Embracing the Promise: a holistic vision of redemptive flourishing (part 1)

– Andy Wade –

At a recent workshop called “Gardening with God and Neighbor in Mind”, I had a revelation. I asked the participants how they approach their gardens, as something to be conquered and tamed, or as something to listen to and cooperate with. What I was attempting to get at are our underlying attitudes about creation.

To help explain what I mean, here’s a bit of my story:

I’ve been gardening since I was a kid. Back then (late 60’s – early 70’s) I used Miracle Grow to “feed” the plants and Casoron around the edges to keep the weeds at bay. The chemical industry ruled the day and industrial agriculture was hitting its stride. During this period of my life I firmly believed nature needed to be conquered and tamed. Bare (sterile) soil was my canvas and chemical fertilizers my medium.

In the cool of the morning, sun shimmering through branches, I worked the soil as crop dusters danced overhead sprinkling neighboring orchards, and me, with the promise of beautiful, healthy fruit. Ah, this was paradise! The land had been cursed in “the Fall”, it brought forth thistles and thorns and made me sweat to coax life from the soil, but now it was being conquered. Industrial ingenuity and science were triumphing over the curse, and the proof was in the produce. We had mastered creation.

Like homes constructed to resist and triumph over the elements, my garden was a battlefield and I the conquering general.

Well-worn copy of Jeavons' book.

Well-worn copy of Jeavons’ book.

By the early 80’s I began to question the promise of pesticides and pernicious produce. My brother introduced me to the book “How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine)”, by John Jeavons. This book from the mid-70’s introduced me to bio-intensive methods of gardening: double-dug beds, companion planting, and creating a healthy environment for beneficial insects while repelling the baddies – all without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. What a revelation!

I used this method for organic gardening throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. From 1996-2008 I took a break from gardening as my family headed to Hong Kong with our church. When we returned in 2008 one of the first things I did at our new home was to double-dig two 5’x25′ garden beds. But my weary 50-year-old back wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and in the back of my mind I began to wonder if even this method of gardening implied more conquering than caretaking of God’s amazing creation. Was there a better way?

I began exploring permaculture techniques. Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture design and thought says:

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Chaos or Creative Companions?

Chaos or Creative Companions?

Today it seems there are many ideas of what permaculture is and isn’t, but as I read, watched and listened to the creation around me, I began to understand something very basic – obvious, really; permaculture is about being present with the rest of God’s creation in the place you have been planted. It means taking seriously God’s call on Adam and Eve to “till and to keep” the garden. While some have interpreted this as to dominate and exploit the land, in the context of the creation story and God’s loving act of creating it’s really more appropriate for us to understand this as, “to plunge our hands into the earth (as God did in forming us) and to help it to flourish.”

Rather than separating all the parts of the garden – the soil, each plant, the pests, the weeds – we begin to see the garden as a whole and ourselves a part of it. In fact, as we dive into the dirt, realizing it was out of this richness that we were formed, we begin to learn that even the microbes on our earthy produce actually help to keep us healthy and at peace – literally!

So I return to my question: How do you approach your garden, as something to be conquered and tamed, or as something to listen to and cooperate with?

Sitting in the garden, reflecting on this question as we observe what’s actually going on in the yard, is a great exercise for unearthing our lived theology of God and creation. So far it’s been a 40-plus-year journey for me… and I’m still learning. And some of what I’m learning now, and will explore in the next post, is that even permaculture is not enough, especially if it’s just another technique to increase the productivity of the garden. The deeper questions for me are:

  1. What does it mean to cooperate with what God has already done in creation, and is doing today, in a way that enhances all life? and

  2. What does it mean to flourish together with God and everything and everyone around me?

What are your thoughts?