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Marin IJ Articles

Comfort in the Garden

  • D.F. Braun
  • An old gardening friend has a wonderful photograph of two grandchildren walking a well-worn path through her garden. As a frequent visitor I know lemonade awaited them at the end of a hidden retreat. During the summer there were many old friends invited to enjoy her Marin oasis, to walk from one garden “room” to another, through her rose garden to tomatoes and summer herbs and finally to a quiet, formal spot under trees where aging friends could enjoy tea or martinis. Casual lunches and dinners were enjoyed close to the house where large pots of herbs were easily accessible to the kitchen and filled the warm air with wonderful fragrances.

    I recently visited my old friend and found her once again in her garden where I noted a number of changes. Now widowed, her grandchildren grown and many old friends gone as well, she has simplified her gardening tasks in subtle ways: the beds of annuals have been replaced by perennials, a large area of summer vegetables has been given over to spring daffodils and the rose bed is no longer hidden behind a hedge. She finds her garden now more of a sanctuary; it has moved from the form of conviviality to repose.
    To quote the writer Alice Munro, “Old people now and then—clear-sighted but content on islands of their own making.”
    Much has been written about the need to garden, not just for agricultural needs, but because gardens respond to a set of human needs. A book of photographs titled “Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives” offers a visual and written record of makeshift gardens that the homeless created in the slums of New York City. Made of largely random materials: toys, stuffed animals, flags, found objects, milk cartons, piles of leaves and at times a simple row of flowers, they are called gardens because they are deliberately constructed. What brought them into being? Why did people lacking the bare necessities invest so much of themselves to create these sites? Perhaps, in the midst of turbulence they were able to find comfort in a spot of their own, a sanctuary of repose.
    A touching story tells of a soldier stationed in Iraq, a sandy nation, who missing his garden at home asked his wife to send him soil, fertilizer and some grass seed so that he could have the sweet aroma and feel the grass beneath his feet. Now, when his squadron has a mission they take turns walking through the “green, green grass of home” to bring them good luck.
    Another story, closer to home in San Francisco, tells of an unlikely pair: he a retired man who had grown up on a farm in Mississippi and she a one-time farmer’s daughter who met on an empty lot in the Bayview district (a rough area, to say the least.) He was there to cut down a dying bush and she had come to dig worms as fishing bait for her brother. Chatting together, they decided to try to plant a garden there. After obtaining permission from the city, they cleared the land of beer cans, engine oil, old batteries, spark plugs, refrigerators and fast-food flotsam. They plowed, fertilized and sowed a variety of seeds and afterwards, having cordoned off the area with yellow tape, continued to nurse the flowers, herbs and vegetables that soon began to sprout. The wonder of such a garden in their neighborhood soon brought out many nearby residents. Many of them were meeting each other for the first time. Several other gardens in this area have cropped up and now, where addicts, pushers, and vagrants dominated the scene, there are different kinds of congregations. More people leave their homes to gather in the gardens.
    These scenes would all have pleased Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who believed in the ability to enjoy life. What you may not know is that in order to teach his philosophy of “joie de vivre” he purchased a house and land outside of Athens, which became known as The Garden School, the third permanent school after Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, but unlike the Academy and Lyceum it was the first school to enjoy “academic freedom.” Epicurus’s garden reflects the core of his philosophy. His disciples, who ate the fruits and vegetables they grew there, learned quickly the ways of nature; growth, enjoyment, decay, and death.
    Epicurus believed that human beings are not naturally given to serenity or a love of life, but it can be found in the garden.
    Go quickly! The flowers await!