Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chaos in the Garden

The Steele gardens are in full bloom right now. Roses, Joe Pye, phlox, nepeta, sedum, cone flowers, clethra, butterfly bush, annuals and lots more are flowering. The hummingbirds and songbirds and bees and dragonflies are visiting. You are welcome to stop over and take a look too.

But don't look too close. It has been a challenging year. Another summer has come and nearly gone with too little water. Plants are stressed. Some are diseased. The weeds, of course, are thriving. Everywhere I look there are weeds. Some days I walk through the gardens and spot a 2-foot weed and wonder how I missed it before and how it grew so fast.

Keeping a garden alive and healthy requires requires regular tending and more than a little help from Mother Nature. Left to run its natural course, the untended plants would die out or grow out of proportion to their space, the weeds would take over and the result would be chaos. Chaos is the natural course of things in the garden.

I am reminded of an article I read recently about the ancient Hebrew worldview that gave us the creation myth. While the Christian understanding of this story was heavily influenced by Greek thought and hence, some have this silly notion that the biblical story is about creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, that is not what the story says. It says that in the beginning the earth was a formless waste. There was chaos.

This was very much the experience of peoples in the ancient, pre-scientific world. Chaos was always lurking at the door. With no tractors, chemicals, genetically modified seeds, fencing to keep out intruders, pressurized sources of water, gun powder to smote the wild things, nothing but rudimentary tools and hand labor, it was a constant struggle to keep a small space cleared enough to eke out an existence. The edge of that small space marked a dangerous border where wild things lived and the forces of chaos constantly worked their magic to bring back the jungle.

In order to create a space where humans could live, God brought order out of the chaos. The waters of the deep were contained. Night followed day; the rains came and went; plants and animals found a place to live. But the threat of chaos was ever-present. It was the task of humans to do what God did, to bring some order out of the formless wasteland. To use your imagination and enter that worldview, and then to read later in that story that God gave to humans "dominion" over the earth is to realize that this was their dream, their wildest fantasy, that a day might come when they would be able to tame nature and bring order out of chaos.

We, of course, live in that fantasy. We have tamed the forests and the fields and the wild animals, and our technologically super-charged ability to bring order out of chaos is now putting the planet in peril. In some ways we have come full circle; the threat of biblical-style chaos may be more real than ever today.

Which brings me back to my garden, and yours, to my lawn and yours. We all want our own slice of the Garden of Eden, our well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, a space where the forces of chaos are kept at bay. There is nothing wrong with this; the biblical story suggests to us that this is the way we were created; it is in our DNA. It's the way we do it that is the problem. We overuse chemicals, we waste water, we plant things that don't belong, we fail to distinguish between chaos and a healthy diversity (does our lawn really need to be free of all weeds?). There are big problems and big decisions looming as we face the reality of global warming. But step out into your lawn or garden and you will see that you and I have some smaller, but important decisions to make too. The forces of chaos are lurking there amidst the ordered beauty. How we work to keep those forces at bay does matter.

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