Gardening Thoughts

One evening this week, I was outside puttering in the garden, when I noticed that one of my rose bushes looked stressed. There were chipmunk holes in the soil around its roots—and that would be upsetting enough—but the leaves also had been chewed on and were thinning on the branches. There were some buds forming but I wondered whether the poor plant would have enough energy to blossom. I decided I’d better give it a little boost with some special rose food I have. So I mixed up the concoction—8 ounces of food to two gallons of water—and went back outside to share it with the rose bush.

But as I poured the water around its base, most of it quickly ran away from the plant and into the chipmunk holes. That’s not what I want! I thought. The chipmunks seem plenty healthy enough already. So I waited a minute and tried again—this time, the soil was a little more receptive, and so I poured on  a little more…and then a little more. Gradually the ground softened and absorbed the water in the way I was hoping it would. I thought how much like life that is—when too much comes our way too fast—even if it’s a good thing, designed to help us, give us a boost—we just can’t take it all in at once. We need to be able to soften to it, gradually, to let our hearts become more receptive, so we can really take in what life is bringing us.

One sunny afternoon I finally tackled a garden bed in the back that has started to sprout the seeds the birds have flung from the feeders. The grasses had grown quite tall—almost knee-high—it was now serving as a cover of thicket for the duck couple that comes to enjoy what the birds toss out. But I had some flowers ready to plant in that space, so the grasses had to go. I pulled on my gardening gloves—that’s the garden where I often get poison ivy—and went out and in about 30 minutes, I had uprooted all the shoots and weeds. When I came back inside to wash up, I glanced out the window and saw a tiny gray mouse, scampering through the stirred-up soil, happily gathering remaining seeds and whisking them home.

In God’s economy nothing is ever wasted. Every living creature—from mice and birds and worms to ducks and humans—we all get what we need for our sustenance and joy. I wasn’t looking for a sermon that day, but there it was. God’s lessons are everywhere. The natural world is literally blooming with them. All we have to do is look.

In fact, nature is constantly teaching us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Each year, especially in the spring, we learn the lesson of patience from the world around us. We have to wait for buds to blossom, for trees to become full, new seedlings to hit their stride and begin to grow and spread and thrive. We also, across the years, see the magnificent growth of trees and forests, as tiny spindly saplings mature into wide maples and tall oaks that provide shade and security for nestlings and squirrels. That’s why the destruction of old-growth forests is such a tragedy, such a mistake—it will take generations, many generations, for younger trees to get that wise.

Quaker and philosophy professor Elton Trueblood wrote about this in his 1951 book, The Life We Prize. He wrote,

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

That’s an act of love and service, isn’t it—leaving the world better than we found it.

Nature also teaches us many things about our own lives, our own well-being, how living and growing works in God’s world. For example, consider what we know from our own experience about healthy living things. A healthy plant is green and growing, soft and supple; it moves gently with the wind and is able to bend and be flexible when storms roll through. In time, it blossoms and provides nectar for bees and butterflies, contributing to the ecosystem that supports it.

When a plant is under stress, like my rose bush—from drought, too much sun, lack of nutrients, chipmunks, or overcrowding—we can see it with our own eyes. Now the plant has fewer blossoms; the leaves may get spots or curl or turn brown and drop. In its weakened state, the plant becomes more vulnerable to diseases and pests. And dead plants, of course, are dry and brittle. They break easily, returning to the dust from which they were made.

Our Old Testament reading for today tells us that God’s wisdom is present in all created life:

“But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. 8“Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; And let the fish of the sea declare to you. 9“Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this, 10In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?”

Isn’t that lovely? God’s wisdom, freely given, available to us right here, in our very own bodies and in the life of nature all around us. And we know from our own lived experience that we also feel vibrant and creative and active—if not green–when we are healthy. We have energy and hope; we are flexible, able to change and learn and grow. To stay healthy, we also need plenty of water as well as good nourishment, the right amount of sun, and plenty of quiet time and space so that we don’t feel rushed or stressed. If we are under pressure for too long—whether that’s from lack of water, spiritual drought, or an overabundance of worrying and upsetting thoughts—that takes a toll: our lives can’t blossom as much; we don’t feel creative; we’re tired; we may get increasingly rigid, isolated, irritable, maybe sick.

In the 1980s, a new form of relaxation known as forest bathing started in Japan. This doesn’t mean literal bathing—it means walking through a wooded natural area, bathing yourself in the atmosphere of the trees. Many research projects have been done since then to study the effects of forest bathing on the people who do it—and results show that simply walking in a forested area lowers our blood pressure, boosts our immune system, lessens stress, improves mental health, and there is some indication that forest bathing may even enhance the cancer-fighting cells in our bodies that can ward off serious disease.

Generations ago, as industry began to overtake agriculture as a way of life in this country, families moved to cities and to a large degree began to lose touch with the wide-open spaces country living provides. We began, as humans, to fall out of sync with nature and started to see ourselves separate from—and distant from—the normal flow of life governing the seasons and the forests and the fields.

In a multiyear research project that ended in the mid-90s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors. Actually the real number is 87% inside and 6% commuting, traveling to and from work. But the total not-outside-in-nature time is 93%. That is an astounding number. That means that of the roughly 112 hours per week that we’re awake (assuming we get up at 6am and go to bed at 10pm), 104 of those hours are spent in the house, at the office, or in the car. How depressing is that!

A bit of good news is that a study done in England in 2019 found that spending just 120 minutes per week in nature is enough to stay physically and emotionally healthy. That means that of those eight hours of waking time we have left during the week, if we can spend two hours in nature—17 minutes a day—we will feel better, do better, have more life in our life.

Maybe for that kind of benefit, we can purposely do some forest bathing of our own—whether that’s sitting outside on the deck listening to the birds—or right now, the cicadas–or simply enjoying tiny outside tasks, like sweeping the walk or plucking old blossoms from the petunias. Our hearts and immune systems and souls will thank us. And we’ll find ourselves, gradually—bit by bit—getting back in tune with the wisdom God has planted at the heart of all life and find goodness, ease, joy, growth, peace.

And in case that sounds like a romantic notion that is more poetic than practical, remember that the biggest fly in the ointment when it comes to our ability to feel our connection with all life and with each other is our overly rational, often critical, anxious, and overworked mind. As soon as we’re old enough to stop chasing lightning bugs, things that give us joy and put us in touch with wonder often get labeled as “silly” or “not worth the time.” Our adult minds have moved to the city and are focused on finances and problems and worries.

In our New Testament story for today, Jesus tried to get this idea across to his disciples, who were preoccupied with concerns about the “hows” of life. They couldn’t see how everything would work out, and they were afraid they wouldn’t have what they needed. How would their work get done? How would they eat?

Jesus heard their worries, understood their struggles, and knew that not having what we need—to wear, to eat, to sleep—makes us feel frightened and vulnerable and alone. When our basic needs aren’t met, we can think of little else. This was a key insight in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—he showed that we can’t move on to higher pursuits in life if our basic needs for safety and security aren’t met. Similarly, Mother Theresa was famous for feeding the poor in Calcutta and in one of her books, she said she learned that as long as a person is achingly hungry, they cannot hear what you are saying to them. She realized she needed to meet their immediate need—for bread—before they could be open to the love of Christ.

When the water of God’s grace pours into our lives, we often can’t take it all in at once—especially when we are first opening to it and we have lots of worries on our minds. Much will run off and flow into the chipmunk holes around us. But bit by bit, our soil becomes more receptive, and we learn over time—there’s that patience again—that God’s grace does truly and always meet our deepest needs.

 “…do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. 23“For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24“Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! …Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 

Trust God, Jesus says. Trust God. He points out how God cares for the raven and for the perfect beauty of the lilies—they are not left all alone, out in the world fighting and struggling to stay alive. None of us—ravens or lilies, field mice or human beings–are ever separate from God’s life; we are sustained by it, part of a vibrant, abundant, system of life created and maintained for our wonder, our joy, and our flourishing.

This week, let’s do a little forest bathing of our own—just 17 minutes!–and see how it nourishes our souls. And while we’re there, let’s ask the earth and it will tell us: The One who created this paradise continues  alongside us each day. And all created life—continuing recipients of the flow of God’s unending love and grace—recognize and celebrate and can truly know God’s presence.


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