A Garden for Your Thoughts

Yesterday was a full-on gardening day, for my wife. I joined her mid-afternoon after some marking, going for a run, and running some errands.

The work for me began in earnest in “my little garden.” It is a bit of a joke, but many years ago I was given charge over a small bit of soil just outside the office window. My wife takes responsibility for the rest of our rather large yard. I do not recall the provenance of this grave responsibility, but I do admit that I have a consultant who provides me with sound counsel. This year this counsel included pulling out a trumpeter vine, probably as old as the house (just shy of 70), although I do not really know. It is beautiful when it flowers but a bit of a chore when it drops orange trumpets. It is also in constant need of grooming. We have thought about pulling it out some years but have always decided against it in the end. This year it simply did not come back to life, and so it was time to remove the vine, which has over the years grown to be a thick stalk rather like a branch of large tree.

I don’t know why, but whenever I have to pull out a shrub or a tree I am reminded of the book called “Shane” that was read in grade nine. Shane drifts into the community in which the novel is set, and becomes a hired hand at a farm. The young boy of the family takes a liking to him, and I especially remember a bit about Shane working at removing a stubborn stump on the farm. Shane is tenacious and taciturn, mysterious in his refusal to say much about his storied past. I don’t recall much more from the book, but I do recall that scene with its focus on resolve and the teacher using this scene in the book to discuss literary tropes, and what the scene might really be pointing toward. It all comes rushing back whenever I grab an axe, which I needed yesterday.

After I had dug down about 30 inches or so, the stalk was still thick and solid, so I got out the axe and played Shane. The stalk was really a thing of beauty in its own way, gnarled and twisted, bending as needed to make its way in the world. I felt a little bit whimsical in this work, and grateful to the vine for adorning our house over the years. We replaced it with a Dwarf Alberta Spruce, which paired one at the other end of my plot, between which two I planted flowers with solid advice from the resident expert. My wife takes gardening seriously – or perhaps “delightfully” is a better term. When she stops planting and steps back, looking at what she has done, she appears rather like an artist before a canvas. I am basically like a hired-hand in this work, useful for my strong back and capacity to dig out rooted things and to lift in rooting things. I can be tenacious and taciturn at times but I am no Shane, and this blog is no novel. However, there is plenty of novelty at 185 Sheldon, as a garden rages against COVID-19 and preaches a fine sermon for those with ears to hear. I am glad to have a small part in the sermon preparation.

Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.

Lament for a Tree

Friday evening a northern high pressure system collided with a vagrant mess of hot, sultry weather in Southwestern Ontario. Tornadoes touched down some 100 km from where I live, and gusts of up to 100 km/hour were reported in our area. I sat in my living room, mouth agape as trees ducked to escape sheets of water rifled at them with Thor-like intensity. After the storm subsided, I took a peak in our back yard. I was astounded to find that our neighbor’s 80 foot tall tree lay on his lawn. It fell at such an angle that it narrowly missed his shed in the back. The fall left a hole in the yard the size of a large fish-pond., The size of the now horizontal tree became evident as it engulfed half of his backyard. As he, I and my wife surveyed the damage, I expressed my condolences. He appeared heart broken and it struck me that for many – including me – a tree is more than a tree.

I was intrigued to learn, not so long ago, that one of the Norse sagas claims that humans were morphed from trees. In the book I call holy, certain trees are identified as sources of life, and the knowledge of good and evil. As we roamed across Norway last month, we also learned that some believed and believe elves to live in solitary trees. Many cultures have little people of one sort or another associated with tree life.

In many ways, there is more to a tree than meets the eye.

Across the road from our house, I bumped into Jim yesterday. Jim was cleaning up the aftermaths of the storm in his own front yard. We spoke of our neighbour’s loss. Jim was deeply saddened. He has a some stately trees of his own, including a spectacular oak. I once asked him the age of this tree, and he told me that he an arborist had suggested that it was likely over 300 years old. That tree at the corner of his yard was there before there was a yard, a street, a town, etc. If trees could talk, what tales they could tell! If we could hear, what stories we could savour!

In the book Tree: A Life Story, David Suzuki and Wayne Grady explain that the difference between hemoglobin (a human’s life blood) and chlorophyll (a tree’s life blood) is the presence of Iron where Magnesium is found in an otherwise identical molecule. Perhaps we humans have more in common with these gentle giants than first meets the eye. When all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96:12), perhaps we might join in, and begin to learn a little about joy, about life, about tenacity.