I lived in Maine, that faraway state of lobsters and oysters and loons. Moreover, I lived at the back door of a national park, Acadia, famous for its pink granite cliffs, its glacial lakes, its waves crashing steel-blue and white against rocky shorelines. God was kind enough to grant me the pleasure of calling one island—Mount Desert Island—my temporary home.
I was granted a double gift in being able to work full-time in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, at Acadia’s southern tip. Working in the garden gave me hours upon hours to consider my role as a gardener and as a follower of God within the garden. Strange as it may seem, I found gardening to be tiring, soul-draining, and debilitating for me as a person. Many days I struggled to keep a positive attitude. Why? Probably because I’d grown up enjoying nature only by looking at it, not interacting with or digging at it.
Much of the work I did in the garden was simply that—work. Sweaty and back-aching work. The beginning of sin, in the garden of Eden, and God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:17–19, suddenly had new life: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” I ate dirt, stray gnats, dust. Sometimes a stray nasturtium. Oftentimes I simply “ate” the view of flowers, which gave me no nourishment, just a reminder of the flowers’ impermanent beauty. But I think that was the point of me being there: I was learning to fight with the soil of the earth and likewise battle with the soil of my soul. The same creator who made heaven and earth also made me.
Working in the garden, I noticed how alive I felt when I looked up, skyward. Perhaps because beyond the garden, beyond my work, was joy; I think I was considering heaven. I’d straighten from my crouched-over, flower-grooming position, and crane my neck to consider the forest just past the garden walls. In the air that was quiet and clean, between the trees around me and the earth below, I felt God. Gardening—the mortality, the toiling—made me want to look up. Made me want God.
My thoughts in the garden were not always metaphorical. I usually wasn’t humble enough to realize Here am I and There is God. It was more like, Damn, I’m sick of gardening, and taking a break to look skyward brought a soaring sense of relief—and I subconsciously connected it to a greater spiritual reality.
Indeed, the garden reeks of metaphors. And there is poetic justice in the story of the fall, when God told Adam he would work the earth, and in the end return to it. “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” All those hours I spent in the garden were a test of my own inner soil: who was I to expect that God would come to me just by sitting and waiting for him?
It seems I was learning that God never intended for life to be easy. Countless visitors came to the Abby Aldrich Garden and gawked at the lilies and dahlias I’d been grooming; “You must love your job,” they said. I replied that I did. But I was lying. The job had been breaking me down. To them, everything was beautiful—creation (though they didn’t often name it that) was gorgeous. I didn’t always agree; to me, the garden was work. But the lessons I needed to learn were buried deeper within: by working the soil, I was learning perseverance, learning what it was to suffer. Beauty is not always ours for the taking; sometimes creation needs cultivating, nurturing, protecting.
I am no longer an employee at the garden. I’m glad of this. Truly, I think I had to leave the garden to realize the lessons I needed to learn. And now, in hindsight, the connection between me and the original “gardeners” seems immediate and obvious: when sin entered the world, the relationship between humans and the earth collapsed into something it hadn’t been before—a struggle. Adam began to fight with the earth, tame it as much as be tamed by it. My past work in the garden makes me see how messy I am inside—how dirty is the soul I carry. Jesus purifies, but it’s obvious I need to be reminded that often, life simply means work. And I can’t get around that. But my heart, mind, and body will beautify through my suffering, because in the end, if I accept my brokenness, I can then go humbly to the Creator.
Being in nature, experiencing and interacting with creation, has awakened me to the reality of my own mortality; nature has humbled me, surprised me, enlivened me. Being so enlivened, I think God now asks me, and everyone, to consider what he’s calling us to as individuals—we each have our own paths to follow. Maybe it’s impassioned environmental advocacy. Maybe it’s recycling Coke bottles. Maybe it’s (actually, remembering) to use those reusable grocery bags when going to the grocery store. For me, at least for a time, I think the small things are big enough.
I do not believe God calls each of us to join the Sierra Club or sign up for EPA updates, but God does call us to love him and love each other and to try to follow his will. What is my will? In part, it is to look on my past and understand my suffering had a purpose. I learned how to garden so I could tangibly appreciate the hard lessons, so I’d learn the many number of ways we can appreciate, work, and protect the earth.
Most importantly, I know God calls me to a relationship with him. That’s what he wants. And to be in any relationship means to understand, or seek to understand, another someone’s heart, desires, and jobs well done. The entire earth—in this country, from Area 51 to Gary, Indiana, to Maine—as a humus rich with God. To ignore the fact of the earth, the providence of God within it, would be ignoring the reality of God himself. God calls me to be passionately curious about him, and the earth is his creation. Hence, I need to be aware of it, slap myself awake, and dig deep into the beauty that every day renews itself.