The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- June 2007


Last update: June 19


Artificial waterfall at Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto.


June 3 - afternoon


Today felt like the first day of summer. How unusual to be saying that during the first week of June, instead of May (or maybe even April!) Just a few hours ago, I finally removed our faded bluebonnets and pansies, both still had some blooms - in fact, a few of the pansies  looked great. Usually, they are toast by mid-April. I have two full days of  intensive gardening and it feels wonderful. Now, if only the rains will continue, I won't worry that I just put another dozen plants in the ground!


I have been working on the narrative for the new section of the website dealing with Japanese gardens, I hope that you'll take a peek. More soon, cheers!



One of the "dry" gardens at Ryogen-in, Daitoku-ji, Kyoto.


June 5 - evening


Still more rain! I can't believe our good fortune. I am having to garden with a machete and my home-brewed fungicide, but I don't mind.


I was thinking about truth and unity and gratitude today. Big concepts. As you know I have been working on the narrative for the new section of this website dealing with Japanese gardens, and this morning I awoke early to write the section dealing with the Zen garden of Ryoan-ji, not just one of my favorite memories of our recent trip, but one of my favorite memories of all time.  As I wrote about my experiences at Ryoan-ji, I found myself moved once again. What was it that was so powerful about that experience? It wasn't just the fact that "being there" was the culmination of a lifelong dream to experience that space, there was something more... As I thought about this I recalled an email exchange I had yesterday (regarding a Sunday school presentation I just made about my new program Emerging Voices, Emerging Church.) The person I was corresponding with was talking about the "Truth" of "Unity." Unity and gardens and gratitude seemed to tumble around in my head. It was at this moment that I had a flashback to Bill Moyer's conversation with Joseph Campbell about the myth of the Garden of Eden. I remembered Campbell talking about the "dreamtime" of the garden, where all was Unity, there were no opposites, God and man, man and nature, good or bad, shame or pride. It wasn't until after we had eaten of the fruit of "knowledge," of division, and categorization that things turned sour. Maybe the overwhelming sense of gratitude I felt at Ryoan-ji was a kind of emptying, a kenosis, a letting go of self and knowledge that allowed me for just a minute to enter its paradise. Perhaps, there was something about the  unattainable view of fifteen perfect stones left me open to something far bigger.


Eden and Paradise. Truth and Unity and Gratitude. Did you know that the word "paradise" comes from the ancient Persian word for an enclosed outdoor space? A garden? 


The sounds of the streams splash out the Buddha’s sermon,

Don’t say that the deepest meaning comes only from one’s mouth.

Day and night, 80,000 poems arise one after the other,

And in fact, not a single word has ever been spoken.


- Muso Soseki (Designer of the gardens of Tenryu-ji, Kyoto)





Please visit the new section of the website dealing with Japanese gardens, and repeat visitors, remember to hit your refresh buttons to be sure you are getting the latest versions of this work (still) in-progress.


June 8 -evening


Last month, I was honored to learn that this website had been chosen "Gardening Website of the Year" in the first ever "Mouse and Trowel" Gardening-Web Awards. The awards were created by Colleen Vanderlinden at . A couple of weeks ago, Colleen  posted some of the comments about Soul of the Garden from those who voted in the awards contest. I asked Colleen for her permission to reprint her entry here.


The comments below make me proud and  they humble me. Above all, they reinforce my belief that giving of ourselves is what we are all called to do. I cannot express my thanks enough to you, my visitors, and to all of the folks below...


Here are Colleen's comments and those of the folks who participated in the Mouse and Trowel voting:

Tom Spencer's beautiful "Soul of the Garden" is one of those rare sites that has it all: breathtaking photos, wonderful writing, deep insights, and an opportunity for the visitor to take a moment and focus on what's really important. Soul of the Garden illustrates what I, and so many of you, believe about gardening: that it's not just plunking plants in dirt. For those of us who love plants, there's a big part of our soul that resides in the garden, and when we're out there, we feel complete.

I'll leave it to Tom's fans to say the rest:

"In this world of uncertainty, one can go to the Soul of the Garden and find comfort, beauty and quiet joy not only for the images but for the insights as well. A treasure."

"Well, I am speechless at the artistry in this website - and those who know me recognize that condition as extremely rare."

"Simply the best!"

"A beautiful and very thoughtful website."

"This site provides inspiration, information, and community."

"Soul of the Garden AND Garden of the Soul. Elegant."

"Always look forward to the beautiful images and inspiration here."

"The only place on the internet that I'd like to visit everday!"

"A site I check almost daily for inspiration. Wonderful photography, garden design, life perspective. A gem."

"Beautiful pictures, wonderful and inspiring writing - this site touches our souls. So much to offer to all of us."

"The pictures and the writings on Soul of the Garden are ART!!....i enjoy this web site immensely...."

"The photos are absolutely amazing and Tom lovingly shares his inspiration with the world."

"Soul of the Garden is more than is meditating with is finding calm."

"This wonderful site brings me joy, brightens my day, feeds my soul while taking me to gardens far and near. I am sent onward to sites which help me in so many ways. What a special place."

"Tom Spencer's Soul of the Garden website is a welcome refuge in the middle of my workday. The photography is awesome! I especially enjoy his quotes and poetry, which goes so well with the lovely images. Tom also personally replies to emails and has given me some gardening advice. I always look forward to his updates."

"I find ideas and spiritual renewal at this site. The pictures are incredibly beautiful. If the photographer didn't sign them, they would be copied many places. The poetry adds to the specialness of this site. Poets used range across cultures, language, and time. And the writing is good, as well! I am a bit a former resident of Austin, I turn to this site to touch a bit of home."

"This site brings joy to so many people. Thanks to Tom Spencer for his great work!"

"What an enchanting website. I love the images that make you feel like you're in "Alice in Wonderland!"

"A joy to journey in the site."

"Soul of the Garden has inspired me for years. Tom's photography, writing, and garden are equally beautiful."

"The most innovative, intuitive and insightful website out there! Truly beautiful."

Congratulations to Tom for his "Website of the Year" Mousie for "Soul of the Garden." He's touched many lives, and that is a reward all its own.


Thanks again. Namaste, Tom.

June 14 - morning

Well, in two short weeks we have gone from generous spring to intense summer weather and the garden is showing it. Last night I was manning the "rescue brigade" dragging  water buckets around for our roses and more. Oh well, all good things must come to an end. The big news from Possumhaw Hollow is that a possum (my guess) disfigured our Savannah holly tree two nights ago by trying to harvest the few ripe berries left on its rather thin branches. Yesterday, I noticed quite a few broken branches which have left an impressive gap in the tree's architecture. See what happens when you invite the neighbors over for dinner?

On another note, I'd like to thank the Austin American-Statesman for an article that appears in today's paper focusing on the new series I am trying to develop for KLRU-TV. It was very kind. However, there was a mistake in it that I feel compelled to mention, it credits me as being the Producer and Host of Central Texas Gardener. In reality, I am just the Host of that show, the real genius behind the show is my wonderful colleague, Linda Lehmusvirta, who is the Producer and is responsible for every detail of the show including all of those gorgeous garden profiles. Sorry Linda! But otherwise, the article is something that will make my Mom smile, and who can argue with that ?

June 19 - morning

This past weekend I taught a class at The Natural Gardener (a local nursery) about creating a "Sanctuary Garden."  We tend to think of the word sanctuary as meaning a place of refuge and peace, a haven from the pressures of our lives and the world. Of course, the origins of the word sanctuary comes from sanctus, or "holy" in Latin. So, in a very real sense what we are talking about when we use the phrase "sanctuary garden," is consecrated or holy ground. As I mentioned in my class, we need these kinds of places in our lives - they help remind us of what is truly important - the things we should be paying attention to. One of my students had a very insightful question, "Do you ever have any time to just enjoy your garden or are you always working in it?" Another way of stating that question might be, "I  want my garden to be a place of peace and refuge, but everytime I go outside, I see something that needs to be done. How can I find peace if I am always working?" 

This is the gardeners dilemma, because as we all know, our gardens are never finished - they are always incomplete or imperfect is some frustrating way... nutgrass, web worms, and spurge taunt us as we wander down or purportedly peaceful paths. In my response to the student's question, I mentioned my morning habit of having a "Sabbath" cup of coffee. On many mornings I take my second cup of coffee into the garden and find a place to simply be for a few moments. I try to find one thing to focus on that is not nut grass or web worm, something that will feed my soul. Of course there are times that I fail, for example at this very moment (while I am still working on that first cup of coffee) I am thinking about using my Sabbath time to fertilize one of the bald cypress trees in my allee that is lagging behind the others in its growth. Hey, I can write my own hall pass when it comes to coffee Sabbaths, right? 

Honoring your own Sabbath, whatever it may entail, is a wonderful and important practice. One of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, has written an extensive body of Sabbath poems, that describe his practice of spending the Sabbath in the woods,  the holy ground of his farm. Here he rises above the fields of his labor to a place beyond his ordering - a place of profound connection to the sacred, his sanctuary.

Whether we we think of them that way or not, our gardens are works of our labor. And yes, it is tricky to rise above the busyness of minds and egos that see all of those imperfections, and all of those chores that call for our attention and time. This is where the "Sabbath of the heart" comes in. In the Old Testament (Jeremiah) God says, "I have put my truth in your innermost mind, and I have written it in your heart." When we center ourselves on that notion in a radical way, then each activity in the garden and in our lives can become holy. In my class I quoted the famous Zen saying, "Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water."  The chores never end. It is how we do them that matters. If they are all viewed as practices - something we give ourselves to, then they become chopping Sabbaths and carrying sanctuaries - each becomes a portal to the miracle of the present yet eternal  moment, the sacred.

My first cup of coffee has been drained. Time to pour the second. Will this morning bring a spraying Sabbath? We'll see. Perhaps a hummingbird will call for my attention - perhaps my slow-poke cypress tree... each has its own sense of sanctuary to offer.

(A second thanks to the Austin American Statesman for a second article. This one about my class.)

Return to Daily Muse Menu