A healthy garden is a diverse one where everything comes together. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Gerry Turcotte: The garden of the soul

  • August 28, 2020

I am not a gardener. In fact, I moved into a house with a large garden a decade ago and I joke that I have killed off one species of plant each year. Except that it’s not a joke.

My garden once teamed with dahlias and peonies, larkspurs and hyacinths — perennials spilling out left and right. Over time these luminous beauties have grown less populous and then disappeared for good. I tried tending the garden, but the vagaries of a Calgary summer — those glorious four days — coupled with long work weeks meant that my efforts were always too little, too late. Until this year.

COVID-19 has transformed our society and it has forced many if not most of us to work from home. With this new work arrangement comes a new reality. Removing a commute — even a short one — and being a step away from my yard during lunch breaks suddenly means that I am able to connect more closely with what a garden is and needs. Even during regular eight-hour days scheduled around Zoom and Teams meetings, I found that I could get away, even for just 15 minutes, to putter and stretch my legs.

What this allowed, of course, was an opportunity to see how a garden, even a poorly tended one like mine, functions organically. Like our own society, gardens can be complex and contradictory organisms, peaceful from a distance, but brutally warring with itself up close.

My large, packed garden bed, once a space of variety and colour, has slowly been consumed by goutweed, a plant that not only overwhelms from above, but which also does its work below ground, sending rhizomic roots out to slowly suffocate the more delicate beings in its vicinity. Initially I approached the problem by cutting back the stalks and clearing spaces above, when the real damage was happening below and out of sight. In frustration, I thought of Job: “The wicked thrive before the sun, and their shoots spread over the garden.”

Someone once said that a weed is nothing more than a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to be, and this is partially true. There is a desolate strip along my fence line where the goutweed has also bloomed and it has turned an eyesore into a greenish wonderland. I don’t consider those plants weeds.

But the truth is, a garden, like our own community, is healthiest and most beautiful in its diversity. My garden was splendid when it held both the hearty and the delicate, when it resonated with different colours and shapes. This thriving garden also drew in bees and butterflies, which have now virtually disappeared where once they were plentiful.

This richness and diversity, however, has to be cherished and nourished. It is all too easy to settle for that which is plentiful and dominant. But to me, a well-balanced garden supports and celebrates difference. The soil must be fertile and only care will make it so. Too unchanged and with over-cultivation, the soil slowly dies, deprived of nutrients and revitalization.

As a child driving through countryside I used to wonder at the value of a fallow field. Until I learned of the unique chemistry of land reinvigorating itself and re-absorbing nutrients. From those refreshed fields came the strongest crops.

This is true, of course, of our parishes and communities, our provinces and our country. With diversity and care comes richness and abundance. This is how we create both a healthy self and a healthy planet: by tending the garden of the soul. Or as an old English proverb puts it, “The garden must be prepared in the soul first or it will not flourish.”

God created the world by “planting a garden” (Genesis 2:8) and we have spent millennia simultaneously spoiling that garden whilst searching for it anew. It is this fraught tendency that impelled Pope Francis to ask that we safeguard our environment and remember that it is “a garden to be cultivated. The relationship of mankind with nature must not be conducted with greed, manipulation and exploitation but it must conserve the divine harmony that exists between creatures and Creation within the logic of respect and care.”

Greed, racism, selfishness and hatred are the invasive plants that weave through our gardens, both above and below, with those sinuous subterranean roots often being by far the most sinister and all-consuming. Shakespeare once wrote, “Now ’tis spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted; Suffer them now and they’ll o’ergrow the garden.”

It is never too early for us to come together and tend the gardens of our soul — but it can be too late. In this time of conflict and fear, of disruption and uncertainty, perhaps it is time we all put our shoulders to the plow, to till the soil so that we might all come together to grow our better selves.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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