Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Born to Be Gardeners

Azalea planting at Secrest Arboretum, Wooster, OH
This past week, I fulfilled an invitation of The Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (MGV) Program to speak to a group of volunteers at the Secrest Arboretum on the campus of The USU-Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, here in Wooster, OH.   The mission of the MGV program is to educate others with timely research-based gardening information.  Qualifications of successful applicants are very clear:  One must

·         want to learn more about plants and gardening
·         be eager to participate in training
·         have a passion for sharing what you learn
·         have time/willingness to attend training and serve your community

Early arriving MGV's in the Miller Pavilion, Secrest Arboretum
This four-point progression provides an important message for qualifying MGV candidates.  The MGV program wants volunteers who are teachable, participatory, passionate, and unselfishly service-oriented.  These qualities were evident in the enthusiastic participation of the volunteers who composed my audience.  Knowing the spirit of Paul Snyder, program assistant at Secrest Arboretum, I was not surprised by the quality of these volunteers.  Their vocations, representing such diverse fields as education, law enforcement, farming, and industry made for interesting points of discussion during my presentation.

With Paul Snyder, Secrest Arboretum
Paul had charged me with presenting “my passion” for prairies, prairie plants, and prairie restoration.  Because of the mission and qualifications for the Master Gardener program, I devoted some discussion to the notion of how a robust environmental ethic can help us value the world around us and motivate us to invest our time, energy, and passion as gardeners or habitat restorationists. 

I began by explaining that my passion for prairies is based on the Judeo-Christian teachings about gardening and restoration.  [I’ll elaborate a bit more here than in my talk to the MGV.] The Scriptures in Genesis 1 and 2 provide the following foundation blocks for a biblical stewardship environmental ethic:

1.   What many call “the natural world” originated by God’s creative acts and it belongs to Him. 
2.   God, the Owner of creation, appointed humankind as stewards or managers (Gen. 2: 15).
3.   Because God loves His creation and has benevolent purposes for it, our stewardship must reflect our best attempts though good science and sound ethics to “serve with,” or con-serve creation so that God’s purposes for humankind and all of creation are realized. 
4.  A gardener or restorationist who possesses an awareness of God’s purposes at work in the intricacies of living creatures—nutrition, growth, development, reproduction, and adaptation to environment—possesses a more objective and comprehensive ethic or basis for valuing creation, loving God’s creation, and justifying efforts to promote the flourishing of creation and mankind’s relationship to it and ultimately, to God.

Prairie remnants can expand into set-aside farm fields.
After this introduction, I presented the past geologic and human historic factors that explain the origin and current condition of the North American Prairie (See “History is Important.”).   Sadly, the extensive prairies of North America exist now only as very fragmented remnants surrounded by extensive agricultural and urban development.  It is these prairie remnants that prairie restorationists attempt to conserve by managing against the encroachment of woody plants and agricultural weeds. (See “Serving with Our Neighbor.”)

Naturally, a discussion that disparages weeds and values native plants is based on value judgments.  So, why are native plants more valuable than weeds?  The short answer is that “native” animal and plant species are those that resided in the “natural” landscape prior to human settlement within the North American prairie system.  But, this answer raises another question—what do we mean by “natural?”  Did “natural” biotic communities exist until European-American settlers entered the land?  Or, had Native Americans already altered “natural” communities many centuries earlier by setting fires to promote grazing or to burn the villages of enemy tribes?
Considerations used to distinguish gardening from restoration
The discussion of what is “natural” led us to ask whether the typical practice of gardening is any different from the practice of those who manage prairie remnants or who attempt to restore prairie communities on “unnatural” landscapes.  For example, how is the effort we undertook at Cedarville University to restore a prairie on tilled agricultural land any different from the actions of a gardener or farmer establishing a garden of flowers or field of corn?  We used a graphic that lists considerations associated with gardening and prairie restoration to determine if there are substantial differences between the two.  Although some restorationists may suggest that the considerations toward the right side of the graphic are given higher priority by restoration efforts, some gardeners may employ these as well if they are ecologically and conservation minded. 

Is a prairie restoration in a former cornfield a type of "garden?"
Stuart Allison cites the writing of Moore and co-authors in The Poetics of Gardens (MIT, 1988) and concludes there is no difference between restoration and gardening.  He writes (emphasis mine), I think that "gardening" is the perfect word to describe what restorationists are doing because it emphasizes the personal relationship between individual humans and the land. Allison follows with this conclusion:

The hangup some environmental philosophers express about whether restorations are natural or not, or even whether the natural still exists, misses the point.  The connection between humans and the environment is real and cannot be denied. The fact that the relationship is not working well cannot be denied, either.

Allison’s conclusion resonates with the biblical environmental stewardship ethic because both acknowledge the malfunction in the relationship between humans and creation.  The Scriptures explain this malfunction in Genesis 3.  Because of humankind’s rebellion against God, the fall and curse upon creation has marred human ability to follow perfectly the Dominion-Stewardship Mandate issued by God (Genesis 1: 28).  However, Christ, the second Adam, came to Earth, died for the sins of mankind and was raised victorious over death to redeem us from the wages of sin and provide reconciliation between God and mankind, and between mankind and creation (Colossians 1: 13-20). 

The “Good News,” or the Gospel, is the message that God now offers “spiritual restoration” to all who will accept by faith in Christ the free gift of reconciliation .  God has called those He has redeemed and restored by faith to become gardeners and “restorationists” through appropriate ministry in the lives of others who have not heard or believed the Gospel.  As Adam was commanded to “serve and keep the Garden” so Christian believers today are called to follow the second Adam in His Great Commission to make disciples from the fallen and dying (Matthew 28: 18-20).

Gardening in Great Commission
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8: 19-21 that the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God [and was] subjected to futility… in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  Whereas, Adam had rebelled against his assignment as a gardener, God reissued the gardening assignment through His Great Commission to born again disciples of Christ.  The Apostle Paul uses the “gardening metaphor” for the Great Commission when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3: 6:   I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the [spiritual] growth.

We have seen that gardening and restoration have similar aims in the physical world of creation.   They also make excellent metaphors for the human responsibility of submitting to God in the service of the Great Commission in which we serve as gardeners to sow seed and water it with the aim of bringing a harvest of new believers and nurturing them in the faith.  Because of the closeness of physical gardening to the notion of spiritual gardening, I believe the practice of gardening can teach valuable lessons in spiritual growth and maturity.  I can testify of the role of gardening in my life while I was growing up on our farm.

One of several cantaloupe fields on the Silvius farms
My father, Bert Silvius, was a farmer and a gardener.  Each year on our 200 acres of farmland, he would lead us in the planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting of about 4 acres of cantaloupes.  If you can picture 1 acre, you will realize we had one large garden!  Lots of hours of manual labor were required, but I am thankful for the spiritual lessons I learned in the process.  Early in the spring we planned for the dates of planting, tilled the soil, planted the seed in hundreds of “hills,” and then, depended on the weather to bring germination with the help of “hotcaps” that protected the young seedlings against frost.  When the seedlings reached an inch or more in height, we sliced open the paper hotcaps to allow adjustment to cooler temperatures, then eventually removed the hotcaps and thinned the seedlings several times, ending up with one healthy plant per original hill.  Then came at least two summer months of hoeing, weeding, and spraying while anticipating the first delicious ripe melons.  Throughout the sweaty and often tedious gardening effort, I leaned the character qualities of orderliness, patience, responsibility, cooperation, unselfishness, and dependence on God for the ultimate harvest.

Bradley & Mindy growing a prize pumpkin.
Gardening was not only spiritually rewarding in my own development as a young man but it became important in teaching a work ethic in my own family years later.  My wife and I who both gained from our gardening backgrounds were able to pass along the same character development experience in gardening to our children.  Even though our family garden was much smaller than the 4 acre-garden of my younger days, our children dreaded the labor no less than I.  However, we all have many good memories of those days of planning, planting, watering, harvesting, and enjoying the delicious fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden.

And so last week, many years after my boyhood days of gardening, and many years after our young family had gardened together, I stood and spoke to Master Gardener Volunteers in the Miller Pavilion of Secrest Arboretum.  As we discussed the benefits of gardening, not only to the landscape but to the gardeners themselves, I looked out of the pavilion and thanked God for my dad and mom who many years before had brought my siblings and I to Secrest Arboretum to enjoy the garden plants and trees. 

Speaking of the physical dimension of gardening and restoration, Stuart Allison writes,

There are many items on the plate of restorationists, but the most important item must be the restoration of that human-environment relationship.  Without that restoration, none of our other efforts will matter.

As we engage in wise gardening and restoration, we are acting out God’s metaphor for our stewardship responsibility to His creation.  All the while we are cultivating and restoring our relationship to God and creation.   Finally, as our family learned and as I have experienced in working with students over the years, gardening and restoration work provide an excellent opportunity to develop godly character qualities that will last for a lifetime.

Gardening and Restoration Websites:

   Ohio Prairie Association (Explore many helpful links) 
   God as Gardener (Psalm 80: 7-9); God like Garden Soil (Isaiah 61: 11)

How about You:   Perhaps you’d like to respond with a “Comment” about how gardening has played a role in your life or with your family; or, share more insights from Scripture on garden, gardening, and restoration metaphors.

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