Life and death,
dark and light, hot and cold,
dormancy and growth
and we can all be the richer
for accepting it.
all of you
I began to practice
acknowledging the exchange
that takes place
between me and my garden.
DORMANCY: The Other Face of Growth
by Judith Handelsman
December 1997 Endpage
During December, almost all the plants we see go to sleep. Underground, they do the hidden preparation necessary to make a tender spring rebirth possible. We may think nothing is happening during the dormant season but active biological processes are, indeed, taking place. Persephone must serve her six months in the underworld. Then she returns and graces the earth with her fertility and splendor. We, as human beings, could take a lesson from the plant kingdom. Plants have perfected the art and practice of deep rest. Dormancy for them is just the other side of growth.
Downtime and deep rest are not supported in our culture. Doing, as we understand it, does not include resting. We share the belief that doing is more important than being. We overbook ourselves, run frantically from place to place, and generally do until we drop. Like hungry ghosts, we inhabit the twilight time of the twentieth century having lost track of the value of doing nothing--being with ourselves in quiet and reflection.
In truth, we cannot be active unless we are dormant. Life, death and rebirth are all part of a continuing cycle that turns constantly within ourselves, in our relationships with each other and the natural world. Our insistence on doing all the time exhausts us. We don't allow for rest or non-doing, which doesn't necessarily mean doing nothing. Rest is an active choice and the other face of activity. In order to be creative and whole, we must have down time to allow the deepest recesses of our psyche to do the inner work vital to expressing ourselves uniquely.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee calls rest "a deep spiritual practice." Animals do it instinctively because they know it is the only time their bodies will heal. But we, in our speed-driven culture, feel guilty when we rest. Perhaps it is time to honor the value of rest, the spirit of dormancy, and hold both sides--the dual nature of dormancy/growth-- as one distinct whole.
I teach writing classes to people who think they have writer's block. Many of my students say they procrastinate, and then they judge it as "bad." I tell them that a certain amount of "rumination" time is necessary while the psyche back-burners ideas, thoughts, feelings and language, before they can actually write. Germination time in any creative endeavor is as much a part of the creative process as the finished product you can see or hear, taste or touch.
Life and death, dark and light, hot and cold, dormancy and growth can all exist, each in their own natural continuum, and we can be the richer for it. There is enough suffering within each of us on earth that we don't need to create more by rejecting the other side of anything. The process of being in conflict with half of reality is a kind of suffering because we are clinging to the wish for it to be otherwise. Rather, we have the option of being in touch with and including it all as compost for our own harmony and peace.
Embracing and learning from what Carl Jung called the shadow--the darkness, the parts of ourselves and each other we dislike or deny, the situations we think we cannot stand--is one way to hold the darkness of December, the dormancy of down time, the restoration and rejuvenation of rest, alongside the joy and exhilaration of creative activity .
Copyright @ Judith Handelsman 1997. All Rights Reserved.
ÉTERNELLE Winter 1997
My Spiritual Journey Through Gardening
by Judith Handelsman
Twenty years ago, when I seriously began asking questions like, "Why am I here" and "What am I supposed to be doing, anyway," the gardening angel handed me a trowel and said, "You really want to know? Let's get to work." So it was, I then began to talk to my plants, and, to my astonishment, they answered back. Not with chit-chat, mind you, but with deep insight that I understood from a place within me that had never been touched before. I embarked on a course of education that would introduce me to the world of inner gardening. I never saw the teacher's face and it took me a while to learn the language. But I grew to love the teacher and the teaching. And best of all, there were no tests.
I am not a psychic or a clairvoyant. I simply fell in love with plants. The powerful influence of the plant kingdom has continued to heal my psyche through marriage, abortion, divorce, depression, umpteen moves, and my mother's illness and old age. I know there are millions of other women out there who bask in this same unconditional plant love right in their own indoor and outdoor gardens. These women take deep comfort in their roses or have a bond with the pine tree outside their bedroom window. They, too, talk to their plants. Unfortunately, up until now, they haven't shared these inner conversations and intimacies with anyone except their fellow inner gardeners, because their husbands will make fun of them or their kids will think they are crazy.
But it is this very connection of the gardener to her garden that creates a circle of magic and nourishes them both. I am a contented product of this mysterious connection and I forged this bond in such an unlikely place as the sixteenth floor of an apartment house in New York City. And, I did it with my houseplants.
You see, I wanted to live in the country but at the time I was married to a man who was married to his job in the city. So, I decided that instead of dreaming about a future that may never come, I had to make peace with my present. I filled the house with as many indoor trees and plants as I could and still have furniture. Indoor urban gardening became my substitute for outdoor country living.
Remember the early seventies? The plant craze had just begun. Suddenly, a plant shop appeared on every corner and baskets of philodendron hung in every sidewalk cafe . My best friend, Sara, and I enjoyed indoor gardening so much we decided to go into business doing what we loved. We called ourselves "Greenworks" and installed and maintained indoor and outdoor gardens in Manhattan. I had always wanted to write a book, so we combined forces and co-authored Greenworks: Tender Loving care for Plants which became a best-seller.
One day, while I was working at NBC All-News Network Radio as their freelance gardening correspondent, I was asked to sit in on an interview with Peter and Eileen Caddy of The Findhorn Garden in Scotland. They were in New York publicizing a new book about their experimental educational foundation, where they grew giant vegetables and flowers on the Northern-most tip of Scotland in high winds and sandy soil where nothing should have grown. The secret to their extraordinary results, they said, was communication with the nature spirits. Since the British are more comfortable with the concept of faeries and accept such beings more readily than we do, Findhorn became a pilgrimage mecca for horticultural societies from all over the United Kingdom.
At first, the ideas sounded strange to me but when I read The Findhorn Garden, it changed my life. I never went back to my old ways again. One thing the book recommended was to give plants twenty-four hours notice before initiating any major process such as cutting back, repotting or transplanting. If you let the plant know what you want to do and why, without a prove-it-to-me attitude, it would anesthetize itself and wouldn't go into shock.
So, I went home resolving to explore the possibility of communicating with my plants and had a heart-to-heart with my potbound spider plant. I tugged on it's green and white striped "head of hair" but there was no give. It wouldn't budge from its pot. At first I was a little self-conscious about introducing myself to the plant since there were no rules about how to do such a thing. But soon I got over feeling silly and simply offered myself in a spirit of cooperation and asked for its help.
I felt more authentic using thoughts instead of words, so while I filled two new hanging baskets with fresh soil, I silently told the spider my plan. I made an invisible line across the top of the soil with the side of my hand where I wanted to cut the plant in half. It was ridiculous for it to stay stuck in a pot with no soil left, I added. I was offering it a new life. Did I make any sense? If so, I would be back in twenty-four hours and look for a sign.
Needless to say, I couldn't wait. After three hours I barged back into the room and tugged on the spider plant one more time. Nothing happened. It was still rigid in the pot. Sheepishly, I excused myself for not being able to keep my end of the bargain and left the room to wait for the promised time.
On the stroke of twenty-four hours, I tip-toed back into the operating theatre ready for surgery. To my amazement, half the foliage had flopped over to one side of the invisible line and half had flopped over to the other side, like the parting of the Red Sea. The greenery was not limp or in shock, it had simply regrouped itself! I got goosebumps.
Figuring this was an undeniable sign, I turned the pot on its side thinking I would have to bang it and shake it to loosen the rootball. Instead, the plant plopped right out of the pot on to the floor; no mess, no soil, and the rootball remained totally intact. Flabbergasted, I drew a deep breath and readied myself for the final stage. I lifted the knife, preparing to grind away at the roots, but instead I cut through the rootball as if it were made of soft butter. Quickly, I repotted the two halves in the waiting hanging baskets and watered each one thoroughly. I hung them together in a sunny window because they were family. Neither went into shock as transplants often do.
I will always be grateful to the spider plant for initiating me into the wonders of inner gardening. I have filled a memoir with such true miracle stories and called it Growing Myself : A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening (Dutton, 1996). In this book, I urge all of you inner gardeners to come out of the closet about talking to plants. Let's join forces in spreading the word to make it an intelligent, respectable and practical thing to do. We all need support.
©Copyright Judith Handelsman 1996. All rights reserved.
THE UPROOTED GARDENER
Learning to Leave What You've Planted
by Judith Handelsman
When I visited Laguna Beach for the first time in1992, its lavish sense of green touched a place so deep in my psyche, I never left. Being an avid gardener and art historian, Laguna's classic and picturesque natural beauty beckoned me wherever I went. Palm trees and eucalyptus, giant pepper trees and old Monterey pine conjured an old California that the Plein Air School of painting made famous in the early years of the twentieth century. Once the mecca for these early California Impressionists, Laguna's reputation as an artist colony remained intact over the years as a place where the light, the landscape and the sea combine, as if by magic, to create romance.
Besotted with this artistic sensibility, I set about searching for a place there to write my next gardening book. I wanted a home with that famous Laguna charm. I didn't know yet that I would get what I wanted, but in the bargain I would be awarded a large dose of the persistent and irksome lesson that nothing is permanent except change.
Laguna is America's answer to Nice. Reminiscent of the French Riviera, replete with white sailboats dotting a blue and turquoise sea, its sunny white stucco and red roof quaintness makes residents feel as if they are on perpetual vacation. Looking up the hillsides from any one of the exquisite beach coves, its architectural smorgasbord projects a quirky arty look by day, and by night, lights up the town with understated dazzle.
The charming jumble of homes so close to one another is at once Laguna's allure and its drawback. Not being used to living in such a pressing proximity, I went through what, in retrospect, can only be called a "learning experience." Since I was renting, I knew the residence wouldn't be permanent, but I had no idea it would last just a scant seven months.
Granted a special dispensation from the Diety of Miracles, I found a rental that, to my eye, was an affordable reincarnation of a doll's cottage in the English countryside. Since my one absolute requirement was a garden, I thrilled to find one badly in need of refurbishing in the backyard. When I stood at the kitchen sink and opened the double windows into the garden, I found myself at eye level with big bushes of yellow Margarita daisies, neat rows of purple statis and a tortured-looking old fig tree that, despite its appearance, valiantly bore copious amounts of fruit all summer long. It proved to be one of life's simple luxuries to go out first thing on those warm August mornings and pick a bowl of fresh juicy figs for breakfast.
I promised the landlady I would turn the house and garden into a place fit for the "Laguna Charm Tour." I could hardly believe my good fortune when she said the amount she usually paid a gardener would be subtracted from my rent if I decided to take over those duties. She even promised to pay for some new plantings if I did the work.
Ecstatically, I performed the job of bringing that garden back to life. For the sake of my bodymind balance, I alternated cleaning, pruning, digging and planting with writing, rewriting and rewriting again and again to meet the deadline on my book.
On the brick patio, I grew a moveable garden in pots under the shade of an aging wisteria vine that had just come to the end of its bloom cycle when I moved in in June. Those pots traveled with me when I came and would accompany me when I left. They were like family. But, my real joy became the fall vegetable garden I planted with cabbages and brussel sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, celery and onions and, of course, the familiar blue Laguna morning glories to lace the red bougainvilla hanging over the fence.
Since so many of my planting projects would come to fruition in the spring, tracking their progress became my daily dose of excitement in between editorial wrestling bouts with my book. I fell in love with the old-fashioned sweet peas peeking up from the ground getting ready to take off across the lattice work I carefully arranged around my front door. Lacking a love life at the time, anticipation of floral madness filled my fantasies, my substitute for sex, no doubt, as I planted anemones, freesia, and my favorite, tuberose.
The fruits of my labors in the garden had just begun to take hold when I started having trouble with my neighbor. I wanted quiet in order to think and to write. He wanted to work all day and well into the evening in his garage woodshop using his power equipment to make crafts. Since the window of my office, less than fifty feet away, faced directly onto his shop, we were incompatible, to say the least, and at odds to put it mildly. With the wisdom that only comes from hindsight, I think I can now safely say we became each other's worst nightmare. Forced by, what might politely be termed, some "unskillful confrontation," I finally had to move, and in a hurry, at that.
At first I was heartbroken because I had been very goal oriented in my gardening credo. Whatever I planted, I wanted to see bloom and produce so I could harvest and cook. A large part of my love of vegetable and herb gardening stemmed, so to speak, from the pleasure I took in cooking fresh-picked homegrown food. Instead of being allowed to indulge in this delicious practice, Iife was requiring me to leave my lovingly tended garden for the next lucky tenant to enjoy. The plants had become, through daily nurturing, like children to me. I wanted to see them grow up or, at least, graduate.
To assuage my grief, as soon as I moved to my new home, I began to create a complete decorative garden on my deck in pots. I planted a multitude of sunflowers and gobs of sweet basil and arugual in the tiny smidge of land adjacent to the front door. The immeasurable happiness I generated starting all over again to design another version of my own little Paradise surprised me. I suddenly realized that I loved the process of gardening so deeply that I no longer cared whether the garden was "mine" or whether I would ever see it come to fruition. My immediate gratification came from gardening with complete absorption and attention in the present moment.
Although others may tend to get the same kick from playing golf, reading a mystery novel or sailing a boat, I'm glad that a transplanted New Yorker, such as I, can garden her brains out in Laguna Beach and bloom as her flowers do, on this sparkling Orange coast of Southern California.
Copyright © Judith Handelsman, 1996. All Rights reserved.
OVER THE HEDGE Sept/Oct 1996
Growing a Relationship
Between You and Your Plants
by Judith Handelsman
If you ask gardeners why they garden, they often reply it's because of how it makes them feel. They describe that delicious state of forgetting themselves, losing track of time, and getting lost in the pure love of working in the soil. Let's face it. The earth is the earth, wherever it is. Even one plant in a pot can give you that connection to nature that is so soothing, it triggers a feeling of deep peace and well-being. Your hands get dirty and your heart and soul feels clean.
Twenty-two years ago, I lived on the sixteenth floor of an apartment house in New York City and was dying to live in the country but there was no way it could happen. Instead of waiting to do it "someday," I decided then that I had to do it "now." So, I made the indoors look like the outdoors and began to get to know nature, little by little, in pots throughout the house. I became a gardener.
Now I am happily living and gardening in Laguna Beach, California, but what I learned in those first few years in New York shaped my gardening experience forever. That was when I began to practice "inner gardening," acknowledging the exchange that takes place between me and my garden.
Sometimes with words but more often in thoughts and feelings, I develop a relationship with trees and other plants. They reciprocate by communicating and cooperating with me in infinitely subtle and not so subtle ways. I am learning their language. The result is a more beautiful and abundant garden, and the inner knowledge that I have been taught invisibly, without words, about myself, my life and the mysterious cycle of life/death/rebirth that is an integral part of gardening.
Gardening with a cooperative attitude may sound off-beat at first but when I give talks and workshops on this inner philosophy of gardening, adults as well as children in the audience respond in astounding numbers with their own stories of love and connection with plants. Usually, they say they are afraid to talk about such things for fear of sounding silly to relatives and friends. But, when given an opportunity to share with like-minded people, they confidently report the tiny miracles they have experienced.
Back in the seventies when I lived in New York City, I owned an indoor/outdoor landscape design and maintenance business called Greenworks. My partner and I both loved plants so we decided to become "the plant doctors" in Manhattan, a urban center that needed all the green it could get. We co-authored a bestselling layman's guide to indoor gardening called Greenworks: Tender Loving Care for Plants (Macmillan, 1974) which led to writing a monthly plant column for Vogue. During that time, my understanding of gardening transformed.
The turning point came when I worked at NBC All-News Network Radio in New York, where I wrote and voiced nationally syndicated gardening spots. A colleague asked me to sit in on an interview with Peter and Eileen Caddy from the Findhorn Garden in Scotland. They were publicizing their book about growing giant vegetables and flowers on the Northern most tip of Scotland in sandy soil and high winds, a place where nothing should have grown. They achieved it, they said, through hard work and cooperation with the plants. At first, I was skeptical, to say the least. I used to think people who talked to their dogs were strange. But something prompted me not to discount it completely, so I went home and experimented with some of their gardening advice.
Instead of dominating my plants, I started asking them for their help. For example, I gave them twenty-four hours notice before initiating any major process such as repotting, transplanting, or cutting back so they could anesthetize themselves to avoid going into shock. As the Findhorn people suggested, I let them know what I wanted to do and why, and came from my heart without a "prove-it-to-me attitude.
In my latest book, Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening (Dutton, 1996), I chronicle my very first effort at communication and cooperation with my plants in a chapter called "Patience and the Spider Plant." The spider was potbound like a slab of concrete. The rootball needed to be divided in half to make two plants, but the plant wouldn't budge. I didn't want to break the pot so with my thoughts I asked the spider to help me. Confiding that I had never tried to communicate with a plant before, I asserted, nevertheless, that I was sincere. Usually, I feel more authentic doing this silently, but other times I speak to plants out loud.
I was very clear about where I wanted to cut the rootball, using my hand to draw an invisible line across the top of the soil. I suggested that in order to avoid my usual hacking job of grinding away at the rootball with a kitchen knife, the spider needed to do whatever necessary to make the process easier for me and for it. Pointing to the two new hanging pots filled with fresh new soil, I hoped to entice the spider into changing homes. I bargained that I would be back in twenty-four hours to proceed with the operation and would it please give me some sign of cooperation.
To my surprise, it worked. The spider literally fell out of its pot and the rootball cut like bar of soft butter. The almost unbelievable results convinced me to continue experimenting with inner gardening. Now gardening with an inner philosophy has become a way of life that gives me great joy and comfort.
I wrote Growing Myself to reach out to other people and share the power of love through gardening. Plants may not think and feel in the same way we do, but some mysterious connection happens between a gardener and his or her garden that can only be called love. We are accustomed to thinking of plants as objects for decoration or color for the garden. But, you can actually grow yourself as you grow a garden. The prerequisite is a healthy respect for the plants.
In the seventies, a bestselling book called The Secret Life of Plants presented scientific research from around the world that explored plant intelligence. The chapter which made the biggest impression on me described a retired policeman in New York City, Cleve Backster, who trained people how to use lie detectors. As a lark, he hooked up his plants to a polygraph so he could monitor their responses.
One day, Backster approached his Dracaena Massangeana with a lighted match and acted as if he were going to burn it. Not only did the plant go wild on the graph but every other plant in the place did, too. He could hardly believe it. Continuing to experiment, he discovered that the plants responded to his thoughts even when he was miles away. One day, on the New Jersey Turnpike, he decided to let them know, through thought, that he was on his way home. When he arrived, he found that the plants had responded excitedly on the graph at the exact time he was communicating to them. Proximity was not a factor in their ability to sense him!
Everyone can develop this skill and ability. We all have it within us. All we have to do is acknowledge the possibility of it being true and then proceed with an open mind and heart. Everyone's experience will be unique. Even if you feel silly at first, let the plant know you want to work with it for a win/win situation and see what happens to your gardening life.
When you practice inner gardening, you gain more sensitivity and begin to listen to your intuitive voice. We all know the one. It's the first thing we hear ourselves think but often discount only to discover the first voice was right and we should have listened to it. I say, start listening to that inner voice now. It's like developing a muscle that needs strengthening. After a little practice, you will become bolder in your give and take with plants, listening to that voice when it tells you what to do.
When people complain to me that they have a "black thumb," I know it is because they aren't connecting with their plants. Instead of treating plants as objects that just sit there, start relating to them as you would a pet. They are alive, you know. Plants won't live on love alone, but it is the single most useful ingredient to combine with good light, watchful watering habits and careful cleaning and pruning. Love takes the form of attention. Everything alive thrives on attention.
At first, interacting with a plant may seem strange but in actuality it is a common sense way to deal with many gardening chores. An illustration of this relationship can be found in Growing Myself, in the chapter entitled "The Ficus Tree and My Divorce." At the beginning of the story, I adopt a dying Ficus Benjamina only to find it is covered with scale when I get it home. I try every method of pest control but nothing works. It looks as if the Ficus might die. Finally I stop taking the burden of full responsibilty. I tell the Ficus if it wants to live, it is going to have to help itself, too. After a year, the Ficus leaves grew back and the huge tree flourished in the sunny living room with our Mexican hammock slung underneath. The scale remained but no new scale developed. Everyone got to live! The plant answered my plea but in a way I never could have imagined. The tree and the scale worked out a special living arrangement.
If you are sitting there reading this and shaking your head in agreement, take heart. There are many more of us having inner gardening experiences with plants than we realize. For those who are skeptical, give it a try. All it takes is one success and you will be hooked forever. I am so sure of good results, I'll be waiting for your inner gardening stories. I love to hear from kindred spirits.
©Copyright Judith Handelsman 1996. All Rights Reserved.