I live on a small patch of the earth that I share with a loving partner, a few cats, and eleven neighbors. Our courtyard is our living room and front porch. It is also our garden, a place shaped by my desires and the needs of our little condominium community. For over fifteen years, people and plants have come and gone, but so far, I have stayed-- my life spinning in orbit around the space behind our garden gate.
As we ponder the new millennium, I think we’d all benefit from contemplating the things that hold us in their orbit. We live in a restless age and are attracted to one disposable necessity after another. Our gardens tug at our hearts because they remind us of the indispensable. They serve as our touchstones to the eternal the cycles of nature. They are as rooted as an oak, and as fleeting as the leaves drifting past my window.
Gardeners often talk about the connection they feel to the earth. It’s true, being a gardener is very much like being in a relationship. However, it doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with loved ones, or our gardens, it’s hard to be constantly mindful of the commitment we’ve made, or the blessings received. We’re only human after all, and let’s face it, sometimes we need to be on autopilot. Still, we tend to be grateful for the little reminders that open our eyes to what is truly important. Our gardens can be filled with those “reminders”, that is why so many of us consider them to be sacred spaces. They evoke mystery, reverence, or simply a cherished memory-- things that are too easy to overlook amid the forced busy-ness of our lives.
The builders of the medieval cathedrals knew all about reminding folks of the things that they thought were important. From the stories illustrated in stained glass, to the very form of the buildings, cathedrals were all about telling the story of the church. While I do not share the church’s evangelical passion, I am trying to convert somebody: myself. The reminders that I have built into my garden are both highly personal and, I hope, universal. They orient my world much as the towers of a cathedral guide the footsteps of the faithful.
Any sacred space has an object or place that acts as its heart. In a cathedral, it may be the altar, in a Buddhist temple, a serene and smiling statue of the master. A few years back, I set out to create a “heart” for my garden and settled on a pile of rocks. Granted, these weren’t just any rocks. I collected them from the banks of the Pedernales River just upriver from Hamilton Pool, the place where I first experienced and fell in love with the Hill Country. I chose the stones based on their smoothness and color. Then, I carefully arranged them in a small rectangular depression cut into our concrete patio, their worn, rounded forms contrasting with the straight lines of the man-made surroundings. I added a single piece of driftwood and a fossil to complete my “hearth”.
Now, when I wake every morning and look down from my balcony, cup of coffee in hand, I look out and see the Pedernales at my doorstep. My “pile of rocks” is the magical heart of my garden and I feel pulled into its orbit. From my front porch, I can hear the rush of water flowing over stone. I can see the twisting roots of the cypress trees that line the river’s bank. And I feel the weight of the stones as they are washed off the canyon walls, tumbling against one another, finally coming to rest here in my garden. For a just a moment I am thrown out of the orbit of the news, my job, and money, and into sacred space. A moment and a millennium are one in the same thing when you swim in that stream. My advice is to jump in.
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