This spring in making preparations for expansion of our butterfly garden, I dug into the soil of our back yard and created a berm that follows the course of the raised bed flower garden. As I stood last night studying the work, it struck me that there was a natural flow to that curve. I’d seen it somewhere before. Many times in fact.
It had the same angle of curvature as a running track. In fact there was a now a lane of matted grass that led to the path coursing into our neighbor’s back yard.
“Perfect,” I muttered.
As I’ve written before, gardening is a wonderful compliment to the mobile world of running and cycling. If you’re looking for a little extra sweat and some work with the arms and lower back, gardening can even be a workout. In truth it often is.
Nothing worth doing is easy
Because it’s a plain fact of life. Nothing worth doing is easy. Yes, there are “easy” days in training, but you’re still doing some work. The “hard” days are designed to make the easy days feel even easier. Recently my companion Sue finished a 13-mile training run and felt smooth and strong the entire way. That is a direct product of her work on the indoor track this winter. We covered many curves and straights on that track. The track is like a garden in some respects. We plant seeds of effort and come race day harvest the fruits of those efforts.
Not everyone likes working out on a track. The absolutes are too fierce. The times are too crisp. The track can be unforgiving. Or so it seems. My backdoor neighbor kid runs both cross country and track. He confided to me that he loves cross country. But track? Not so much.
Track is so…analog in some ways. There is no doubt much beauty in the math of it. But as someone who nearly flunked algebra and got a B in geometry, I’m one that goes for the visual shapes rather than the abstract formulas of existence.
The mathematical absolutes of track and field were pretty much hard work and very little seeming reward in return. In track the race either goes well and you get a good time or your finish up dissatisfied with some aspect of your performance. Your coach can hold up a watch and say, with certainty, “You were three seconds slower than last week.”
Running through the Garden
Not so much in cross country, where variables in courses and times don’t mean so much. Cross country is in some ways like running through a garden. There is a primeval, Garden of Eden quality we tend to imagine in the sport. There are trees and hills and knotty roots to jump over. It’s an organic experience. Even with courses erected on flat paths and through dry urban parks, we still return to nature when we run cross country.
Some of us thrive on that. Competing in forest preserves and parks gives us a feeling of liberty. It’s not the kind of liberty you need to pass a law to protect. Real liberty comes from hard effort and an appreciation from everything in your surroundings.
Which is why gardening is a liberating endeavor. The light plays through the early spring branches to catch the bright petals of a crocus in bloom and we’re reminded: It’s not all about you. Yes, you can run and ride and breathe the air, but without the rest of the universe against which to measure your existence, you mean nothing at all.
Oh I know that certain religious types will tell you that I have the formula backwards. They’ll tell you that human beings are the ultimate expression and abstraction of God. But according to the Bible itself, they’re wrong. They get the message of the Garden of Eden wrong and by proxy they get the rest of the Bible wrong as well.
By focusing on the literal, finite moments of creation as an absolute, they ignore and miss the rest of creation in action. They cannot conceive the connection between human beings and the rest of creation. For that reason, they must insist they own the world and can do anything they please if it suits their fancies. Otherwise, they have no relationship to the place at all. And they claim that God planned it that way. They claim that God is incapable of evolution. They claim that there is such as thing as irreducible complexity. They claim that nature cannot work things out on its own.
Being honest with ourselves
But let’s be honest with ourselves. Most of the people who claim to have read the Bible think they have it figured out but haven’t a clue about what it really says in there. For God’s sake, even the disciples had trouble understanding the basic parables of Jesus, who challenged and criticized them for missing the primary methods of his ministry. “Are you so dull?” he asked his disciples when they complained that Jesus was using too many metaphors.
That’s how stupid some people can be. So instead, some parrot what they’re told to believe, and do it aggressively. Others treat scripture as if it were some type of homogenous garden in which only certain kinds of plants can grow. But here’s the basic fact: if you claim to believe in God as Creator, then you have to accept that God created it all.
Every last expression of creation, from virus to pathogen, from eagle to ant, is part of nature. Some of it seems to benefit us, while other afflictions of body and soul such as cancer or disease seem the bane of our existence.
But here are some other hard truths. Life itself is a pre-existing condition. One could arguably make the case that life is a paradox in creation. We know from science that 99% of all living things that once existed on earth are now extinct. Gone forever. Tossed into the “bad plant bin” of history. Pulled up like weeds and discarded. Bye bye to most of the dinosaurs (although birds still persist) and most other forms of living things. To God, they were all disposable tools in the process of evolution. Are human beings next in line? That remains, to some degree, to be determined by our own actions.
We can learn a few things from the concept of ourselves as living in a garden.
For one thing, plants that seem like a weed to one person may be a salvation to another. There are scientists combing the deep recesses of jungles to find plants and animals that might provide cures for illness and disease. And yet there are people so ignorant of these possibilities they see fit to log and burn those jungles for a year or two of wood harvest or farming on soil poorly designed for such endeavors.
Meanwhile as a race we’re pumping our atmosphere full of excess carbon dioxide at a scale that exceeds the earth’s abilities to process it as waste. Yet there are people who deny this possibility on religious grounds that only God can effect ill on creation. The same people tend to view the problem in economic terms as well, saying that it is too expensive to tend the very garden of our existence.
Here’s what’s happening out there in the world right now. Farmers pay billions of dollars and spread gazillions of gallons of herbicides and pesticides in efforts to wipe out milkweed and insects in their fields. The byproduct of all that chemical fury is a decline in species like the monarch butterfly. Now in response to this butterfly genocide, people are rallying by planting milkweed in their home gardens to provide a place for monarch butterflies to safely breed.
That’s the tradition our family is carrying on in our household. For years we’ve raised and released monarchs by growing milkweed, harvesting eggs on leaves and protecting the caterpillars until they go through the chrysalis stage and emerge as butterflies.
The toothpaste paradigm
But think about that process or ranching monarchs and its significance. The reason it’s so necessary is that human activity in one sector of the environment is causing unanticipated damage in another. The human race can become so focused on one objective it completely fails to comprehend its impact on the environment or the human dynamic that depends on it. We’re squeezing all the natural toothpaste out of the tube. But when the toothpaste is gone, what will we have left? It’s happening in our oceans. Our old growth forests. These stores of natural diversity and environmental balance are being harvested for short term benefits. We can squeeze and frack and flood the environment with pathogens for just so long. At some point we have to find a way to share the world that does not require squeezing it all out like toothpaste from a tube. Roll it up. Hide the evidence. Toss it in the trash and hope no one sees it or finds out about your selfishness.
Sharing the world
The paradigm extends into the world of running and riding. We regularly encounter drivers who hate the fact that we share the road with their vehicles. The mere existence of a cyclist on the road drives some people to distraction.
It used to be the same way with runners. I lived that reality in the 1970s. Drivers have through time become accustomed to seeing runners along the road. But it wasn’t always that way. I was struck by beer cans and buzzed by joyriders and commuters alike back in the early days of the running boom.
It takes time
So it takes time for human society to adapt. That’s the problem with the short time frame and confined environment presented in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis in the Bible. The arrival of sin in this world is presented as if it were somehow dumped here like a big bag of tacks on a garden trail. There’s no room in that clipped narrative to appreciate the fact that human beings are capable of making good decisions too.
Sometimes it takes a while for the truth to sneak up on people. Other times it hits them in the face abruptly. Yet in both circumstances, people do learn from experience. Otherwise faith itself has no meaning.
In the famously scandalous book Candide by Voltaire, the hero goes through massive hardships and develops an almost cynical view of life. But in the end, the realization of one fact is profound. “We must cultivate our garden,” the book concludes.
That means taking our experiences seriously enough to realize that our existential awareness is critical to our well-being. While a book like Candide seems to slander religion in its lusty portrayal of life, in fact it affirms much of what we find in scripture. The Bible depicts many gritty truths, in which women cravenly (and mistakenly) lust for men with genitals the size of donkeys and kings covetously steal the wives of men in their service. Women drive tent pegs through the brains of their kings and men like David ask to build a temple in God’s honor only to be told that despite their obedience in carrying out God’s own directives for genocide, they now have too much blood on their hands.
A tricky relationship with God
These are the gritty facts of life: that the Garden of Eden was in fact a deception of God from the beginning. Satan exposed that falsehood of the tree of knowledge by revealing its true meaning, and that made God pretty damned angry in the process.
The language that follows in the Bible is all anger and recrimination. God takes out his fury on the human race. Women are cursed with pain in childbirth. Men are forced to earn their keep through laboring on the earth. The God we see in these passages is not one of love and mercy. We instead find a harshly competitive God. One who goes on to tease and test poor souls like Job with actual bets against Satan that Job can remain virtuous in tests of will and faith. Finally God allows his own son to be murdered to atone for the sins of mankind.
Or so goes the narrative. In fact the lesson of the Passion story holds forth a political lesson that should not be missed lest we miss the message of the entire Bible.The death of Christ at the hands of manipulative priests reveals that the brand of legalism and literalism first used by Satan to trick Eve is still alive in the world. It’s not the Jews who are at fault in all that. It is everyone and anyone that uses the devices of “Satan” to trick and lure people into situations of control, intolerance and abuse at the hands of those in power. That’s your true Easter story right there.
What God hates most in this world is manipulation of believers in his name. That’s what Satan did. That’s what the Pharisees and other ‘priests of power’ were doing. That’s what’s still happening to this day. God doesn’t hate sinners so much as he hates those who try to control the world and its processes for their own advantage. Can we now talk about why the law passed in Indiana is egregious?
More truth spake in jest
The Bible and Candide––seemingly philosophical opposites in nature–have far more in common with each other than one might think. Both books immerse readers in a world where chaos seems to reign.
It is therefore no coincidence that people such as those who run and ride (and engage in feats of personal suffering for the sake of enlightenment) should learn a little about what it really means to live. Surely we congratulate ourselves with labels and symbols designate our levels of sacrifice. Marathon. Ironman. Ultramarathon. Cyclist. Century. Ride Across America. All these are singular attempts to seek both dimension and understanding of our lives. While we love our endeavors in running, riding and swimming, we should always keep in mind that there is more to life than even these.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no shame or sin in exploring pain and glory. Candide shows us that just as the Bible does. But both the Bible and Candide agree on one thing in the end: We must cultivate our garden.