There is a Buddhist fable about two monks sitting by a river. One sees a scorpion drowned in the water and rescues it carefully. Just as he is about to set it down on dry ground, the scorpion stabs him. With his wounded hand, the monks cause the scorpion to fall into the river a second time. As before, the monk rescues the scorpion from the water, only to be stunned again. The other monk looks at this exchange and asks his brother why he would help the scorpion when he knows it is in his nature to hurt. To this the older and wiser monk responds: “But help is in my nature.”
In general, gardeners are the most giving people I know. I not only see them putting season after season in their own plots, but also helping to beautify other more public spaces. Many also teach classes to potential gardeners. It is in the nature of a gardener to cultivate relationships with plants, soil and humans. I can not count how many locals annually ask me to look after their yards and give my opinions on what to plant.
I know I’m not alone in receiving requests – many other gardeners get this question. They are only too happy to help if their time allows. And gardeners like to help each other too. I am personally so grateful for the various people who reached out to let me know about the redwoods around Flagstaff as they read the column about my love for those trees. This is just one example of her generous spirit.
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But nature has two meanings for me in today’s piece. Because, because it is in the nature of a gardener to cultivate and share, they also understand the interrelationships needed to be a steward with nature. As Michael Pollan puts it in his book Second Nature, “Gardening [is] a subtle process of giving and taking with the landscape, a search for something in between culture and nature. ”
That middle ground, that elevated point of residence, is the sweet spot that gardeners strive for. It is about the process of elimination, of weeding out the unwanted, accepting the heartbeat of the wildness that already exists, and rejoicing in the small successes of domestication. If we had too many victories, then where would the challenge be? Where would the great respect we get for what nature can do without us?
Pollan also says, “The gardener learns nothing when his roots flourish, unless that success is won against a background of past disappointment. Immediate success is dumb, disaster often speaks.” For anyone who has tried to grow roots in us spring wine, you understand this.These seeds will never grow into large and tasty roots unless you have learned through research or experiments how to get them.
Nature, for a gardener, is both a teacher by trial and a giver by disposition. Disappointment is a constant companion, but success is the diner who makes every effort in the kitchen worth it.
Gardening can be a lonely endeavor. Sometimes it’s just you and the soil, the seed and the sun. Maybe that’s what gives a gardener so much? We spend time alone, waiting to see what the earth will give and, in turn, learning what we can give. We put in the hours to develop our craft and then look for opportunities for connection with both humus and human. It is both a search for community and a holy communion as we engage with gardeners and gardeners. Getting involved in plant cultivation helps to see the good in the earth and in each other, regardless of our backgrounds or levels of knowledge.
Gardening is a unifier because everyone eats, enjoys the beauty of plants, and – I believe in it – wants to improve their environment. As Pollan says, the person “who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.”
So that’s the nature of gardeners: goodness learned by nature.
Jackee Alston has been gardening and farming in the Flagstaff and Verde Valley since 2005 and 2015, respectively. She is the editor-in-chief of the Gardening, etc. column, a Coconino Master Gardener with Arizona Cooperative Extension, founder of the Grow Flagstaff! Seed Library, Development Specialist for the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, children’s author, and the mother of three remarkable people. She honors those whose land she now calls home, including the peoples Hohokam, Hopi, Western Apache, Pueblo and Dine.