Attending to the Garden

What Simone Weil and Arnold Lobel can teach us about the seasons

We have come around the corner of spring into something that looks suspiciously like summer. The weather has been rainy for a week, and now temperatures have begun to rise and the sun has come out. Accordingly, the garden is surging. Tomato and pepper seedlings that had languished through a cold spring show more promise; new flowers open up every day; alpine strawberries, apples, and berries color up.

Gardening—and, for that matter, garden writing—consists substantially of attention to these changes. The gardener must exercise this attention in order to do what needs to be done in the garden. No calendar or schedule will adequately replace the discipline of walking around the garden and looking. When I fail to pay attention to seasonal changes, to the growth stage of the plants, or to the appearance of the soil, I can do little good for my plants. A person needs to know a little bit about plants to garden, but a capacity for attention may be the most important quality a gardener can possess.

The garden will lead you into this attentive spirit if you let it. Every change to the land, every turn of the seasons, is an invitation to encounter the world again—a call to look and see what takes place outside your head. For this reason, gardening can be a moral act, because it helps restore the gardener to a quality of attention that is a prerequisite for a spirit of care.

For the philosopher Simone Weil, attention forms the bedrock of the moral life. She writes:

The love of God is not the only thing whose substance is attention. The love of your neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance.

You cannot love someone, or something, which you ignore or overlook or otherwise pay insufficient attention to. An inattentive lover or parent or friend will go astray in his love just as surely as an inattentive gardener fails her garden. But to pay proper attention is no easy task. Weil again:

There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves. If one pays attention with this intention, fifteen minutes of attention is worth a lot of good works.

For Weil, this moral quality of attention enjoins us to pursue education, for the disciplined attention required by study can foster in us a love of God and neighbor. I find Weil’s argument compelling with regard to education, but just as much as it applies to any other disciplined and attentive grappling with the world, be it gardening, cooking, carpentry, knitting, music, or motorcycle repair. (For more on attention as a moral act, see this essay on technology in conversation with Weil.)

A favorite little parable of mine on this topic comes in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories. (In my view, no children’s literature anywhere betters the four Frog and Toad books. Lobel’s understated green-and-brown illustrations, his elegant, contraction-free prose, and his moral and psychological wisdom are unmatched.) In “The Corner,” from Frog and Toad All Year, our eponymous heroes have been caught in an early-spring rain shower. The characteristically hystrionic Toad proclaims: “The day is spoiled.” Frog, though, ushers him to the fireside, serves up tea and cake, and occupies their drying time with a story about his childhood.

It is “a cold, gray day” at the end of winter, and yet young Frog’s father tells him “spring is just around the corner.” Frog, hungering for spring as only young people and gardeners can, takes him literally and sets out “to find that corner.” He wanders through the woods, turning corner after corner and discovering around them a collection of unremarkable objects: a spindly pine tree and dry grass, “an old worm asleep on a tree stump,” wet mud, three pebbles, a lizard. Spring remains elusive. Finally, Frog comes to the corner of his own house. He goes around that corner too. Toad asks: “What did you see?”

“I saw the sun coming out,” said Frog. I saw birds sitting and singing in a tree. I saw my mother and father working in their garden. I saw flowers in the garden.”

“You found it!” cried Toad. “Yes,” said Frog. “I was very happy. I had found the corner that spring was just around.”

Despite the mundanity of Frog’s adventure and the punny humor of “the corner,” this resolution arrives with surprising pathos. Partly, Lobel’s diction creates this, with its repeated sentence structure and simple, elemental images; but the true satisfaction of this story comes from the refreshment of perspective that comes with the changing of the seasons.

Within the broader story, Frog’s childhood narrative helps Toad recover his perspective on the day, and the two friends emerge from Frog’s house to greet the spring. For me, Frog’s experience with “the corner” both depicts and models the careful attentiveness to the world that we can find in the garden as the seasons change. Frog looks carefully at everything he finds. Frog cultivates his ability to attend to things through his search for “the corner,” as Lobel’s careful delineation of his findings shows—he turns up not pebbles but precisely three, not just a worm but an old one, asleep on a log. But his attention only truly comes awake in his own home and garden.

Frog learns from the turning of the seasons and from the garden how to attend to his place. As I turn the corner into summer in my garden, I’m striving to do the same.