We've Got to Get Back to the Garden? - May Issue
Welcome! I'm Harma-Mae Smit and this is my monthly newsletter diving into topics of faith. You can subscribe by clicking this link.
What does it mean to go “back to the garden”? “Back to the garden” evokes this sense of longing inside us, to return to a clean, natural state where all is peaceful and green. It’s a retreat from the rushing, noisy, ugly human world to reconnect with nature as it would be without us. Gardens are places to rediscover the natural state, the way the world would be without us.
Or are they?
Gardens, though filled with plants, are in fact the very demonstration of humans interfering with nature. The funny thing about gardens is that while they put us in mind of peaceful states of nature, they actually require a lot of work. Gardens are not “discovered”—or, if they are discovered, as the characters in The Secret Garden discover a rose garden hidden behind stone walls, they then must be restored after years of neglect. They’re not an escape from the grubby touch of man, but instead they have the fingerprints of humanity all over them.
It’s springtime, so I too am plunging my hands into the dirt, removing weeds and leaves and moss from the places they are not supposed to be, and encouraging pale green springs of plants to thrive in the places I do want them to be. I don’t suppose all of you are gardeners, but if some of you are, you can relate. The snow melts and the fresh smell of spring gets into your blood, and you have to get out and tend to your garden. The full bloom of summer might be weeks away and yet you still feel compelled to cluck over the dirt, preparing it for the show of beauty that is to come. And as I work, I think about this—this reality that we create gardens and yet at the same time they speak to us of a nature that lives outside of our control, nature we attempt to work with in harmony with instead of forcing or effacing.
Eden and Us
In the Bible, of course, the most famous garden is an example of man working in harmony with nature. The garden of Eden is not made by man, but God makes it and puts him inside it to work in it. It is striking that even in this state of perfection, man is not set in vast, untamed wilderness but rather in the somewhat regulated setting of a garden. We sometimes imagine we can only get in touch with who we really are, and what the world is truly like, by escaping all trappings of civilization and any reminder of what humans are, and experiencing the wild as it really is without humanity. We assume it is only untamed nature that has anything to tell us about reality, and we forget about enclosed and tamed nature. And yet we do not seem to be made to remain in the wilderness. God created both the wilds of the wilderness and the serenity of the garden, and it was the garden he gave to man to live in.
The wilds of the world demonstrate who God is to us, and we should explore and seek them out to stand in awe of who created us—as so many of do when we hike or canoe or camp in them. But it is in the garden that we come to see what we were made to do.
God put man in the garden, “not like Leviathan into the waters, to play therein, but to dress the garden and to keep it. Paradise itself was not a place of exemption from work... The garden of Eden, though it needed not to be weeded (for thorns and thistles were not yet a nuisance), yet must be dressed and kept. Nature, even in its primitive state, left room for the improvements of art and industry.” Nature could thrive if man worked well—in the state of perfection, it was not better off without our touch. God set it up for man’s enjoyment, including his visual enjoyment (“God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight...”), but it would take man to continuously nurture it to allow it to blossom into full beauty.
Garden Beauty Opens Our Eyes to the Relation Between Us and the World Around Us
Roger Scruton argues gardens are “between” places—between the built world of humans and the world of nature. “A tree in a garden is not like a tree in a forest or a field. It is not simply there, growing from some scattered seed, accidental in both place and time. It enters into a relation with the people who walk in the garden, belong with them in a kind of conversation.” (Beauty, p.67). Gardens are therefore about the relationship between humans and the natural world—we adapt it, and it adapts us. “This attempt to match our surroundings to ourselves and ourselves to our surroundings is arguably a human universal. And it suggests that the judgement of beauty is not just an optional addition to the repertoire of human judgments, but the unavoidable consequence of taking life seriously, and becoming truly conscious of our affairs.” By retreating to the garden we are not escaping ourselves, but becoming more aware of what we are.
So what does this mean for you? It means you can enjoy gardens—either working in them or just drinking them in if you don’t have a green thumb—and be reminded again of our place working in nature and allowing nature to work on us. We were placed to live in a relationship with our world. In the fallen world, our relationship with nature can frequently be damaging. But the very best gardens remind us that this is not the way it should be.
And gardens remind us again that beauty matters. The simple extravagance of flowers— “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothes as one of these.” There was a reason the tabernacle and the temple were adorned with flowers: cups shaped like almond blossoms on the golden lamp stands, flower-shaped ornaments and tongs, carvings of palm trees branching over the doors and walls. Beauty is not just a frivolous or optimal extra to life, but built right into our existence here on earth. Why are gardens so beautiful, far beyond their function? Because beauty itself has a value that’s hard to measure.
It is no wonder we feel nostalgic for “the garden.” Eden was a state of innocence that we should grieve over losing. We lost perfection, we lost naivete about evil and suffering, and now we are faced with destruction and ugliness. It is no wonder we sometimes search for a pristine corner of the world that humans have not touched—though even in the remotest corners of the earth we can see the groaning over creation as it waits to be restored to the way it truly should be.
But Christianity is not about looking backwards, trying to get “back” to the garden we were cast out of. The narrative of the Bible does not arc around in a grand circle back to the beginning. Revelation 22 echoes Genesis 2, but it shows where we will arrive when we’ve come through history: a place for many tribes and tongues to receive the healing of the Tree of Life. There is growth and fulfillment in the narrative of faith that threads through the Bible, just as a garden can grow and become better with time. We do not need to return to the garden, but we do need to continue to look to the throne of God, from which flows the crystal-clear river of life.
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Here are my top recommendations for interesting and uplifting links to get you through the month ahead—read at your leisure:
I enjoyed this exploration of what it might be like to eat a medieval diet in the modern day: "I Tried a Medieval Diet"
Here's a good question: "When Did You Last Read a Book?"
I made a video version of the first part of my Proverbs 31 article, which you can watch here.