Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Reading of Serendipity IV

For Capek, gardening is an  activity oriented to the future. Cultivating a garden takes time and patience. In fact, one may never see the fruits of his or her or garden; it may take centuries to mature. But there are no shortcuts. Time and unceasing vigilance are indispensable. Capek describes it this way:

"Take, for example, a little grass plant; if you want to sow the seed well and sparrows don't pick it up, it pricks through in a fortnight, and in six weeks it needs cutting, but it is not an English lawn yet. I know an excellent recipe for an English lawn - like the recipe for Worcester Sauce - it comes from an 'English country gentleman.' An American millionaire said to that gentleman: 'Sir, I will pay you anything you like if you will reveal to me by what method such a perfect, even, level, fresh, everlasting, in short, such an English lawn as yours is made.' - 'That's quite simple,' said the English squire. 'The soil must be well and deeply dug, it must be fertile and porous, not sour or sticky, not heavy or thin; then it must be well levelled so that it is like a table; after that you sow the seed and roll the ground well; then you water it daily, and when the grass has grown you mow it week after week; you collect the cut grass with sweepers and roll the lawn; you must water, sprinkle, wet, and spray it daily; and if you do this for three hundred years you will have as good a lawn as mine."

He goes on to say:

"We gardeners live somehow for the future; if roses are in flower, we think that next year they will flower better; and in some few years this little spruce will become a tree - if only those few years were behind me! I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years. The right, the best is in front of us. The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty. Thank God that we shall be one year farther on!"

Karel Capek died in 1938, just after his beloved country of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the demands of Hitler's Germany. His brother Josef, the illustrator of this little book, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the war.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Hope and Preparation - The Reading of Serendipity Part III

From being a Gardener to becoming the Garden:

"We say that spring is the time for germination; really the time for germination is autumn. While we only look at Nature it is fairly true to say that autumn is the end of the year; but still more true it is that autumn is the beginning of the year. It is a popular opinion that in autumn leaves fall off, and I really cannot deny it; I assert only that in a deeper sense autumn is the time when in fact the leaves bud. Leaves wither because winter begins; but they also wither because new buds are being made, as tiny percussion caps out of which the spring will crack. It is an optical illusion that trees and bushes are naked in autumn; they are, in fact, sprinkled over with everything that will unpack and unroll in spring. It is only an  optical illusion that my flowers die in autumn ; for in reality they are born. We say that Nature rests, yet she is working like mad. She has only shut up shop and pulled the shutters down; but behind them she is unpacking new goods, and the shelves are becoming so full that they bend under the load. This is the real spring; what is not done now will not be done in April. The future is not in front of us, for it is here already in the shape of a germ; already it is with us; and what is not with us will not be even in the future. We don't see germs because they are under the earth; we don't know the future because it is within us. Sometimes we seem to smell of decay, encumbered by the faded remains of the past; but if only we could see how many fat and white shoots are pushing forward in the old tilled soil, which is called the present day; how many seeds germinate in secret; how many old plants draw themselves together and concentrate into a living bud, which one day will burst into flowering life - if we could only see that secret swarming of the future within us, we should say that our melancholy and distrust is silly and absurd, and that the best thing of all is to be a living man - that is, a man who grows."

The Reading of Serendipity Part II

Karel Capek's The Gardener's Year is a deceptively simple little book which contains within it many observations eerily relevant to the religious and political climates of our day. In many respects the religious and intellectual leaders of the last century have failed adequately to nourish the soil of common human existence, choosing instead to exalt the fleeting pleasures of consumption, power and wealth. In his three page chapter on the soil, Capek compares the dead and sterile primeval clay with the rich soil of life and notes what it takes to change the one into the other.

"And then you will know that you must give more to the soil than you take away; you must make it friable and fertile with lime, and temper it with warm manure, lighten it with ashes, and saturate it with air and sunshine. Then the baked clay disintegrates and crumbles as it it breathed in silence; it breaks down under the spade with surprising readiness; it is warm and malleable in the hand; it is tamed. I tell you, to tame a couple of rods of soil is a great victory. Now it lies there, workable, crumbly, and humid; you would like to take it and rub it all between your thumb and finger, to assure yourself of your victory; you think no more of what you will sow in it. Is it not beautiful enough, this dark and airy soil? Is it not more beautiful than a bed of pansies or carrots? You are almost jealous of the vegetation which will take hold of this noble and humane work which is called the soil."

At the risk of making too many literal connections to such an allusive piece, my own thoughts turn to the pastoral task of Christian or spiritual formation. To hear Capek from that vantage point is perhaps to hear a call to the church to return to its primary vocation of formation. Vegetation is important but it can only live and indeed, thrive, in a healthy, fertile soil. Have we been so focussed on the vegetation that we have ignored the need to replenish and restore the soil?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Reading of Serendipity

When much of your reading is purpose-driven, other reading tends to be more for pure pleasure. In my case, I frequently find myself engrossed in a book which surprises me by its lack of connection to what I normally would choose. In this case, my son had given me a book entitled Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison. This in turn led me to a book I saw mentioned by Harrison called The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek. Capek, a Czech intellectual and statesman, was a strong dissident voice during the rise of National Socialism in Europe in years leading up to World War II. He died in 1938.

 Capek's passion in this book is soil, the medium with which gardener's work. As Verlyn Klinkenborg who writes the introduction to the Modern Library Gardening Edition writes, "The question of garden soil is ultimately a moral one for him. Some soils are beautiful in richness and consistency while others are 'ugly as the coldness, callousness, and malice of human souls.'" In The Gardener's Year, Capek undertakes to use the motif of gardening as providing commentary on the world around him. Gardening is essentially a moral exercise and the true gardener, although frequently appearing as a slightly ridiculous figure, is involved in deadly serious work. It becomes a metaphor for the role of the intellectual. His image of the true gardener is expressed in terms of the one who tends the soil. Here's Capek:

"While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished work of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost. If he came into the Garden of Eden he would sniff excitedly and say: 'Good Lord, what humus!' I think that he would forget to eat fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; he would rather look round to see how he could manage to take away from the Lord some barrow loads of of the paradisiac soil. Or he would discover that the tree of knowledge of good and evil has not round it a nice dishlike bed, and he would begin to mess about with the soil, innocent of what is hanging over his head. 'Where are you, Adam?' the Lord would say. 'In a moment,' the gardener would shout over his shoulder; 'I am busy now.' And he would go on making his little bed." Or, as he says a little farther on: "...The gardener is not a man who smells a rose, but who is persecuted by the idea that 'the soil would like some lime,' or that it is heavy (as lead the gardener says), and 'would like some sand.'"

In the next few posts, I'll highlight some of Capek's other insights gleaned from this little treasure.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community

Book Review - Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community by Leah Kostamo
Published by Cascade Books: Eugene, Ore., 2013

I'm back! It has been awhile since I last contributed to this blog. Rather than try to make up excuses why this might be so, I'll just get back to it.

Over the past number of years I have been somewhat involved with A Rocha Prairie Canada here in southern Manitoba. It has been an interesting and rewarding experience and I have learned much about conservation and environmental care from those I have met through A Rocha Canada. The initial A Rocha Environmental Center was founded by Peter and Miranda Harris in 1983 while in Portugal where Peter was serving as an Anglican priest. Some twenty national organizations spanning five continents later, A Rocha has become a significant Christian presence in the conservation and environmental care movement. "A Rocha" means "the Rock" and reflects not only the geographic origins of the first Center in Portugal located in Quinta da A Rocha - farm on the rock - but also its grounding in a Christian worldview. 

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community is the story of the founding and early growth of A Rocha Canada. The book is written by Leah Kostamo who, with her husband Markku, ended up in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Here they started inauspiciously, first at the mouth of the Little Campbell River and then further up along the watershed, developing a study centre which would function both as a place to model and also then to mentor others in environmental care from a Christian perspective. From modest beginnings, the Center has become an important Christian resource in the Lower Mainland and has expanded to help start another Canadian site in southern Manitoba down in the beautiful Pembina Valley south of Winnipeg. An added feature of the book is a short description of the events and main characters involved in the start of A Rocha Prairie Canada.

The book is an encouraging yet honest account of the very real issues in building something out of only a vision, a vision which at first is more a conviction then something well-defined. Leah writes with verve and humour, never shy about describing the foibles of living in community with very real 'characters' and on a shoestring, often wondering where the resources would come from to keep them going. She also does her own illustrations which add humour and make pointed observations about different aspects of life at the Center. 

Creation care is a work of faith in progress, sometimes hidden and sometimes open but, as Leah has reminded us, always worthwhile. Wendell Berry once stated that we should "be joyful though we've considered all the facts." I am grateful to organizations like A Rocha and people like Leah and Markku Kostamo for having "chosen joy."