My parents were among the millions of young couples who left the farms and cities they grew up in to settle in the newly emerging suburbs of the early 1950’s. My Dad was a farmer’s son from the cornfields of Illinois; and my Mom grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. My father was serving in the Army when they met, and as soon as he was discharged, they moved to the Hudson River Valley of New York where he had a job waiting for him as a Chemist at a corporate research facility.
Our little patch of suburbia was miniscule compared to the “Levittowns” that ringed New York City; it was just a small circle of homes that sat on the side of a hill offering picturesque views stretching off in every direction. The Hudson Valley was, and remains, one of the most beautiful regions in the nation, and my parents had chosen their home site well. The view from our front yard encompassed a large field that had been an apple orchard and was still dotted with a few rugged old trees. Beyond the field, a stone wall marked the edge of a forest that to my young eyes, seemed to encircle the world. If you lifted your gaze from the trees, you could see a line of mountains that formed a wall between us and the city some fifty miles to the south, and in the distance, on the other side of the Hudson, you could make out neat rows of well tended apple orchards hugging other hillsides.
Despite his demanding career, my father still had the habits of a farmer, and even before our house was finished he started the work of transforming our yard into a garden. His most impressive achievement was a series of terraces that led up to our front door. He lined the terraces with retaining walls made of stone he gathered from the surrounding fields and then bordered the walls with roses, lilacs, and forsythia. On the terraces he planted dogwoods and birch trees as well as iris, tulips and daffodils. As a young boy enthralled by Davey Crockett and Robin Hood, I imagined the front yard to be my castle or fort and would often stand on the highest terrace “on the look out” for signs of roving bands of Indian warriors or enemy knights.
My earliest memory as a gardener comes from an experience I shared with my father on one of those terraces. I must have been around four or five years old and he had taken me with him to a local nursery to buy some supplies including a few new plants. When we returned home, he allowed me to “help” plant a small apple tree that he had purchased. I remember looking at the picture of the bright red and green apple that dangled from the little sapling, and was excited by the thought that some day we would harvest our own apples from the tree. I remember too, the care my father took in planting the tree, the smell of the earth when we dug the hole and how we mixed fertilizer into the old galvanized metal watering can that I still use in my own garden today.
If you are loved and cared for, and surrounded by the kind of beauty that my parents cultivated for my brother, sister, and I, the world can be a magical place that will shape your way of seeing and knowing for the rest of your life. Our garden was more than a playground for me and more than a fort too. It was the place where my own sense of wonder was born.
The word that comes to mind when I think of those early years is immanence. Everything I saw and experienced in our garden seemed filled with meaning and spirit. It was as if some great mystery was unfolding around me. The floating gossamer seeds of the milkweed were “wizards,” the blazing leaves of autumn seemed to glow from a fire within, and when seen at eye-level, the tall proud iris planted by my father looked like floral fireworks – I can remember being so impatient to see their blooms that I would unfurl the still-closed petals for a sneak preview. My Grandmother (from my Mom’s side of the family) lived with us, and I can still hear her pointing out the regularity of the “four o’clocks” and how they should remind us that our Father would be home from work shortly after they opened their pink and white trumpets.
As I grew up, I remember taking repeated trips to the nursery with my Mom in the springtime as she picked out her favorite annuals – petunias and sweet alyssum. I would wander between the tables holding the plants taking in all of the smells and the colors. When we got home we would plant them together on the edges of the terraces.
Not surprisingly, I was a committed gardener by the time I was in Junior High School and my parents allowed me to take over a small corner of the back yard. I transplanted a small birch sapling from the woods and gathered flat fieldstones for a pathway. In a small bed next to the pathway I planted ageratum, marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers and more. On Saturday mornings, I would listen to a call-in radio program with my parents called the “Dutch Gardener” (we lived in Dutchess County) and envisioned myself answering gardening questions live on the air.
Today, gardening is an essential part of my life and for over thirty years I have hosted a call-in garden radio program as well as a popular gardening television program. More importantly however, I view gardening as a spiritual practice. I think of my garden as a personal sanctuary and as a physical expression of my gratitude for life’s blessings. Nearly every morning I try to spend a few minutes in the garden doing nothing but listening to the birds and visiting the flowers. I have come to view these idle moments as the point in time around which my whole life revolves. Often, I find myself repeating the words of an e.e. cummings poem:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Idling is not one of the virtues celebrated in American culture. We almost have to be forced to slow down and take stock of the world around us. Fortunately, several years ago, I learned a very valuable lesson about the importance of quiet reflection. I was part of a captive audience and had no choice, but this chance occurrence set off a cascade of images and memories that forever changed my perception of the sacred obligations of one generation for the next and the gifts that I received in my childhood garden.
I had just started to serve on the Board of Directors for a spirituality center associated with a local hospital and my first “duty” was to attend a board retreat designed to help us coalesce as a team. Early on in the retreat, the facilitator asked us to focus on the welcoming atmosphere of the center itself, to open ourselves to its physical presence. He suggested that we choose something that had caught our eye that morning as we came in and to spend five minutes meditating on it.
Now, I had never been on a “retreat” before, and all of this sounded suspiciously “new-agey” to me, but I decided to play along. After putting aside my reservations, I remembered that I spent a moment or two admiring a beautiful yellow iris that was blooming by the center’s door. Months before the retreat, I had helped design and plant the center’s flower beds, and the iris was a “pass-along” gift from my own garden. Naturally, I chose to meditate on the iris. The color of the flower seems to be the key to what followed...
As you might guess, at first, all I did was fidget in my chair (and wonder how many eternities this five-minute meditation would feel like!) Thankfully, however, I relaxed and my thoughts started to drift.
Images drawn from my childhood started to mingle with those of the yellow iris: I remembered the thrill and anticipation of seeing the first sign of spring - daffodils pushing their way up through the snow around our front doorstep. I was amazed that these fragile looking flowers could survive underground through our long winters and bloom even though their blossoms were often covered in ice. I also remembered peeking out at the world from a favorite hiding place beneath the long arching strands of yellow forsythia blossoms as they bent down to the ground. And then, I remembered the excitement my brother, sister, and I used to feel when we saw what my Grandmother called “wild canaries.” Grandma was a bit of a Southern storyteller and she told us that the canaries had come, “all of the way from Mexico.” They were probably just common goldfinches, but their bright yellow plumage seemed to verify their exotic origins. We would usually see them visiting the meadow grasses and flowers in the field behind our home. Their color was so cheerful, very different from most of the birds we knew, we were happy to think of them as honored guests from foreign lands.
After spending a few moments with these images I found myself transported back to a specific moment in time: I was probably only six or seven years old and I was just rousing myself from sleep on a gentle spring morning. The bedroom I shared with my brother was cool but I was warm and snug beneath my covers. I was still drowsy but quickly roused myself when something caught my attention - I heard "wild canaries" singing outside of our window. I jumped from bed to watch them. The rising sun warmed my arms as I rested them on the windowsill and a slight breeze lifted the curtains letting the birdsong drift in. A dogwood tree, planted by my father, was blooming just a few feet away, and the birds were happily at work harvesting seeds in the meadow beyond.
As I meditated with my fellow Board Members, I could remember the distinctive, slightly dewy smell of the wooden sill and remembered too that I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen. It must have been a Sunday morning and my mother was preparing a big breakfast; the scent of coffee and bacon mingled with the reassuring sound of my parents’ voices. Sitting there in my chair, now lost in the memory of that moment so long ago, I recalled the profound sense of gratitude I felt. Somehow, in my child-like way, I knew how very fortunate I was to be there, framed by that window and by the love and sacrifice that made the peace of that moment possible. My young heart over-flowed, I remembered thinking; "This is what God wants for us all.”
After our five minutes had passed, the retreat facilitator asked us to share our meditations. When my turn came, I had a little difficulty speaking. I recounted my story with a slight tremble in my voice and saw several of my colleagues wipe tears from their eyes. The busy clatter of a lifetime filled with distractions had paused just long enough for me to draw from a very deep and sustaining well: the innocent reverence of a grateful child.
I have treasured those two moments ever since – a boardroom and a bedroom connected by the simple gift of being asked to pay attention and a happy strand of memories woven together by a yellow iris, daffodils and “wild canaries.” I count that experience as turning point in my spiritual journey. I felt the truth of the words uttered by the medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, when he said that, “God wants nothing more from you than the gift of a grateful heart.”
Today, when I catch myself admiring the goldfinches that visit the feeders that hang in my garden, I remember that window opened and framed by my parents – our wonderful garden on a hill.