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Out of the hothouse, into the garden



In the last two weeks frustration has risen at the continuing Victorian coronavirus lockdown. Protests, weariness in the community, the anger of businesses and their spokespersons, and attacks by Federal Government Ministers have focused on Premier Dan Andrews. He has not been for moving.

Main image: Woman watering garden (Marc Romanelli/Getty)

The responses have echoed the frustration felt by most people at the lockdown and the depressing realisation that victory over the virus cannot be guaranteed. They arise from the desire for control and predictability, and consequent demand that planning be an exercise of will power, not of discernment. The sign in public conversation of this syndrome is bullying of those opposed.

Rigidity and a focus on control are a natural response to frustration. In both individuals and in societies, however, they often lead to bad decisions and failure to make decisions. As we have seen in the United States wilful decision making fails spectacularly to bend reality.

In hard and straitened times planning and attention to detail must be matched with the recognition that nothing can be guaranteed and that a good outcome is a both a vindication of planning and a gift. Such humility, which expresses itself in the freedom to value the exercise of mind without expecting that it automatically be effective, does not come automatically. People seek and come to value it in many ways: through music, meditation, art, creative writing or walking, for example.

Another everyday exercise in planning and humility is gardening. For amateur gardeners, at least, planning, planting, pruning, watering and placing all have their place. But ultimately the plants make their way and take their individual shape. Ideally, the gardener will make a well thought-out proposal to which the plants will respond. We gardeners may have a vision in which colour, form and scent combine as we plant seeds from last year’s flowers, shape and prepare beds, plant and distance seedlings for borders and beds, bulbs and bushes, but we wait on the outcome. Experience teaches us how to assess the health of the plants, deal with pests that eat their leaves, and to understand the effects of seasonal sunlight and wind on their flourishing.

Each year we then wait as the first buds appear, the coming of the flowers, the harmony of colours, and the spreading of the plants to match the space. When the reality happily corresponds to our vision and planning, our first response is normally one of wonder and gratitude. If frost, drought or insect infestation devastate the planned garden, we are not deterred but move to Plan B, C or D to adapt to the conditions. The garden is not something that we lord over but something that we serve. Its flowering is a gift that surprises us.

We are happier when we hear it praised as a happy garden than as a good garden. If we are fortunate enough to have a garden abutting the footpath, it then becomes a gift for passers-by to brush their wrists on lavender and rosemary and raise them to their faces, and for children to pick poppies or daisies. Gardens are a space for creativity, for planning, for sharing, for smiling and for humility. They don’t bend easily to control.


'We should trust officials who show no need to be seen to be in control, but who can receive the happy result of planning as a gift and not as the inevitable result of their planning.'


A professional Australian example of a well-planned garden with a mind of its own can be seen in the transformation of Royal Park in Melbourne from predominantly sporting fields with deciduous trees, still showing the signs of the Camp Pell army camp and migrant hostel history, to a place filled with paths, replanted with Australian native trees, shrubs and grasses for strolling and passive recreation. The master plan was complete with detail of the species and arrangement of trees and shrubs. The bare and stripped new plantings of eucalypts and other trees as planned have now grown into tall trees, coppices with large logs to encourage small ecologies, sheoaks, eucalypts, wattles and grevillea, native grasses and uncut grass. Drainage water has been directed to small lakes.

The care for the park now demands the same mixture of planning and dependence on the vagaries of weather and infestations, and the mixture of the domesticated and the wild, the planned and the serendipitous, and of work and gift, that are required in amateur gardeners. The park also inculcates the same respect for large plans and for tiny gratuitous ecologies in those who find solace in walking there during the reign of COVID-19.

The point of this reflection is partly to commend the value for times like our own, when we depend on things outside our control, of the poise shown by gardeners in responding to frustration. It also offers a measure for weighing the many voices heard in public conversation.

We should attend to those that display some poise, disregarding the shrill, those that offer hypotheses as certainties, and which take self-interest as decisive in dealing with the virus. We should trust officials who show no need to be seen to be in control, but who can receive the happy result of planning as a gift and not as the inevitable result of their planning. They will consult the numbers, whether medical or economic and refer to mathematical modelling, but will set them within a broader human context with all its uncertainties. This is the poise demanded and acquired in any creative activity. If we are to deal with the exigencies and disappointments of lockdown under coronavirus, it needs to be part of our daily lives.

The road that leads from gardens to a poise that tempers the desire to control, of course, is not a one-way street. Gardens are often sold precisely as an expression of control, with all aspects commercialised and packaged to produce infallible results. Although these expansive claims always lead to disappointment, garden sheds certainly do flower in a multicoloured mass of plastic containers. Poise, however, is not to be found there. It cannot be packaged, bought or sold.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Woman watering garden (Marc Romanelli/Getty)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, control, gardening, gardens.Daniel Andrews, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

Poise can mean one of two things: composure and dignity of manner; a unit of dynamic viscosity (physics). The wise and gentle words in this article speak of the first meaning. I can claim only to be an amateur gardener, however my port wine magnolia is showing signs of growth and a couple of days ago I planted a callistemon in the backyard. I hope it's hardy.

Pam | 17 September 2020  

Thank you, Andy! A heart warming article in tough times. If only everyone had a place alive with plants and insects and birds to brighten their day. Wildness in nature is so intriguing and healing. Why do we tend to be so controlling in our gardens?

Cecilia Merrigan | 17 September 2020  

The good thing about gardens is that the plants don't argue or answer back and, if one day they do start to, it really doesn't matter anymore.

john frawley | 18 September 2020  

Andrew what a sensible and stim ulating reflection showing your Jesuit discernment. Much like Francis who is not interested in reforming the Curia, rather he is focused on renewal with the many ordinary asphalt people who once peopled our pews. His is a long-term vision like the growth of a majestic red gum on the banks of the once mighty Murray River. My wife of half a century in our 80s and now in lockdown on our 3 acres we have time to repair our 40 year old vegetable gardens and tend to our cosmic track; our 400 meter rainbow serpent winding pathway that marks the 13 .9 billion years of the gradual unfolding of our universe. It is our exercise track for our daily meditation and recreation and wide enough to accomodate our four wheel safety walkers. Thanks muchly Andrew.

Michael Parer | 19 September 2020  

A well thought out piece Fr Andrew. Gardens combined with music have an extraordinary uplifting healing quality and are a refuge in times of crisis. On You tube watch "In a Monastery Garden. Albert W.Ketelbey. Edited by Marino van Wakeren." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2aYDWb676Q

Francis Armstrong | 21 September 2020  

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