stretch marks and surgery scars in the skin that covers my miraculous muscles?
I admit my struggle in overcoming my terrible history in gardening—whether it refers to my literal care of plants or the essential care of the body. There are pitfalls to this caretaking in either respect—a risk of becoming too focused on physicality, or conversely too negligent. There is a risk that I might either lose sight of the big picture or become obsessed with it. There is drought and there is flood. The goal has to include balance. In an ever-tilting world, perhaps this is where I find the real challenge. It may not be that I'm not paying attention. It may be that I am not keeping the balance that nature demonstrates to me season after season. I begin, then, with this basic truth, a thought that guides throughout this journey into wellness and wholeness, and these adventures in spiritual and physical horticulture. This body is a garden. It is organic and alive, intricately woven together by the hands of the One who made me, and it needs my care. The body is a garden.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in publications such as St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Ruminate Magazine, Ink & Letters, Whale Road Review, Elephant Journal, Relief Journal, and Bird’s Thumb Journal. Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition was published in 2014. Her new book is Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body.
You can also find her writing online at NearlyOrthodox.com, MrsMetaphor.com, and DoxaSoma.com, and hear her podcast, “The Wilderness Journal,” on AncientFaith.com. Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her four outrageously spirited, yet remarkably likable children.