With a tip o’ the hat to Karl Ove Knausgaard, I reference here my own struggles with a backyard garden and pond I’ve been working on since late last year.
To be literal and direct, I’ve worked on the pond a great deal this summer — digging the hole in the ground and trying to shape it to the preformed pool; balancing the pool in that rocky bottom; building a waterfall that drops into the pool, a place where birds should come — near our bird-feeding station — and refresh themselves in the circulating water. I can’t say how many hours I’ve put into this project, and like gardening itself it will take how many more before it’s done if it ever is.
To be figurative, to fly away with symbolical suggestion, let me say I’ve suffered several disappointments along the communal line lately — belonging to groups (not so easy for me), organizing our neighborhood into a property owners’ association (a project halted by libertarian objections) — and so have fallen back on that old Voltairean advice to cultivate your own garden. This is what Candide does, in the end, in the eponymous book by Voltaire. After all his disappointing adventures in “the best of all possible worlds” — being kicked out of the castle after fondling Cunégonde, careening around Europe’s war zones, witnessing and suffering the Inquisition, riding with the lady with one buttock over the Andes — he comes home to roost in his own little home, his own yard, and starts a garden.
Am I advising isolation or isolationism? No. Simply acknowledging that, like Hamlet, one soon tires of “the all too solid flesh” and its struggles with the world.
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
But if Hamlet had been a bit more Voltairean, a bit more like Candide and less like himself, he would’ve put in a garden at the castle and done some weeding himself. And so avoided his earthly troubles, including all that bloody and murderous sword-fighting. There soon comes a time, seems to me, when a no longer young man’s thoughts, never mind Hamlet, turn not to war and not to love but to gardening of one sort or another.
It’s the urge, I tell folks, when they turn fifty to put their thumbs in dirt. A guaranteed way to have a dirty, if not green, thumb, I tell ’em. And what can be more comforting, at this age, than to make that connection to the earth once more? After we’ve run the rat race, how many years, burdened with family, oppressed by work, stupefied by technology, we come to our senses, at last, or once more, and feel the way we felt when we were children — in the supersensory pleasure of connection to experience at hand.
Cultivating a garden is both nature and culture, of course. The flowers we plant, the flow of water we direct come from nature and are shaped by man. Like Candide, we forget our earthly sorrows, our earthly experience, when we plunge into the earth. We are mortal, sure, but grounded in the soil. We feel our sensory connection to everything we touch and everything that touches that, down to the center of the earth.
In this connection, time dissolves. The world whirls away. There’s only us, our hands, our grounding down to the earth’s deepest zones, and, even while working (on our own, for ourselves, in a trance), we are protected, for the magic moment, from the high voltages of alienated labor and alienated affections.
(P.S. Those of you who don’t garden, there’s still time!)