The following article first appeared in The Austin Chronicle back in 1990. My column, Over the Hedge, appeared in the Chronicle for several years. This piece is a ďmeditationĒ on where my love for the garden comes from and a tribute to my father.
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
Sometimes itís easy to remember the distant source of a current passion. For example, Iíll never forget how my love of rockíníroll was born. I guess I was about eight years old and I was visiting a pal whose older brother owned one of those boxy early Ď60ís turntables that had a bamboo needle. We were strictly forbidden from touching the record player, but on this occasion, the big guy wasnít around and we decided to risk his fury. I knew nothing about popular music, and was only vaguely aware of The Beatles thanks to a brief glimpse of their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the warnings of a particularly stern nun who taught at my elementary school. But, when we set bamboo to vinyl on a 45 of ďTwist and Shout,Ē John Lennonís primal scream turned me into an instant convert. Sister Mary Adolph be damnedóthis was the real thing!
It has always been harder for me to identitfy the source of my passion for gardening. No plant ever sent shivers down my spine or made me want to twist and shout. But recently, when I was wondering about why I spend countless hours weeding, watering, and digging, one image kept coming back to me. Like my close encounter with Lennonís vocal chords, this memory has very early roots. The image was that of my father making what he called his ďinspection tour.Ē This tour involved a slow and thoughtful circumnavigation of our yard every day after he came home from work.
My dad grew up on a farm and he never got it out of his system- despite his demanding technical career. On his tours he would visit the roses, lilacs, dogwoods, forsythia, and birch he had planted around our yard just as a farmer would visit his back 40. Iím sure that if you had asked him what he was up to as he silently moved from one plant to the next, he would have had an appropriately sensible answer about checking for pests or whatever. What Iíve come to realize, however, is that there was something poetic about his daily garden ďcommunionĒ- something he probably would have denied. Visiting the garden had become a form of meditation for him, and since I often shared those moments with him, it became mine as well.
Today, I constantly find myself visiting my own garden, and while I may not audibly chant a plant mantra when Iím communing, Iím sure one is echoing around somewhere inside. But, like my dad, I sometimes find it necessary to pretend that I have a practical reason for wandering aimlessly around the garden. My neighbors are one of the reasons that I maintain this charade. You see, I share my garden with a condo-minimized crowd and I suspect they have long questioned my sanity. It must seem as if that every time they step outside their doors, there I am, staring blankly at some nameless plant. Sometimes, when I hear a door open, I feel obliged to pull a weed or two just to make it appear as if Iím actually doing something. Only yesterday, I was lost in reverie staring at the flower buds on my Vitex tree when a young girl who lives in our building asked me in a concerned manner if anything was wrong. With a child, itís easy to admit to reverence for a flower and I told her about the wonderful lavender blooms that were forming inside the tight green buds. But, if her dad had asked what was wrong, I probably would have told him I was checking for aphids.
There is, in fact, a very practical side to garden meditation, and aphid control is a perfect example. A leading critter expert from Texas A&M once told me that the most effective form of pest control isnít a chemical spray, but rather, the presence of your own shadow in the garden. He could not have been more correct. While Iím out communing with my Vitex, Mexican Plums, or Rusty Blackhaw Viburnums I may stumble across a herd Ďo aphids sucking the vital leafy juices from my plants. If they go unchecked, they can quickly run rampant through the garden. Itís a fine line then, between meditator and pre-meditated bug murderer, and on my next inspection tour Iím sure to bring along the insecticidal soap.
Questions of practicality aside, Another good reason to practice garden meditation is that by slowly moving through, or standing in your garden, you get to witness wondrous small events that too often go unnoticed. I can recall several occasions recently when I was joined by iridescent hummingbirds as I admired a twining stand of native Coral Honeysuckle. My stillness as I looked at the blooms rewarded me with a prolonged visit with these exquisite birds who were likewise attracted by the flowers. And, if I hadnít been idling in my garden on day last spring, I would never have noticed a long silken strand of praying mantis nymphs as they descended from their egg case down onto the floor of my garden.
There are countless small connections and observations that enrich your understanding of the garden when it becomes a source of meditation. One of the most important connections that I have made is not between plant and animal, or soil and stem, but rather, between one person and another. Like most American males who are so uptight about their masculine and practical images that they are barely able to admit to their admiration of a flower, I have sometimes found it extremely difficult to communicate my love and respect for my father. In the past, the differences between us often seemed insurmountable. Youthful rebellion, generational differences, and an inability to speak from the heart created wide gulfs. But slowly, over the years, these differences have fallen away and we have discovered common ground. Our shared love for the garden is just one of a thousand small connections that bind father and son. This particular bond was not a grand discovery- no lightning bolt from the blue. Itís not the kind of thing that makes me want to twist and shout, but every once in a while it does send shivers down my spine. For now, I realize that when I visit the garden two shadows are cast on the ground.
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