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#2134 - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - Editor: Jerry Katz



This issue brings you selections from a new edition of Why We Garden: Cultivating a Sense of Place, by Jim Nollman.


As with many features in The Nondual Highlights, it is an exclusive. Reprinted with permission.


Read more and order the book at






Why We Garden: Cultivating a Sense of Place


by Jim Nollman




To succeed at gardening, we must all learn the difference between pure aesthetics on the one hand and the good health of place on the other. This sense is not defined in any gardening encyclopedia or in any scientific treatise about the senses. We don't necessarily think about it, and there even seem to be limits to how much we can study up on it. It is eventually understood on its own behalf. When that occurs, this so-called sense of place has already become an extension of ourselves.


Devising a garden aesthetic based on the good health of place ultimately ensures our own good health. That is perhaps the most selfish reason I can offer for promoting a sense of place as the foundation for gardening in the twenty-first century.


Why We Garden is written with much love and faith. It is written in the hope that the discoveries revealed to me within my garden may provoke some small transformation in your own sense of place. As a well-known Mexican song points out, from my house to your house is but one small step.


~ ~ ~


Every tree and every deer has a distinct personality. The people who build fences have distinct personalities. Even the fences -- whether real, symbolic, or wholly imagined -- have distinct personalities. The relationship between all these beings and structures, each one of them bursting with personality, seems to exist beyond the reckonings of any logic. Scientists will never plumb the depths of this relationship through any wile of statistical analysis. Does it exist? Let's withhold judgment a little bit longer.


This same relationship motivates me to recommend successful strategies to other gardeners, but not tactics. In this case, the strategy is simple: do not treat natural predators as a manifestation of evil. I personally regard the relationship between gardener, predator (such as deer) and prey (such as Russian kale) to be an important enough matter in the development of a sense of place that I have devoted an entire chapter to it.


Or another strategy: plant all the trees you like and rest assured that the deer will be just as finicky in choosing the ones he or she likes. Yet always treat that deer as a discerning neighbor. Talk ot it! Communicate. Build a sign. An ideogram fence. But don't build a great wall of China unless you like running a prison camp for fruit trees. And one more strategy: follow the tortoise's example: Plant two each of every fruit tree you like and then sit back and watch the deer. Watch the trees. In five years you'll know which ones the deer prefer. In eight years the trees will have grown too large for any deer to harm. Only five years to run a fruit-growing experiment? Feel blessed when a hundred golden peaches start ripening on a tree that is a mere four-year-old stripling and takes up about the same amount of garden space as a picnic table. Feel blessed that it's not sequoia cones we're waiting for. That would take decades. Then again, if we're in a hurry, we ought to consider a different hobby. Like sprinting.


~ ~ ~


As both my garden and I enter middle age, the established beds seem ever more capable of taking care of themselves. I have tried many different gardening fashions, committed several monumental planting blunders, and felt compelled to try more categories of plants than either this limited history or the soil is able to nurture. I now find myself looking away from the actual plants and toward the landscape as a unity, although I am also convinced that this projected sense of unity is as much a matter of self-deception -- smoke and mirrors -- as it is the result of sophisticated planting technique. For example, every place my bedrock knoll drops off toward forest or pond offers a natural cascade of rock outcroppings, moss, lichen, sedum, and wildflowers. A rock gardener in the Japanese style might spend an entire lifetime trying to emulate what those cliffs gather to themselves naturally. but whereas I once considered the cliffs to be "wild," meaning outside my gardening domain, a slight shift in perception now lets me regard them as examplars of the well-integrated garden. Yet I have planted nothing on those cliffs besides a few scattered hen-and-chickens. And more tampering would simply cause one or another of the three constrainsts (time, money, or resources) to rear its ugly head.


This sensibility for wild areas is an example of the Findhorn notion of always leaving one area in a garden as a natural sanctuary. Consider it safe ground, sacred ground, and an homage to the biota that preceded the garden. Garden ecologist Forest Shomer asserts that the sanctuary "represents the mystery or unconscious from which non-mental possibilities can emerge and is the resting place of the nature spirits and elementals who don't often take up residence in the control areas of the garden."


~ ~ ~


Define the basic shape of the herb bed, till it to the depth of a garden fork, and deposit a few large rocks for effect. Start out by planting a couple of chive plants, a Greek oregano, maybe a French lavender, perhaps a bergamot for the bees and butterflies it attracts. Definitely add a Russian sage (Perovskia) and an agastache if you can find either one.


Or here's a final herbal tip for gourmets: if you cook Thai food but can't find a steady supply of lemon grass, go to an oriental market and buy some fresh lemon grass with the roots still attached. Plant them right in the ground under the same conditions you'd plant basil. Step back and watch them grow. Northern gardeners should bring the plants inside the house in October, and watch them thrive as houseplants. If you are unable to locate lemon grass with the roots still attached, try planting the hardy lemon thyme. It makes a fair substitute, and a wonderful ornamental besides.


And get yourself a good herb book, or you're still missing half the fun of starting an herb museum. Several are mentioned in the endnotes of this chapter. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs and The Herb Book by John Lust area among the best. Give a copy to your favorite doctor.


~ ~ ~


This sense of the sacred was seamlessly integrated into all aspects of the lives of traditional peoples. A person immersed in a sacred life not only comprehended the sacred as a wellspring of order and meaning, but ate it, tread upon it, breathed it. We are, by contrast, largely the children of a materialistic worldview that attempts to provide a parallel sense of order and meaning to our lives by withholding a sacred worldview.


That may be one reason the modern English language is currently so inadequate in words describing the spiritual bond that connects people to place. This book, for instance, employs four distinct words to name this relationship: a sense of place. Standing on its own, the word sense certainly offers little acknowledgement of the sacred. Likewise, we Westerners tend to utilize the words sacred and spiritual either tenuously or at least restively. Here are two words that are meant to signify a human being's most profound relationship to the universe, yet we seem to have gone out of our way to obfuscate our own personal perception of this linkage by adding an opaque layer of theological connotations.


...anyone seeking a prototype upon which to develop a modern sacred sense of place can find no better example than the spiritual worldview lived by, for instance, the Lakota, the Okanangan, or the Inuit. Environmental psychologist James Swan writes: "In Western Society, of one talks to God, it is called prayer, but if God talks back to someone it is symptomatic of psychosis. In contrast, among the Inuit and other Shamanic cultures, if spiritual voices do not come to one's mental ears then one is considered mentally ill."




The sacred garden is the place we go to contemplate our own two souls of heaven and Earth. Although we plant flowers and vegetables there, the sacred garden is better understood as the place we plant our feet. It could be a quiet corner we visit to sit and admire a tree. In that sense of sitting, and not necessarily doing, people like the nongardening Lakota emerge as our mentors in the cultivation of this garden.


Obviously, our deepest constructs about the garden need alteration if they are to serve us in such an exalted way. This depiction of a garden not bound to tasks like digging soil, planting flowers, and harvesting fruit goes far beyond the classic European view of what a garden is. Then again, the Japanese raked garden has little to do with digging, planting, and harvesting and yet no one would suggest that the Zen monks who tend it are not gardeners.


At any rate, of all the gardens in this book, the sacred garden lies the furthest from the traditional European garden. It is certainly not about the control of nature for aesthetic purposes. Nor does it follow any specific garden design. To know it we may first need to discover the place where gardening intersects with pimaatisiiwin, intersects with making medicine, with svaha, feng shui, and all the other ideas human being have accumulated throughout history to express a sacred relationship to place.


If there is to be a deep ecology, then there must also be a deep gardening. It involves deep hoeing, deep digging, deep planting, deep harvesting, deep sitting, deep listening ... deep interacting to natural processes. These tasks should be familiar by now because we have already visited this garden under another guise. The sentient garden earlier demonstrated that a garden need not be passive, the mere recipient of our labors, a predefined object waiting to be assembled. It is instead, active, a thing capable of assembling. It possesses a co-creative, interpenetrating aspect that dynamically links human beings to place. Because the sentient garden is a place where "voices come to one's mental ears," it flirts with the mystical even as it endorses what the Inuit refer to as health. Visiting this garden makes medicine.


--You may read more about Why We Garden and order the book at


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