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Spirit of the Garden

By: Melissa Wold, Mobile County Master Gardener

From the beginning, ordained as planters, farmers, stewards, humanity’s curriculum vitae lists our first job: gardener. Dirt ingrained in our DNA. Solace, stillness, serenity, surety, sustenance found in gardening.

Ellen F. Davis writes in her book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, “Beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, there is no extensive exploration of the relationship between God and humanity that does not factor the land and its fertility into that relationship.” Genesis can be read as an ecological study of the dependence of man on land and plants.

The Bible references approximately 125 plants, flowers, and trees throughout the Old and New Testaments. Many prophecies and parables are based on the flora that would have been familiar to the people of the ancient Middle East: grapes, grain, wheat, mustard seeds, lilies. Jewish festivals revolved around the growing season in a tradition that continues today. Some Biblical plants are familiar (fig, juniper, oak, lentils, flax, cumin) while others (galbanum, onycha, gall) seem exotic to our modern times.

Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs depict flowers, trees, fruits, and herbs. Pagans worshiped plants, especially trees, believing that deities dwelled within and served as mediums between gods and mortals. The Celtic Ogham alphabet was directly associated with trees, including apple, ash, birch, willow, and yew, illustrating dependence of man on land and plants.

As civilizations expanded, the propagation of plants paralleled that expansion. With the development of farming came less worry about food availability and lent more time to the establishment of formal gardens for leisure and pleasure. Some of the first recorded gardens in Western civilization were those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. These gardens were known for their beauty and utility. Roman and Greek cultures soon adopted the style and architecture of these exotic gardens.

Several ancient garden styles have survived to modern times. Labyrinths have been in use for over 4,000 years as a spiritual and personal growth discipline. Through archeological excavations, labyrinths have been found to be a part of the cultures of ancient Crete, France, Hopi Native America, India, Norway, and the British Isles. A labyrinth consists of serpentine paths often bordered by yew or juniper hedges. There are no dead ends: a single path for prayer and meditation leading to a center and returning again. The inward and outward turns symbolize the path of one’s life and spiritual journey. Turf labyrinths are the most common. However, flowers, vegetables and herbs are also utilized. Annuals are found more often than perennials because of their less time-consuming upkeep. The center of the labyrinth is a place for restoration and meditation. The center can be a patch of soft grass or a bench. Labyrinths can be built in backyards, but it may be easier to find one at a local church or botanical garden.

A Mary Garden is another example of ancient gardens. The tradition of planting a Mary Garden (usually in May) dates to the 7th century. During this period, people saw religious symbolism in herbs and flowers. The plants used in these gardens relate to events in the Virgin Mary’s life: lilies, columbine, lavender, marigolds, violets, irises, roses. Any yard space can be used for this quaint and spiritual garden. Many contain a statue of the Virgin Mary. Some people use tall plants like roses or lilies as the focal point. The other plants are grouped around. Seven steppingstones depicting Mary’s seven joys are often included. There is no set rule for the plants used. Some can be personal favorites or based on soil and climate conditions.

Gardens can be our refuge for prayer, reflection, renewal. It can be a labyrinth, Mary Garden, a patch of grass, a corn field, a potted plant on a balcony. No matter, simply spend time there chanting, praying, meditating, dancing, singing, shaking tambourines, being restored in this beautifully alive place.

Genesis 1:11-12 (NIV): 11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

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