Inheriting Paradise

Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on GardeningInheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening by Vigen Guroian

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rain over the past several days has meant the plants in my meager garden have grow wild, chaotic, threatening to slip beyond the control of a weeding hand. It doesn’t help that I’m already a bit of a lazy gardener. It’s important for me to have growing things in the ground– my ground– every season, but I don’t spend time each day in the garden. I kind of let things– cucumbers and tomatoes, mainly– run riot.

I have two shallow raised beds in the backyard. This fall I may add a third. One of them is devoted to different varieties of cucumbers with basil plants holding down the corners. There’s a long trellis I made out of old chicken wire running down the middle. The cucumbers are gathering themselves right now in a slow green boil, like they’re gathering momentum to leap up and over it, as they will soon, burying it in a long leafy wave. I’ve always had good luck with cucumbers.

The second bed is more unruly. Half of it is devoted to a weedy onion patch, though the long fingers of the onions still have a comfortable lead on the grass growing up between them, for now. I dropped onion sets into this side of the garden haphazardly and without plan, so the onions have come up in bedraggled rows. The rest of the bed is split between four large tomato plants that have fountained up as bushes, spilling languid green arms in all directions, and a row of potato plants that I’m not sure what to do with. I’ve never grown potatoes before, and as lovely and thick as they look above the ground, I don’t know what that means beneath the soil.

In one corner of this bed I have an uneasy alliance with a bunch of mint. At one time this mint spread across the back of the house and my wife spent a long afternoon pulling it out of the flower bed where it had thrived for perhaps decades. I have a soft spot in my heart for the plant though, because I pull a leaf to chew every time I walk past the garden and I boil it to make mint tea for my kombucha. I have it walled off in its own corner of the raised bed, though my walls don’t go deep enough to actually do anything to hold it back. That’s just me, pulling out the constant runners that keep creeping into the tomatoes.

You’re supposed to be able to tell something about a man from his garden, and if this is true then my garden says I’m enthusiastic, overly optimistic, and naive. I know there are supposed to be growing things on my land, so I plant them, but I’m never quite sure I have the hang of what to do with them once they go crazy, as they do each season. I like to watch the garden come to life, but I lack artistry. Fortunately, there’s not a lot riding on my gardening. I don’t rely on it to provide a major source of my food. If Vigen Guroian is right though, I do need it to provide food for my soul.

The garden is the oldest analogy. As Guroian points out, man was placed in a garden at creation. Whether or not this is “historical” truth, consider what it means as literary truth. Man begins in some kind of order, as some kind of caretaker in relationship with ordered creation. Wildness and wilderness only come later.

For Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, gardening is more than a hobby or an ecological mission: it is theology, lived in the context of the soil. The annual death and rebirth of his garden is a reflection of the theological– the cosmological, he would argue– truths exemplified in the liturgical life of the Church. Indeed, in this slender volume the chapters are divided by Christian holidays, with Guroian reflecting on the beauty, significance, and meaning of what’s happening in the garden in time with what’s happening in the liturgical year. The garden is a way of participating with creation itself in worship, in bearing fruit joyfully before God. For Guroian, as he shares his own battle with depression, it’s also a means of healing.

The mirror for all this is the prayers and hymns of the Armenian Orthodox liturgy. Guroian pulls from this throughout the year– as well as scripture and occasional quotes from the Fathers or other writers– to draw the reader into an understanding of the cycles at work unseen beneath the turning of the seasons. This might be a central claim of anyone who gardens: for those of us who have lost touch with the land, the circle of the year turns largely unseen. We skim along the skin of it, but we don’t reach deeply and touch what it means.

For an Orthodox Christian gardener like Guroian, the claim might go deeper: most Christians today are like the non-gardeners, out of touch with the deeper turnings in the liturgical life of the Church. We see Easter and Christmas come and go like non-gardeners see certain fruits and vegetables appear and then disappear (though they don’t even really do that anymore) from the markets. But there’s a deep connection between the two, and Guroian believes– in keeping with mystical Orthodox theologians– that the story of the Church, the entire story of redemption and deification, is written in the soil. He would have you know this when you garden as well as when you sing or speak the liturgy.

For all that I agree with Guroian’s message here, I was disappointed with the book. It’s a slender volume that despite the richness of his prose and borrowed texts felt woodenly didactic. The cosmic significance of gardening was spelled out writ large, but what was lacking was the specificity that makes such sweeping analogies and metaphors truly powerful. I learned the significance of gardening, but what of the significance of tomatoes? What of cucumbers or mulch? What of the back bent in labor? They’re all here but passed over, unexplored. I was hoping for something more along the lines of Chet Raymo’s Soul of the Night; whereas Raymo’s theological claims are far vaguer, his treatment of natural (in this case astronomical) phenomena are compelling, concrete, and sublime. For all the truth Guroian is touching here, the execution came off a bit too trite.

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