Of Gardening, Wendell Berry, the Church & Sacraments

Tenth Day of Christmas and Feast of St Malachai the Prophet

Berry_Square_2.jpegAROUND SEVEN years ago, living in an apartment in Chicagoland, I read Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Two weeks later it occurred to me to start a garden. Then it occurred to me that I might move home to Kansas.

My apartment-balcony garden failed. But the idea for the move home took root and flourished. Fewer than six months later, we were packing a moving truck.

When my garden up and died, I worked hard to avoid all the salient metaphors that presented themselves to me: Root rot as metaphor for the moral rot of modern man, the flourishing, bright green leaves only hiding the deeper sickness of the decay of suburban sprawl. . . . It all seemed a little melodramatic, and not a little cliché, to let the failure of my garden represent the fragmentation of consumer capitalism in the early twenty-first-century suburbs of Chicago. What could be more obvious!

Whatever the case, I was happy for my garden to remain an isolated fact, disconnected from symbol and context.


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Gardening didn’t get any easier when I moved home. It’s hard to stay motivated, to keep up with the seasons, to simply find the time. Moreover, I don’t particularly like working out in the yard. Some people thrive on things like that, but for me it’s more of a discipline. I know it’s supposed to be good for me, so I try to do it regularly. I was—and still am, to be honest—more interested in abstract concepts like community, authenticity, and stability than the earthy work of gardening and building a homestead in a particular place in the world.

Part of my trouble with gardening and the whole complex of ideas associated with it stemmed, on the one hand, from my refusal to think metaphorically about my garden and, on the other, from my overeagerness to “metaphorize” the writings of Wendell Berry. Let me explain.

Regarding the first, like a good Gnostic, I wanted my garden to remain a garden and my abstract concepts to stay nestled up in the world of forms. But the skills and practices and disciplines necessary for promoting growth and health in a garden not only overlay well onto the abstract ideas of community, family, and stability but also require the actualization of those ideas. A garden can flourish better if the one who tends it possesses family, community, stability, roots. One must be around pretty regularly to tend a garden, and if one can’t be around, it’s good to have one’s family members be around. If the entire family can’t be around, it’s good to have friends in the community who can be around. And the more one relies on one’s garden for one’s food, the more one must be around. A garden, in its own small way, and local agriculture generally on a larger scale, both requires and encourages dependence on others in one’s community, in the very soil where the garden exists.

Regarding the second, because of my horticultural ineptitude and because for whatever reason I am not predisposed to enjoy it, I was happy to let the idea of agriculture in Berry’s thought stand in as a metaphor for community. We till the soil of our friendships and cultivate the garden of our life or our church or our community, and see it flourish. But as I read and thought—and gardened—more, I realized that Berry will allow no such precise and distinct metaphorical equation. Community literally depends on agriculture, and vice versa.

In a way, both of these are failures to think sacramentally, at least in an analogical way. A sacrament is more than a symbol, more than two disconnected things that represent each other. My refusal to think metaphorically about my garden illustrates that fact. When my plants failed in Chicago, I naturally wanted to understand it symbolically. We’re symbol-making beings: it’s in our nature. To detach a fact from its symbolic expression only exacerbates the mechanistic, Enlightenment-based understanding of reality as a set of mute facts unencumbered by meaning. The way gardening and community interpenetrate each other illustrates the inextricability of immaterial meaning from its expression in material things. We cannot reduce meaning to the material. But to evacuate gardening of its concrete expression and metaphorize gardening as community also fails to do justice to the metaphorical suspension of community in gardening. They depend on each other to be what they are.

But we should not think these illustrations apply because the sacraments are en echo of gardening. Just the reverse, rather. In the sense I’m talking about it here, gardening, to borrow loosely from Saint Augustine, is a vestigium sacramentum, a trace of the more condensed reality of the sacraments themselves, of the presence of God carried in material things, of God in the world as man. As a material, literally earthy thing, gardening points us to—and instantiates—the presence of something immaterial: the intangible idea of community.

As agriculture is to community, so the bread and wine are to God’s grace. The signifier (the garden itself) and the signified (one’s family or community) actually inhabit each other; they participate in each other. The material holds the immaterial within itself—the immaterial, the spiritual, is made concrete and visible in the material, and the spiritual takes the material up into itself and transforms it.

And here is a place where I habitually find myself parting ways with Berry. Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm,’ I substitute ‘parish.’” But for Berry the institutional church has done too much spiritual harm to be of much earthly good, and Peterson’s substitution seems to me too facile a way of “fixing” Berry. It may be helpful pastoral practice, but it doesn’t get at the heart of Berry’s writings. It metaphorizes him precisely where he means to be quite literal (the same mistake I made). No doubt Berry knows well of what he writes when he criticizes the church for being complicit in modernity’s abuse of the land and the dissolution of community, but to my mind he takes a part for the whole and ends up with a caricature. And so he finds himself much more at home with God in the sanctuary of nature. Jayber Crow, who I think easily stands in for Berry himself here, says that he supposes this makes him the “ultimate Protestant,” and so be it. The church, however, exists not as the antithesis to God’s presence in nature and culture more broadly but as the concentrated sacramental presence that reveals the sacramentality of the world outside its boundaries.

So while I’m willing to take Berry at his word that culture and agriculture are inseparable yet distinct, I fear he’d be unwilling to view the eschatological teleology of the farm as coterminous with the church, which in Augustine’s phrasing is “the world reconciled.” In other words, while I think Berry has a better handle on the sacramentality of the natural world than almost any of us (read his Sabbath Poems for lovely, voluminous evidence), his view of the church ultimately makes that sacramentality break down into either a mere symbolism or a panentheism, a church without any boundaries. Community and stability either reflect the spiritual but do not ultimately participate in it, or they become it. And so the church in the end, for Berry, cannot be a sacrament. The church must be cordoned off from the farm, or must be overcome by it.

I’m still bad at gardening. Not just bad at doing it, but also bad at wanting to do it. But what my efforts—even, or possibly especially, my failures—have taught me is that it’s the very doing of it that counts, not so much succeeding at it. Not because of some trite idea that life is about the journey but because, as I’ve worked at building a permanent home here in Kansas, I’ve found that the measure of my commitment to a place is in the things I’m willing to plant. And the measure of things I’m willing to plant is the measure of my willingness to depend on others, to depend on a tradition that must be lived and practiced to be fully understood and inhabited. Paul was speaking about marriage when he wrote the following words to the Ephesians, but he could have been speaking, in a fainter way, about gardening: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”


Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.

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