Gardening is one of the oldest occupations known to human beings, preceded probably only by hunting and gathering. At any rate, it certainly didn’t take very long for our ancestors to realize that it was more efficient and more profitable to actually plan the growing of certain crops, grains mostly but vegetables too, rather than waiting for them to pop up independent of any manipulating on the part of the gatherers. And so, preparing the soil, looking out for an adequate water supply, followed then by actually putting seeds into the earth for later sprouting and harvesting is something that more or less seems almost to be a part of our human DNA.
So, it doesn’t surprise me that my partner, Andy, and I love to garden. That said, unfortunately we do not grow much of our own food. Maybe someday that will change, if we ever get to move to a more rural area where we have more land. For the moment, however, we content ourselves with growing things like tomatoes in the summer, and we have in the past grown corn, and beans, and radishes, and of course lots of herbs that we love to use in cooking: thyme (regular and lemon), oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, chives etc. Those are wonderful, and we’re very pleased about being able to do so, but to be honest most of what we concentrate on these days is flowering plants.
Just this past weekend, for example, we put the labor, sweat-equity as it’s sometimes called, into creating yet another raised bed in the backyard. You see, we have no choice but to create these special places that are conducive to growing things, because the soil on our small city property is not so great. It’s very clayey, first of all, and on top of that it’s full of rocks and bricks and bits of asphalt and who-knows-what other toxic materials from years gone by, before the house we own was ever built. After all, we live in Long Beach, California, where actual oil wells not all that far from us sprout like giant invasive weeds, or more accurately, like ravenous, mechanical insects, bobbing up and down and sucking the black and viscous stuff out of a reluctant and recalcitrant earth.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not complaining. After all, how many city dwellers get to grow anything at all? And then on top of that this is sunny Southern California, where green things grow year round. In fact, how many of those few inhabitants of cities who do have gardens can actually plant in October, with any expectation of germination not so far off? Just this past weekend, for example, we planted several dozen calla lily rhizomes, 12 of the giant white variety and many more of the smaller yellow and pink type. It was a lot of work, but in the end well worth the effort, or at least we hope it will be. It meant removing an enormous agapanthus from the area (aka, Lily of the Nile), and drastically trimming back a couple of robust hawthorn bushes. After that, we dug out a trench 15 feet long by 3 feet wide, fixed our railroad ties in place (well, actually 4” x 6” pressure-treated lumber) to create height, mixed in bags and bags of gypsum (to break the clay up) and grow mulch (to add nutrients), then filled it all in again. Finally, we planted the rhizomes at just the right depth.
Now, I know there are some who might criticize us for doing this kind of planting in the first place, given the fact that we live in an arid climate, and some of this takes water. After all, who doesn’t remember that old song by Albert Hammond, even if it was so long ago: “Seems it never rains in Southern California”? Or at least not a lot. On the other hand, for every raised bed we create (and we’ve got half a dozen of them now), there’s that much less grass to water. So, we blithely go on in as eco-friendly a manner as possible, creating spaces for flowers and vegetables.
We like to think of it as a way of adding beauty to the world, and who can argue with that? Just the other day, in fact, I was reading my old copy of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” If you remember, he talks in his great work first of all about the creation of the world, then the creation of Man, followed by the “Four Ages of the World.” Forgive me for quoting in Latin (followed by a translation), and it goes without saying, I hope, that you will skip the Latin, if you think it to be intrusive. But personally I just find the words to be so beautiful. “Aura aetas sata est prima,” the Golden Age was made first. The earth, he says, “dabat omnia per se,” gave everything all by itself. People took whatever they needed; “legebant…montana fraga, que corna…et glandes quae deciderant patula abore Jovis,” they gathered mountain strawberries, and cornel berries, and acorns that fell from the spreading tree of Jupiter. Were these, then, the first gatherers I so blithely dismissed earlier, in favor of those who labor in the fields?
But of course the Golden Age was not to last. Soon enough, we descended to silver, and then to bronze: “Argentea proles subiit, deterior auro, pretiosior fulvo aere…que exegit annum quatuor spatiis,” then the silver offspring entered, less than gold, but better than yellow brass (i.e., bronze), that divided the world into four segments. Here he goes on to describe the four seasons, “Tum primum aër ustus siccis fervoribus canduit,” when first (i.e. summer) the air, burnt with dry heat, grew hot. And so on to winter, when icicles were hung by the wind (“glacies…ventis pependit”), with only unequal autumn and brief spring in between (“inequales autumnos…et breve ver”). Finally come the times we live in, the age of hard iron (“Ultima est de duro ferro”). It’s worth quoting here at a little greater length, not that what he’s telling us ought to surprise anyone: “Protinus omne nefas prejoris venae irrumpit in aevum. Pudor, que verum, que fides fugere; in locum quorum que fraudes, que doli, que insidiae, et vis, et sceleratus amor habendi subiere.” Immediately, all wickedness of the worst kind breaks into the age. Modesty, and truth, and faith flee, in place of which we see nothing but fraud and deceit, treachery and violence, and the evil love of possessions.
So, that appears to be about where we are now, at least according to Ovid. And as I said, I’m not sure that any of us today would totally disagree with his characterization of the world. Granted, of course, it may be a little too heavy on the bleak side of things, but perhaps he was just trying to make a point. He does, after all, go on for a couple of hundred pages to tell some of the greatest stories the world has ever heard about gods and demigods, and about some very foolish, but also a few very wise human beings.
Perhaps, in the end, what Ovid is really saying is that all four ages of the world actually live in each of us. We already know we are able to demonstrate our “iron nature.” About that, there can be no doubt. But who is also not golden, at least a few times in his or her life, and who is not silver or bronze, as well? We are all quite capable or demonstrating both the best and the worst that human beings can perform.
So, let each of us do our part and plant gardens that both nurture our physical lives and elevate our consciousness. If we cannot all plant calla lilies, or rosemary and thyme, there is surely no one who cannot sow what is best and most positive in his or her heart. It may take effort to remove the rocks and the stuff of our buried toxic past, but what better task can there be for any of us to undertake? And even if the most we can do at any given moment is to struggle with selfish and egotistical iron, at least we are making the effort. In the end, that’s what it takes to grow callas, and whatever is nourishing, as well as all that embodies the highest and best within the human heart.