The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Spiritual Mechanics

An inquiry concerning weeding and failing to weed

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Rom. 7:24

It is the languishing season of the garden year. Midsummer may be the most challenging period, spiritually, for the gardener. Spring brings the flurry of planting, with its labor and excitement; late summer begins the harvest, obviously delightful, which continues into the fall. Even winter has planning and pruning tasks that have their own pleasures. In late June, though, most plants are settled into their places but not yet producing food. The fruit trees don’t need much care, nor do the berry bushes. Most of the gardener’s work in this period lies in the simple but wearisome tasks of pulling weeds and discouraging pests. And so I fall behind in this season. Staring out at the clumps of grass surrounding my tomatillos and the flea beetle damage on my greens, I echo St. Paul’s cry of dereliction from Romans 7, but expect no supernatural deliverance.

The garden in this season tends to induce guilt. I really should have removed more of the sod from those new beds. I could have spread more compost and grown a cover crop before I planted corn and beans. My slapdash approach to starting seedlings is paying off in stunted pepper plants. My fruit trees aren’t putting on the growth I had expected, and my elderberries are suffering damage from an unknown source. All my shrubs ought to be mulched, and there sits the pile of wood chips in the bed of my pickup. All this could be much greener, much neater, much more productive if I was just more disciplined, more attentive, more careful. The law of sin and death has come to reign in my members, and those of my garden.

Gardening, as I have argued elsewhere, can serve as a memento mori, a spiritually helpful reminder of the inevitability of death. But the garden also alerts me to the law of death in another sense, that it reminds me of my carnal nature. As I hoe overgrown weeds out of a row of tomatoes, I ought to feel that I am doing good work and caring for my plants. Instead, I think chiefly of the heaviness of the Missouri air around me, the clay dust settling on my shins and working its way into my socks, the growing ache in my lower back and the rank smell of my sweat as it saturates my back and shoulders. As the work grows more grueling and the temperatures rise, my body and spirit alike rebel against the work I ought to do.

And when I decline such travail, guilt takes possession of me. Anyone who once neglected even a houseplant knows this feeling. Conventional backyard gardening advice, which tends to be modeled on commercial practices, can sometimes tend in this direction, loading down the gardener with requirements in pursuit of that perfect, gleaming red tomato. Permaculture practitioners often reject such horticultural perfectionism. After all, some argue, plants survive in the wild, pests and disease notwithstanding, to continue their species. “Weed” is not a biological category, but a term for a plant human beings don’t like. Maybe we could give up this shame, grow a wilderness garden, and go about our lives like the self-actualized and independent people that we know, inside, we really are.

I agree with this perspective to an extent, but there is an antinomianism here that can be counterproductive. Most garden plants, after all, are domestic species, co-evolved with the human species and adapted to our care. Moreover, gardens, even those constructed on permaculture guidelines, aim to produce food for human beings, a goal that the wild does not share. From the perspective of a wild plant, an unpalatable or scarce yield of fruit may still perfectly well fulfill the goal of reproduction. For the gardener, it’s a disappointment. So it’s necessary to retain at least some of that old inner prompting to weed, water, and hoe. Weeds and even pests can form a beneficial part of the garden ecosystem, but totally disavowing management—and its associated inner pressures—is unproductive.

Rather than surrender to agricultural libertinism, far better that we come to understand, in the words of the Kansas artist Jack Baumgartner, “the spiritual mechanics of labor and rest.” Baumgartner’s linocut of that title invites us to consider how these facets of the human experience might form a unity rather than an opposition. The central figure stands in repose, yet clutches a shovel and an axe. Around him, the print whirls with life, but has at the same time a curious peace. I am reminded of the words of Lewis Hyde: “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom.” The labor of the garden, the inner drive—call it guilt or work ethic—that prompts us forward must be lightened by hearing in it an echo of the music of the Seventh Day.

Alongside the desperate text of Romans 7, the lectionary this week shows great pastoral wisdom in giving us these words of Jesus from Matthew 11:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

There may be no more beautiful text in all of Scripture. Certainly none more uplifting for we who labor under the guilt of things left undone. I will bear this text with me as I go out today, hoe on my shoulder, seeking a spiritual mechanics to bear me through this land of weeds and wildness.