Monday, April 5, 2010

Practice Resurrection: I

[From NY Times Magazine, March 28: Dominique Browning writes a column for the Environmental Defense Fund Web site and has a new blog, This piece is an excerpt from “Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness,” to be published next month by Atlas & Company.]

“For 12 years, I had a job I loved as the editor of House & Garden, a magazine that celebrated the good life. It would be an understatement to describe this enterprise as part of a company not primarily in the business of philosophical, spiritual or moral soul-searching. Condé Nast’s roots and branches are in the material world. The good life at House & Garden generally meant cultivating your own backyard rather than being involved in the body politic. I pushed against the limits of making a so-called shelter magazine by publishing articles about spiritual issues and the environment, but I always felt clear-eyed about how things stood.

“Spring blew in so wildly that year that it seemed unnatural, or perhaps I just noticed what spring feels like once I wasn’t sealed in a climate-controlled building all day. Weather — the actual experience of it, not the forecast — is one of the more dramatic discoveries to come with a slower pace of life. There were days at the office when I didn’t know whether it was muggy or cool, or if it had rained. It dawned on me that there was something unsavory about having been so cut off from nature that I was surprised by the golden hue in the slant of light at four in the afternoon — on a weekday, no less.

“I took to wandering in my garden at all hours. As if to give me one last chance to change my mind about leaving, spring unfolded in splendor. The daffodils multiplied generously and spilled across the front in a riot of gold. Bunches of hellebores appeared in March and nodded their prim white, mauve and purple caps for more than two months; when I bent down to turn up a small head and peer into a quiet, trusting face, I winced at the thought of leaving them vulnerable to whatever depredations a new owner might visit upon them. I apologized in anticipation. I strolled the paths, examining the thick, furry spools of the unwinding ferns; the gnarled purple fingers of the peonies clawing out from the damp, fragrant earth; the green stubs of the Solomon’s seal; the sharp tips of the hosta encircled by improbably large patches of bare ground that would soon be hidden by gigantic leaves, bearing aloft the fragrant white wands that seduce the moths at dusk. ...

“I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! … these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving-kindness, the stuff of everyday life.”


When I read them a week ago, Ms. Browning’s words struck a chord and sent me musing, especially her summary thoughts regarding “moments of grace … the stuff of everyday life.”

It’s a function of the Season that theology has appropriated: the notion of resurrection that the farmer poet Wendell Berry audaciously admonishes us to practice. Resurrection is a fact of Nature’s cycling seasons that includes the succession of generations. We, with mind’s imagination, make resurrection a reasonable hope in society and self. Nothing new here, but one of those little pieces of wisdom we need to be continually reminded of, moments that give us renewed life.

To stimulate imagination and to inspire reasonable hope how fundamental, how essential Nature is. We slip away from it to our perpetual peril.

As I look back over my influences and how those influences formed and beguiled me through the decades, I begin with an early and long and deep intimacy with Nature.

I grew up in Northern Delaware on my parents’ beloved homestead, an acre wedge. Where it came to a point was the largest oak tree in a several square mile patch of climax forest. The oak was named accurately, but unimaginatively: the Big Oak. The Woods, also a family name, had in it plenty of other great oaks, wizened gray beech trees that littered the loamy leaf-textured forest floor with curiously shaped beech nuts, gum trees with spiky gum balls perfectly sized to hit with a golf club, an occasional hickory both smooth and shaggy barked, and beneath the towering canopy smaller dogwoods that flowered white and hop hornbeams or ironwood with trunks that looked like muscled arms plus skinny saplings of sunlight seeking maples and poplars. The Woods provided squirrels with food and they forever protested from high branches. For a few days in the autumn great flocks of blackbirds rooked in the high branches, their twilight chorus a Hitchcokian loud staccato.

My parents were famous gardeners—mostly vegetables for consumption and canning—later freezing. My Mom had grown up on a family truck farm in Southern New Jersey and was an expert. Before they could afford a gasoline cultivator, my Dad tilled the ground with a one wheel hand plow. In his wake robins dared to forage for earthworms. The texture and aroma of the loam in early spring remain with me from more than half a century ago. Into the ground went the distinctive seeds of the respective plants: carrots, beets, yellow and green beans, zucchini, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, and of course corn. Also into the ground went the tomato and bell pepper seedlings that had be nursed along in a hot house sash arrangement on the sunny side of the chicken coop. Chickens scratched and clucked, laying their eggs inside in straw lined roosts. Year after year the earliest vegetables were the asparagus spears that poked from a long bed at one end of the great garden. Here there was also a compost pile of grass clippings, clean kitchen garbage, and in high summer season overgrown zucchini. When they began to ripen the zucchini hills were impossible to keep up with. (“Betcha’ never smelled a real compost pile before!”)

I didn’t go to kindergarten, Mr. Fulghum. I learned about Nature from Nature first hand, not via a little seed in the Styrofoam cup. I didn’t need to be taught wonder. It flowed from Nature. I was filled with simple awe that has proved to be abiding by the seed planted into the prepared soil, becoming fruit with new seeds in it; fruit that I ate and grew. It was a simple realization that life goes on in spite of death.

In the distance of time, it seems every day of my childhood and early youth was spent in part outdoors, wandering the woods among the trees, a cross a meandering stream with minnows, crayfish, and salamanders, up and down hillsides studded with great blue granite boulders, and into a cornfield that had once been a Leni Lenape settlement where arrowheads could be found by searching the furrows between the rows. Seasons didn’t slide by as much as they gracefully edged toward, out of and into, then feathered away from each other.

Back to Wendell Berry’s admonition: practice resurrection. Remembering Dominique Browning’s journey from obsessive career to renewed leisurely living. Honoring the spirit of Spring/Easter observed on this Sunday across Western Civilization:

In the midst of what my barber called on Tuesday, “this concrete paradise where we live,” begin your resurrection by intimately, vitally reconnecting with Nature. Be open and responsive to its moments of grace. There's no better season than early spring.

And those of you with impressionable children in your life--grandparents, and other significant adult figures,--practice preemptive resurrection on them. Give them intimate. grace filled moments through first hand experiences of Nature.

Yes, practice resurrection.

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