WENDY JOHNSON AT UPAYA ZEN CENTER
GARDENING MNEMONICS, OLD TOOLS & GARDEN SHEDS
“I am often most alert and settled in the garden when I am working hard, hip deep in a succulent snarl of spring weeds. My mind and body drop away, far below wild radish and bull thistle. I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work.”
– WENDY JOHNSON, GARDENING at the DRAGON’S GATE
Taking my parched and weedy thinking to France, the lush Burgundian hills–and a little grape–re-tilled the soil of heart, mind and memory. Visual mnemonics: gardening metaphors galore gave rise to natural reminiscence. Being in verdant French countryside cleared the acidic soil of my mental garden–separating the tares and wheat of coo-coo current events. Debt ceiling Passe politics, bizarre sexual shenanigans, and worldwide pigeon-holery dissolved into the evocative moods and memories so nourishing to my own horticultural soul.
Visiting glorious chateaux gardens caste a special memory spell on me with feelings and reflections coming home to roost in the gardens of heart and mind. At d’Epoisses, village source of my favorite cheese, I entered the sublime grounds of the Chateaux d’Epoisses, the seventeenth-century domain of salon hostess and witty letter writer Madame de Sevigne. The chateaux is renown for its 3,000-hole pigeonnier. BTW: the Old World carrier pigeons have long flown the coop.
The chateaux’s crunchy gravel paths led me directly into the garden shed on the edge with its door ajar. Slipping inside, I was immediately hit with history, humidity and memories of my own gardening childhood.
In the garden shed, light filtering through the weathered glass-frame played onto old tools and miscellaneous gardening stuff: rakes spawning tines of all guages; piles of seeds whose secrets known only to the gardner and to mice; brittle root bundles and buckets of pine cones; patinated spades and shovels; scrambles of wire and twine; stacked slated wooden produce crates; long favored gloves and odd lengths of unruly hosing.
Everything in the shed was a mnemonic feeding a gardner’s soul, for sure. Visuals, as well, for my photographer’s eye.
The curiosities and etceteras of centuries of gardening became for me a melancholic photo-meditation. While my husband Landt sauntered on to the vast and soaring rondavel of the pigeonnier, I was absorbed in the visual mnemonics within the garden shed: natural remembrances evoking moods and memories of a childhood at my garden club mother’s side in rural northern New Jersey.
In our house, blowsy roses, feathery peonies, and jaunty daffs were everywhere, inside and out, while confident flouncy nasturtiums overflowed borders. What I dearly recall from my childhood garden is not so much the garden itself, but the softening off-scenting flower arrangements my mother lovingly maintained in the living room throughout the thick and thin of our family life.
During my summer childhood days, there were various old gardening tools all around. The ash-handled wonky-jointed scythe was my favorite. I wielded this thing, bigger than I, in the grasses that sprung buggy and tall above the parterre. My two older brothers and I sharpened the blade each spring with a pumice stone. The third-generation smooth-handled rake, shovel, and axe are still in rusty service today in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Returning to Santa Fe from France, I immediately joined organic gardening mentor Wendy Johnson and Co-Abbot Sensei Beate Genko Stolte for a weekend retreat on Contemplative Gardening at the Upaya Zen Center www.upaya.org. The retreat True Nourishment from the Boundless Field interwove their grounded guidance and seasoned Buddhist teachings with meditation practice. Upaya’s old tools at hand, sangha members installed – in one weekend – an entire dharma garden beneath the signal whirl of the vintage windmill.
At the Upaya gardening intensive, what impressed me most was the seemless syncopation of five gardening crews on different tasks: fence installation; composting technology; tilling and seeding; dropping in drip lines; and shrine conception to Quan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion – all happening within twenty-five square feet with no confusion or collision.
Upaya’s resident head gardner Emily Baker, Montana born to the earth, had activated the dormant windmill garden earlier this spring, and had overseen the installation of six hoop gardens already overflowing their gunwales with greens of every shape and hue. Emily shared in group chat that, for her: Gardening is about remembrance.
I’ll never forget the inimitable Wendy Johnson orchestrating the crews from Quan Yin central: the concert was a testimony to Upaya sangha members constancy of practice, and their demonstrable understanding of gardening fundamentals aligned to Buddhist, Mindfulness, and Complexity perspectives. A practice dedicated to living systems and relationships – not the individual. Gardening grounded in lovingkindness to all beings and creatures; an awareness of context and scale; and skillfulness with all tools, new and old.
OLD TOOLS & ZAZEN
In her book, the un-put-downable GARDENING at the DRAGON’S GATE: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World (Bantam Dell, Random House, 2008) Wendy Johnson opines: Meditation practice is like gardening…When you select your favorite tools and begin to shape the ground, in this digging and cultivating, the garden shapes you. Eventually, you free your heart and mind, and in this work you also free the true heart and mind of your garden.
Longtime organic gardening activist, and one of the founders of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, CA, Wendy is advisor to the Edible Schoolyard of the Chez Panisse Foundation. She writes the “On Gardening” column for Tricycle magazine www.tricycle.com/magazine Wendy’s website is: www.gardeningatthedragonsgate.com
Of the toolshed at Green Gulch Farm, Wendy Johnson considers the mnemonics within: A cob straw bale structure brimful with well-used tools of our trade, oiled and gleaming with age and hard work. Each person chooses the tool they want to work with–a Scottish manure fork, a battered bulldog digging spade, a caramine-red pair of Felco hand pruners from Switzerland. We learn as much about each other from the tools we choose as from the work we will engage in. I am convinced that the tool chooses the worker as much as the worker the tool.
Seasoned old tools bring to mind the many wise and cultivated women who choose to remain constant today in the gardens of their hearts and minds – ever active in the tri-season of their lives. Well into their late 6′s, 7′s, even 8′s–and beyond–so many women today, worldwide, are striving to plough under – and till up – our parched boney earth. Millions of women are seeding and watering their fields of service as fierce gardeners with a strong sense of place in our world – and in their passionate practice.
SITTING IN THE GARDEN
Returning from France to regular zazen, or meditation practice, after a spell off the cushion, feels as uncomfy as sitting upon an old hose. In GARDENING at the DRAGON’S GATE Wendy Johnson reminds: Meditation practice is not for the faint of heart. Neither is gardening. Both take gumption and commitment, and a steady willingness for the world as you know it to come apart and be reorganized.
SENSE OF PLACE
The world as we know it is coming apart: undergoing a positive dissipation – Deo Volente, a re-formation. Engaged in this experience, timely wisdom for today, Wendy Johnson insists on a Sense of Place: Don’t move. Stay still. Once you find a place that feels halfway right, and it seems time, settle down with the vow not to move any more.
Stillness is the sweet spot, illusive in our hummingbird water-bug lives. For me, it’s a strong sense of having been someplace familiar before: an indwelling pulse of belonging in the here and now. Deliberate and conscious stillness – far from stasis – Wendy insists: Setting deeply down on one spot on earth demands that you grow and change constantly just to keep up with the pulse and will of your place.
PULSE IN PLACE
Within the garden shed at the Chateaux d’Epoisses, there was a palpable Pulse in Place: A humid concentration of soil, truffle, mold, and mouse–fermenting and fluctuating inside the glass house on a grey day. A potpourri of sensations, aspirations and memories, the shed’s atmosphere invoked the sense of longing Wendy Johnson refers to frequently in her writing. A yearning to abide in the particularity of place: a desire to stop, slow down, in order to nurture the seed within itself. To return to the breath: to regulate the pulse.
Waxing and waning: The pulse of full moons and solstice seasons encodes the passage of time. Metronomal–like the counting of the breath–and the pause at the top of the inhale and bottom of the exhale–there is also a pulse and pause in solar cycles – so imperceptible as to be unbroken boundlessness.
Of this awareness, Wendy Johnson observes: I have noticed that the summer and winter solstice times are the two moments of the year when the sun appears to stand still (which is what the Latin word sol-stice actually means: sun-standstill) at either its northernmost point, on June 21, or its southernmost place, on December 21.
Deepening one’s relationship to the earth during seasonal shifts, embracing the light and shadow, Wendy recommends: Marking how the cardinal holidays appear on your own garden landscape extends your awareness of your land.
During Upaya’s Contemplative Gardening retreat, Wendy Johnson spoke of the intertwining of relationships and gardening practice. While seasonal gardens and Farmer’s Market produce are ephemeral in their life cycles upon the earth, our perennial relationships to land and community live forever in the field of memory. Wendy writes of reviving her father-in-law’s abandoned garden where she and her husband planted a memorial French Lace rose.
Peter joined me in the garden: I remembered Charlie as he had been, a legendary baker…he ran the Hermitage Pastry Shop for thirty-seven years. I thought of him kneading dark pumpernickel dough, his arms dusted with flour. Peter worked along side me folding old horse manure and decaying maple leaves into the earth of his father’s garden.
Over time and seasons, the relational practice of gardening makes a whole cloth of a person’s life. So does meditation practice. As Wendy affirms: The Zen tradition speaks of cultivating an empty field. This is the field of our whole life, full of every possibility and empty only of the permanent, unchangeable identity–of one absolute way to be. It takes true grit to cultivate this empty field that, from the beginning, is vast and complete unto itself.
GARDENING AT THE EDGE
On commitment to practice, Wendy continues: Meditation practice is not for the faint of heart. Neither is gardening. Both take gumption and commitment, and a steady willingness for the world as you know it to come apart and be reorganized.
Early August: Santa Fe oddly feeling like fall these days. I recall how we Upaya gardeners had gathered together in June in closing circle to bow out around the core Quan Yin shrine of the windmill garden. The garden has been in robust production all summer. Wendy signed a copy of her book to me: Gardening at the Edge of the World, Gratitude for all Your Work and Practice. Did she really mean End of the World…I wonder?
SEED WITHIN ITSELF
Together, the Upaya sangha seeded and watered the summer of our lives. The seed within itself keeps our gardens of service growing robustly – from heart and mind. May we all be blessed on earth to find the sustainable path of our own calling. As Wendy affirms: My focus was on socially engaged lay life, and on developing the garden as a true practice place of productivity, beauty, and inspiration.
In Burgundy, I remember leaving the garden shed inspired by vibrant memories as I strolled over to the pigeonnier. Both France and the American Southwest have been in longterm deep drought. With the world-at-large a hardpan desert thirsty for new thought, I’m thinking this year’s waxing and waning invites us to till the gardens of our hearts and minds: seeding and watering anew whatever be our particular terrain.
Within the seventeenth-century rondavel, I wondered if the ghosts of cooing pigeons past were witnessing the pigeon-holery of our worldly goings-on of today?
Seems there’s no debt ceiling on pigeon-holery these days. My relationship with pigeons has never been too strong: those productive dull-grey birds with their mellifluous murmer. However, the atmosphere of 3,000 pigeons past was haunting. Old birds once useful and desirable for eggs, pigeon pie, and messengering–long gone denizens of an archaic system. Today there remains only an empty pigeonnier once Full-O-Feathers.
Everyone today, old and young alike, is being flushed right out of our comfy cubicles of debt ceiling pigeon-holery: ineffective, outdated, and outmoded ways of thinking and being. What is our personal debt ceiling in service to the world.Whatever Bird-O-Feather we think we be – whatever our particular plumage of old thought, it must fly away. Worldwide, we are vectoring–in exquisite formation–into a perfect feathery and suffocating storm.
Mnemonics: It’s history–no more roosts for passivity, passe politics–and old thought!
For Upcoming STORYSHARDS Retreats
RESPONSE FROM MARGEAUX
Thank you for sending coo-coo. I love it! I love the long, narrow format – like the snake, the long roots, the throat. The images are intimate, echoing the writing (or vice-versa), that goes deep – intertwines- rootish- with life, spirituality, friendships, the world, large and small. Your writing is wonderful and I love all the references, quotes and relational aspects. You’re cool, Lisl. Love, Margeaux
In my defense I must say I grew up in the country in a poor Depression-scarred family who always had a LARGE vegetable garden. From early spring until late fall, mornings before school, afternoons after school, and all summer, there was always some goddamned thing that had to be done in the garden, things that kept me away from more worthy pursuits like sports, girls, swimming nekkid in the stock tanks, stealing horses for joy rides, putting fireworks in mailboxes, etc.
I left the life of a sod-buster as soon as I could and choose instead the life of a riverboat gambler and traveling minstrel. Never looked back. Lonnie Dillard