To that person walking down our lane last week it may have appeared that I was lallygagging when, in fact, I was in the throes of creation. Standing in my back yard, staring for long minutes at a pile of dirt, apparently without a thought in my head, conscious or unconscious, at some deeper level I was envisioning a paradise of verdant green with splashes of brilliant coordinated colour. I need to get busy, so went my thought, need to get digging, add manure and potting soil, plant seeds. In short, I need to get gardening.
Then, HOLD IT, so went another thought. This is gardening. This staring, seemingly mindlessly but, in fact, the mind teeming with activity, this envisioning. I was creating, transforming the valley of dry bones into a living breathing entity.
When John and I arrived in Calgary many years ago to settle down, build a house, raise a family, we stood on top of an enormous hill of clay. In this bare, desolate, windswept piece of ground which we had recently purchased, not one living thing poked up its head. To paraphrase Ezekiel’s plight… the hand of the Lord was upon us… and set us down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones… and he said unto us… can these bones live? And we answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Or as my forebears would have put it… God only knows.
In the bible story, God caused breath to enter the bones so that they could live. In our story we rolled up our sleeves and started digging. But before the action it was necessary to visualize. Unlike our ancestors, some of whom had a quarter section at Oyen near the Saskatchewan border (and you know what that’s like), we also were able to order a ton of black topsoil.
The insistence of human beings to grow a garden must be related to the act of transforming death into life. We grow grain, of course, for food. Vegetables, too, fall into the category of necessity. But my aunts on the farm insisted on flowers. They grew wonderful flowers in the most adverse conditions, and they took great pride in their successes. One aunt carried scarce water by the pailful and dipped out a cupful for each plant in her half acre of garden. When I have success in my garden, I more or less think it happened with god’s help (or nature’s if you prefer). Not so that aunt, I am sure. She was the more the type to raise her fist at a god she wasn’t sure existed. But however she viewed god, she was the embodiment of the creative force transforming nothing into something.
The valley of dry bones has become a metaphor for a landscape or a mindscape that does not include the energetic or creative force. This is what people refer to when they call a place god-forsaken, a term I first heard used by parents and grandparents as they railed against the land, especially in winter or after a hail storm had just wiped out the crop. But they always tried again, planned another year, another garden. True, they had little choice, but they also had a vision.
The other metaphor at work here is the garden. Candide in Voltaire’s classic text, after his journey of many adventures and seemingly endless calamity – earthquakes, disease, war, thievery and murder, to name a few – decides to go home and plant and cultivate a garden of his own making.
You can see them in the garden centres every day but especially weekend afternoons from early April to late September when you can hardly move through the crowds of happy gardeners pushing overladen carts, people, like Candide, who have discovered that the solution to the insanity of the world is to plant a garden.