As I complete this book, I look out onto the little tree farm I began to grow three years ago when I first began to write The Faithful Gardener. I began the tree farm and the book as active prayers in honor of Uncle and my other refugee dear ones, and to entreat the strongest intercession and blessing I know to be shed down on those millions in the world who, of necessity, often not of their choice or of their making, struggle to walk an unfamiliar or painful road.
To create this living prayer, I began by digging out a wide swath of turf and making certain ablutions over the soil, as is our custom. Then I set the small parcel of ground afire-a low fire trenched on all sides on a completely windless day.* Afterward, I left the ground fallow.
The first year and the following, a sufficient amount of tears were cried into the soil so that the ground could be proclaimed properly christened. Then I waited and watched, watching over this empty little plot. In the midst of our brick-bungalow village, would any seed be able to find it’s way to this tiny empty field?
Neighbors and passers-by stopped to ask why the yard was “torn up.” “Why is it so naked?” Didn’t I plan to put down some nice Kentucky Blue? “You gonna build a big garage?” I stood by my homely fallow land.
“You're growing a what?”
“I’m growing a forest in the city, an urban forest.”
People went away scratching their heads.
A village inspector stopped by. He said he had heard that someone in the neighborhood was building a forest in their backyard.
“Doesn’t look like a forest,” he said.
“Wait,” I said.
“Might be illegal,” he said.
“As you can see at this point it is only a forest in the air.”
“Hmmf,” he said.
The second year, there came the faithful miracle. Tiny trees began to appear in the fallow ground, trees so small that one would be tempted to tell children that these were lived in by elves. There were the tiniest sprigs of spruce, a delicate red-stemmed maple, and seven baby bays from a huge mother tree down the road. At the end of the third year now, there are two maples four feet tall, fifteen bays, two ash trees almost five feet tall, three golden rain trees whose small puffed up lanterns have bloomed twice, and twenty-seven elm starts.
As amazing, it appears as though the earth remembers its own most ancient patterns, for beneath the saplings, little grape ivies and fernleaf and other ground covers have begun to grow. Full-headed clover has broken through the skin of this earth. Flickers, sparrows and woodpeckers, and other small animals have brought seeds of various sorts. There is the start of a wild strawberry vines, and there are wild onions. There is yerba buena, there is mint, there is yanica, and other herbs, all thriving as though nature has a tremendous love for the medicinal as well as for the beauteous.
Onto this plot of land that once held so little, also have come new butterflies, the flying red-spotted ladies, and crickets-not the usual tired-out urban crickets who say “twe-twe,” but the crickets that sing four-part harmonies and ring like bells, “twetwetwetwetwetwe...” There is an old wooden garden wall that protects the little tree farm from north winds in the winter. The stars overhead can now shine on another tiny part of reclaimed Eden.
This miracle of new life made in fallow ground is an old, old story. In ancient Greece, Persephone, the maiden Goddess of the earth, was captured and held for a long time underground. During that time, her mother, the earth itself, so missed her lovely spirit that she became barren, and a cold and sterile Ever-winter fell across the land.When Persephone was finally released from the travails of hell, she returned to the earth with such joy, that every step of her bare foot that touched the barren ground instantly caused a swath of green and flowers to spread in every direction.
Through this little urban forest I contemplate my refugee foster family, the faithful ones who, long ago, through fate, became my own. How a child torn in one way came together with those torn in another way is a destiny that seems, as we say, “God’s plan and God’s business.” I understand less of what I gave to my foster family and much more of what they gave to me. Love, oh yes, wisdom, oh yes and sustained harshnesses of certain kinds that abraded the rough edges of something hopefully valuable and worthy of being polished in me. They offered hard trials of many kinds, and a pure respect for survival-not of the fittest-but of the wisest, of those most devoted to life, to the land, to one’s loved ones, including those who are hard to love, and to those who need love more than anything.
Through the lives we lived, I learned the harshest gift-lesson to accept, and the most powerful I know-that is, knowledge, an absolute certainty that life repeats itself, renews itself, no matter how many times it is stabbed, stripped to the bone, hurled to the ground, hurt ridiculed, ignored, scorned, looked down upon, tortured or made helpless.
I learned from my dear people as much about the grave, about facing the demons, and about rebirth as I have learned in all my psychoanalytic training and all my twenty-five years of clinical practice. I know that those who are in some ways and for some time shorn of the belief in life itself-that they ultimately are the ones who will come to know best that Eden lies underneath the empty field, that the new seed goes first to the empty and open places-even when the open place is a grieving heart, a tortured mind, or a devastated spirit.
What is this faithful process of spirit and seed that touches empty ground and makes it rich again? It’s greater workings I cannot claim to understand. But I know this: Whatever we set our days to might be the least of what we do, if we do not also understand that something is waiting for us to make ground for it, something that lingers near us, something that loves, something that waits for the right ground to be made so it can make its full presence known.
I am certain that as we stand in the care of this faithful force, that what has seemed dead is dead no longer, what has seemed lost is no longer lost, that which some have claimed impossible, is made clearly possible, and what ground is fallow is only resting- resting and waiting for the blessed seed to arrive on the wind with all Godspeed.
And it will.
*If you have never set a groundfire, you absolutely ought not to, period.