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The Ecological Garden

... the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, ... took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. (Gen. 2:7-8, 15 nrsv)

For much of February the ground in Maryland was snow-covered. Now, on this first day of March, the temperature is almost sixty degrees Fahrenheit and the snow is gone, but the soil in my vegetable garden is still too damp to turn over. Working with the spade will only produce earthen clumps that harden in the sun and make it impossible to seed properly. Scarlett, my Irish Setter, has other things in mind. She certainly delights in sniffing out the wayward mole in my vegetable garden or pushing about with her nose the two resident box turtles. But, more than this, Scarlett revels in racing over fields and streams. With wild waves of her crowned head, she beckons me to mark trail for other parts.

Near our home lies an expanse of woods and meadows, some two thousand acres of them, which is called Soldiers Delight. Twenty-five thousand years ago, the climate of central Maryland was dry and hot, and prairies stretched far and wide. Since then, man and nature have conspired to keep portions of Soldiers Delight looking much as they did in bygone days. When the climate cooled and got wetter, and hardwood forests began to spring up, native peoples burned the ground for hunting. Nature contributed a nutrient-poor soil conglomerate that the scientists call serpentine. It is composed of eroded outcroppings of metamorphic rock that were mined in the nineteenth century for their chromium content. And, in recent years, the state of Maryland has been cutting back large swaths of scrub pines that have encroached on the meadows and are smothering the rare, sun-loving flora.

This is the first occasion since the snow has melted that Scarlett and I have hiked in Soldiers Delight. A week of unusually warm weather has transformed what we last saw. There are signs of spring in the greening moss along the trail and the distant croaking of a woodfrog. We enter from the high ground of the northeast quadrant and descend a ridge densely forested with deciduous trees. At the bottom we cross several small streams swollen by the thaw, leave the trail, and cut across swampy ground where rusty spears of skunk cabbage have thrust up through the muddy soil.

As Scarlett and I ascend a steep, forested hillside, I breathe in the sweet, musty scent of decaying oak leaves. Further on, we cross meadows carpeted with tall amber grass that ripples in the strong wind. There are few signs of spring here, but the grass emits heat with exciting sunlit shimmer. When I was a boy, I would steal to such spots for protection from the cold March wind. I would press the pliant straw beneath me and lay on my back in that silky bed, soaking in the radiant heat, watching animal clouds chase across the sky. I observe how the felling of pines has opened these meadows and let them breathe. I wonder, however, why the stumps were left sticking up two feet high. Why weren't they cut level to the ground? My gardener's eye objects. One day at the break of dawn, I watched as a mist lifted from the cool earth and a black nimbus cloud blotted out the sun. I imagined that I was standing in a field of sooty stove pipes venting earth's infernal bowels. I felt far removed from Paradise.

I repeat, my gardener's eye protests. This is a garden, after all. That's the way I see it. Whether I am in my vegetable rows or in Soldiers Delight, I am Adam east of Eden, struggling to make the earth like Paradise, until Resurrection Day when the Gardener and his Mother, the Garden's Opened-Gate, will welcome me back in. I learned my ecology in wood and vegetable patch. But I am as uncomfortable with the deep ecology people who try to persuade me that I am an interloper in “Nature” as those other folks who look upon “mere nature” as raw resource for raising the gnp. The way I understand the biblical story, Adam was drawn from out of the earth. And he “grew” in the garden together with flowers and trees of all kinds. We are not interlopers, and insofar as we are exiles from Paradise, we must heal our broken relationships not only with one another and with God, but also with the whole of the rest of creation. God wants us to cultivate this world and offer it as a gift of our thanksgiving that he may bless in the consummate crowning season.

I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord...(Ezek. 34:26-27 nrsv)

Both parties are mistaken. Adam cast out east of Eden is no less a cultivator and tender of the earth than he was before his expulsion. But the task is more difficult.

[I]n toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.... (Gen. 3:17-18 nrsv)

Sin has entered our bodies and is broadcast over the whole of creation. So I think it is naive to believe that human beings will use the earth well if they are left alone to pursue their own self-interest.

The garden is economy in the deep meaning of that word-a place where “housekeeping” is done. It is not a field of laissez-faire, nor will it conform always to human design. I am able to garden because there are reliable laws, but I cannot credit my own labor for last summer's exquisitely sweet tomatoes. Dry weather at just the right moment of the growing season brought this about. Those sweet tomatoes were a gift of nature's astonishing indeterminacy.

The garden is the ground of my humility, as the whole earth should be also. I did not create the butterfly or the spider, nor do I possess the beauty of the one or the skill of the other. They, together with the rest of creation, declare a grander design and have a value that is theirs quite independent of me. I said that I have learned ecology from gardening. But, for me, gardening has grown into a much greater metaphor than mere science says. People speak of Soldiers Delight as a “reserve.” But what is it reserved from and for whom? Adam has been in it from the beginning, or at least as long as human beings can recollect. I think we need to abandon the distinction between so-called wilderness, which we are not to spoil, and the rest of nature, which is at our disposal. This “policy” is not just calamitous for nature but for our humanity as well. It is easy to see how it is damaging to nature since we feel free to use most of it selfishly. But are strip malls any less objectionable than strip mines? One could argue that strip malls are more destructive since they not only ruin nature but also pollute and disfigure human culture.

Nature and culture are not opposites. There is a “natural” creation, and it points to a Creator; and there is the human being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), whose “nature” is culture. Paradise is not wilderness. Paradise is a garden cultivated by Adam and blessed by God. Soldiers Delight is a garden, and it is human culture. If men do not practice horticulture and husbandry over it, Soldiers Delight may take a course that is bad for the tiny bluet and the delicate birdfoot violet, the whip-poor-will and the fence lizard, all of whom thrive in the sunny meadows. These are the true alternatives that have existed ever since our ancestral parents ate from the forbidden tree and were cast out of Eden.

Important voices of my own Eastern Christian faith argue that it is not the mere eating from that tree in disobedience that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. They fell and were expelled because they took the fruit of that tree greedily and with arrogance. The fourth-century father Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes:

Whoever has eaten of that fruit either sees and is filled with delight, or he sees and groans out. The serpent incited them to eat in sin so that they might lament; having seen the blessed state, they could not taste of it-like the hero of old (Tantelus) whose torment was doubled because in his hunger he could not taste the delights which he beheld. (Hymns on Paradise 3:8)

Our abuse of creation is the continuation of this original sin, this selfish consumption of those things the Lord has declared good. We presume that we may use the rest of nature as we see fit, since it is the property of individual or state. But the psalmist has another vision: “The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1 nkjv).

I do not question our need of nature as source of sustenance, resource for shelter from the elements, or subject and medium of the arts and sciences. God calls upon us to be “gardeners” in order to learn how to “use” nature lovingly and responsibly. We need this wisdom today, lest we be consumed by our consumer culture. The Fall is man's descent into matter without spirit; it is the movement of humanity into the world without a vision of creation as manifestation of God's hidden and sacred being. In their speech and actions, the two opposing parties who dominate our age betray this fall into materialism and secularity. Both exhibit a profoundly deficient anthropology and bad theology. The one seeks to protect “Nature” from destructive humanity. It forgets that without man, creation is purposeless and is mute: that alone it is unable to praise its Maker. The seventh-century Byzantine churchman Leontis of Neapolis reminds us wisely:

The creation does not venerate the Creator through itself directly, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon offers him homage, through me the stars ascribe glory to him, through me the waters, rain and dew, with the whole creation, worship and glorify him.

Nature exists for humanity, but only so that humanity may raise matter to spirit. The second party is blind to this. It believes that nature exists for man with few or no constraints as to its consumption, other than rules of utility. This is an exalted view of human freedom that sets human beings radically apart from the rest of creation. It is an impious philosophy in the deepest and most troubling sense of that word. Such an attitude lacks compassion or concern for purity and is disrespectful of the integrity of creation and of the holiness of God.

We modern folk are faced from within ourselves by what G. K. Chesterton describes as Christian truths gone mad. Some of us uphold the value of creation as if it is its own measure, as if nature is God. Others uphold the freedom of man, as if man is entitled to act independently of God, in place of God. Biblical faith declares another view. God, who called all that he created good, put Adam in the Garden “to cultivate and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15 njb). God granted Adam the privilege to name the animals, not the prerogative to maim them. Adam was to discover in those names their relationship not only to human beings but also to God. Naming is a form of thanksgiving. Parents know this instinctively.

When the author of the Book of Genesis says that Adam was drawn from the earth and made alive by the breath of God, that writer does not mean, as even many Christians seem to think, that the earth is our baseness and the breath of God, our grandeur. Such thoughts lead to the debasement not only of human life but of all life. It is wrong to think that the birds of the air and the animals of the field are without the Spirit. The Spirit hovered over creation from the beginning, as it did over Jesus in the Jordan. And the creatures that graze were the first to greet the child in the manger.

The Word became flesh. This means that God mixed himself inextricably and eternally with the earth and all its elements. He breathed in the breath of the ox and ass. He drank the press of the vine and ate the bread of the grain. He sweated in the desert sun and was refreshed by the evening shower. God became man, and he gardened our humanity from within and without. It is our task to be apprentices of the Master Gardener. He invites us to use our freedom responsibly for the sake of all living things. Saint Paul reminds us:

The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God's purpose it has been limited-yet it has been given hope. And that hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change of and decay, and have its share in the magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God. (Rom. 8:18 ff., J. B. Phillips trans.)

The redemption of our bodies constitutes the hope of the whole physical world-that it, too, may be raised up in the Spirit to eternal life. Gardening is a metaphor and sacramental sign of that wondrous work of resurrection wrought by God in Jesus Christ. He, who by his spilt blood revealed the barren Cross as the fruitful Tree of Life, enjoins the whole of creation in a joyful song of praise as Paradise grows up from the ground of our beseeching.