Back to the Garden

medieval image of deer

Livre de chasse, ca 1407

[This is the first post in a new series.]

Lately I have been thinking about that old Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, where she says:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

This idea haunts me. I find references to this song, to the Garden and gardening and Eden everywhere I turn, as if the universe is whacking me upside the head, saying, “Pay attention!”

Genesis tells the tale of humankind’s expulsion from Eden. It is a myth. The definition of a myth is a tale which is not factual, but which is true. In our age of empiricism this can seem like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. A myth is a truth which is always playing out beneath the surface of things. It isn’t a past-tense event, it’s the current state of affairs. Every day we are Falling. Every day we chose to leave Eden.

Once we did not consider ourselves separate from nature–we walked with it and in it. And then something went terribly wrong and we fell out of balance with the rest of the world. We fell out of right relationship with the world and all the other beings which we’d once loved. We imagined ourselves the masters of the world, and to make up for the pain and loneliness of our estrangement from which we once loved, we used our creative intelligence to pillage all of the resources of the world. Like greedy children we demanded more and more toys, and then broke them all. Now we sit in the debris of our own wastefulness, wanting still more. We want more because we are empty inside, and we think power and things can fill that lonely space in our hearts.

Some people think humans are an evolutionary mistake, a sort of rampaging virus which is destroying the world. I think we are doing a good job of destroying the world, but I don’t think that was ever the path we were meant to follow.

When we look at the natural world we see how every living thing, from lactobacillus to elephants, have a role to play in the dance of life. I’ve often wondered where humans were meant to fit in the dance. We are such odd creatures: naked, bipedal, abstract thinkers far too clever for anybody’s good. It’s easy to imagine that the world would be better off without our interference. But I don’t think that is the case. I think the world needs us, has always needed us.

Intelligence runs throughout creation, and I never underestimate the intelligence of other creatures and even plants, but human intelligence is unique. A falcon will distinguish between a lark and a rabbit, but only we can imitate both the lark and the rabbit. Only we can craft images of them, make up songs and stories about them, and weave those stories into the meaning of all things.

I’ve had only a few visions or epiphanies in my life, things I believe with all my heart, though I cannot prove them to be true. This is one of them. Our role is to celebrate Nature, to witness it, to love it. We are Nature’s mirror and Nature’s poets and Nature’s guardians.

cave painting of lion heads

Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, France

The cave paintings of our paleolithic ancestors show an astonishing familiarity with the animals they represent, a close eye for detail, for movement and physiognomy, for the subtle differences between males and females of the same species, for instance. No one knows exactly what the paintings were for, but for me it is enough to know that we were reverently engaged with the world around us. And while we didn’t paint mice or mushrooms, I’m sure we were as deeply engaged with all of the plants and animals within our range. I can’t even imagine the tales and songs we must have shared when we were in this deep relationship with the world–when we were in Eden.

Eden? You might be saying. Hardly. Life was brutal and short back then. Well, yes. We died under tooth and claw, and from raging infections and long winters. But I don’t know that anyone is qualified to say that our ancestors did not have lives full of meaning and joy. I don’t know that if we brought one of them forward to our time that they wouldn’t pity us in turn.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to go back to that world, even if it were possible–but do I want to get back to the Garden. And I think that is possible. We just have to change the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.

I’ll have more to say on our role as caretakers of nature, and how that fits into home gardening and much more,  in my next post.

Thanks to Father Mark R. Kowalewski for inspiring me bring some of these ideas together.

Nextdoor: Monetizing Your Neighbors


How would you like to work for free? And while you’re working for free, let’s say that your boss deliberately orchestrates a state of mind of anger, distraction, idle chatter and gossip (see our post on Acedia). Now let’s say that boss is someone you’ll never meet, never see face to face and who dines in all the finest San Francisco restaurants, drives a sports car and assumes no personal risk for the business he or she operates.

This is exactly what happens when we use social media. We work for free while our Silicon Valley overlords harvest data to sell to marketers. I need not mention Facebook or the even more vile Yik Yak. We all know their pitfalls and, I’ll acknowledge, their benefits: staying in touch with family and friends and creating opportunities for small businesses to market themselves. But I’m really beginning to question whether those benefits outweigh their flaws.

I’m particularly angry this morning about a social media application called Nextdoor. When it began I thought it was a good idea. My neighbors even used it to organize some parties that got us all acquainted. But the Nextdoor folks started dictating to us what the physical boundaries would be of our neighborhood. Those boundaries got too big. Then heated and tedious discussion threads started up. Racist comments appeared. Recently Nextdoor asked Kelly to moderate questionable comments, framing this as a privilege rather than a scheme to get her to do their work for them. This disturbed her, because she couldn’t tell if racist comments would remain posted if she didn’t step in and do something about it. Yet she didn’t want to accept that unasked for responsibility, either. She unsubscribed from Nextdoor today.  I stopped subscribing to comments some time ago.

Right now Nextdoor is burning through venture capital money in the hopes of someday being an alternative to Craigslist.

And by the by: in 2014, the CEO of Nextdoor was charged with hit and run driving (and later convicted on a lesser charge).

Thankfully it should be easy to create an alternative to Nextdoor using tools provided (ironically) by other questionable Silicon Valley companies like Google. I’d like to create a Google group for our neighborhood with a set of, admittedly, draconian rules:

  1. No discussions that would not take place face to face, i.e. nothing that would be offensive to anyone in the group.
  2. Offering a few things for sale is o.k. but running an online business through the group is unacceptable.
  3. No real estate agent promotions.
  4. Political discussions relevant to the neighborhood can be facilitated through the online group but they must take place face to face. That is, if we need to get together to support or oppose something we need to have those discussions in person.
  5. No idle chatter or gossip.

The kinds of things I’d like to see handled by the group are straightforward and factual: Invitations to neighborhood events. Questions about utilities (Why wasn’t the garbage picked up? Is there a power outage?). Referrals for professional services. Security concerns, like suspicious cars or vandalism. Lost and found pets. Giveaways of furniture, plants, excess fruit, etc.  Everything else is just noise and distraction.

We’d all agree to the rules before signing up and there’ would be a small committee of three that would moderate comments.

My question for you, our dear readers, is have you been a part of a neighborhood email group? How has it gone? What benefits and pitfalls have you experienced?

Leisure The Basis of Culture

Brueghel left out the mobile device.

Brueghel left out the mobile device.

Lately, I’ve been pondering that horrible state of mind that happens when I turn on a computer. You all know the story. You check your email. Then Facebook. You respond to an urgent Twitter message. You send an invoice. Then, somehow, an hour later, you’ve fallen down some deep click bait hole, “This Dog Was Rescued from a Sewer Tunnel. Within Hours He Was Transformed.” You’re what our culture describes as “busy” and even “productive.”

And yet this “busyness” is actually a form of inactivity. It’s a way of looking like we’re doing things without actually doing anything. A remarkable book I’m in the middle of, Josef Pieper’s Leisure The Basis of Culture, paradoxically, connects this false busyness with sloth:

At the zenith of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it was held that sloth and restlessness, ‘leisurelessness’, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’. It may well seem paradoxical to maintain that the restlessness at the bottom of a fanatical and suicidal activity should come from the lack of will to action; a surprising thought.

Bruegel, anticipating our addiction to mobile devices by several centuries, depicts this state of Acedia, or restlessness, in the engraving above.

It should be noted that Pieper calls “leisure” is not the same as “taking a break.” It’s a state of deep contemplation:

Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves — almost like a man falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by ‘letting oneself go.’ Sleeplessness and the incapacity for leisure are really related to one another in a special sense, and a man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep. Heraclitus the Obscure observed of men who were asleep that they too “were busy and active in the happenings of the world.” When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep. Or as the Book of Job says, “God giveth songs in he night” (Job 35:10). Moreover, it has always been a pious belief that God sends his good gifts and his blessing in sleep. And in the same way his great, imperishable intuitions visit a man in his moments of leisure. It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together:

vas die Welt
Im innersten zusammenhält

only for a moment perhaps, and the lightning vision of his intuition has to be recaptured and rediscovered in hard work.

Fr. Mark Kowalewski, who tipped me off to Pieper’s book, describes this state of leisure as “profoundly counter-cultural.”

And yet I hear Gmail calling me. Time to update my Facebook profile and get out some tweets.

How do you deal with life’s distractions? How do you carve out some time for true leisure?

Will 3D Printing Save Us From Bad Garden Sculpture?

In the annals of bad taste there’s nothing quite like contemporary garden sculpture. We’ve ranted about this before. Leaf through the infamous and (mercifully) soon to be extinct Skymall catalog and you’ll find statuary, like the example above, that would make Saddam Hussein blush in his grave.

Even the professional landscape community seems to have a sculptural kitsch problem. Our public spaces are plagued with bronze, smiling, hyper-realistic statuary. For me these things evoke a visceral uncanny valley horror response.

Perhaps 3D printing is the answer. In 2012 artist Oliver Laric approached a museum in the UK and proposed scanning objects from their collection and making the files available for free. You can see those scans, which include Dante, Roman and medieval objects and a few 19th century British mayors here. You can also see what some folks have been doing with those scans.

While the past is no refuge from kitsch, I’ll take the spinning Dante over bronze Children of the Damned any day.