“Memories can be characterized by our physical surroundings. Basic features in a garden can be thoughtfully designed in a way that nurtures a sense of our deepest selves. Gardening in this type of environment is a daily confirmation of empowerment.”
–Melinda Joy Miller’s Shamanic Gardening
“She approached just as Helen’s letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed not to belong to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshiped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her…assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her.”
–E.M. Forster’s Howards End
I didn’t expect a book about spirituality in gardening to be published by Feral House/Process Media any more than I expected the shadow of Wiccan matriarchy to dominate a post-Victorian English novel written over a century ago. Yet these are the surprises I found in books this winter.
After thumbing through shelves of technical books about gardening and science, it’s a pleasure to open a book about emotional gardening. Shamanic Gardening shows how to garden with intention, and speaks to the heart of why some people love gardening:
“A garden is ripe with opportunities to surround yourself with symbols that connect to your sense of well-being and the manifestation of personal goals. The garden can be used as a tool for your life to flourish. Your garden can offer the opportunity to create a paradise that literally and figuratively can feed, protect, and heal.”
Why do we garden? Because it’s magic. Yep.
Shamanic Gardening’s layout is visually friendly, and its short chapters and detailed lists of plants, herbs, and companions never overwhelm the eye. Miller reminds us in every moment to give thanks to our garden, plants and ancestors. She describes beneficial attributes of plants, colors, objects and flowers in the garden, and gives specific instructions on their traditional uses in healing and personal growth. Her own faith in these things is apparent, and as a skeptic I feel chagrined by my crusty, critical soul. I don’t trust flower essences to cure any disease, and drinking colored water seems impotently wacky. My complaint with spells and rituals has always been that they “practicalize” the poetry right out of the event. Forced to choose between magic and poetry, I will always pick poetry. (The magic’s in there if you look closely enough.)
Despite its complex subject, Shamanic Gardening takes an introductory tone in its text. Touching on several different disciplines, the author treads very lightly and leaves no deep footprints. As a novice to Feng Shui, I learned a few new ideas to play with in the garden, and was delighted to discover my compost bins are in the wealth area! Intuitively I think that’s a very positive thing, although it’s not addressed in the book. I suppose I could learn from the author’s knowledge of herbal and plant remedies, if only I lived in a tribe where someone else would harvest the Echinacea root when I’m sick. I read this book with a miserable cold while looking out the window at a veritable field of snow-covered coneflowers. Again, I’m cynical and need to work on all that “love is everywhere” and “all is one” kind of stuff. This book didn’t excavate my cynicism deep enough to give me feelings of thankfulness and oneness. But maybe it’s just all the snow.
Perhaps the author deliberately keeps her tone simple in Shamanic Gardening to remain accessible to the broadest number of readers. Or does she truly view the world as clear, uncomplicated, and benign? One feels Miller must have experienced chthonic insights given her combination of Native American and Buddhist training, yet as a teacher she chooses to keep her text straightforward and plain. I could have handled more philosophy, more oomph. It seems she leaves too many of the important things unsaid.
A narrator more than willing to say everything and dish about every detail tells the fictional story of Howards End. Yet again, one feels the real story has not been told in the words on the page. This is what fascinates me about Howards End, a type of novel I would normally never bother wasting my time on as a fan of non-fiction, science fiction, and experimental fiction. I rarely want to sit down and read a book about a bunch of mundane people doing things I might do in my everyday life, like buy shoes or fall in love. Yawn. Usually, I want to be surprised and shocked by a book.
Howards End did neither of these things. I read it because my husband is working on writing fiction and has a huge collection of The Greatest Books in the World, and because I’m trying to catch up with him. We talk about books all the time; it’s a delight to be married to someone you can have a private non-stop book club with! And it’s an incredible treat to see a work of fiction constructed from the inside out; there are so many things the non-writer like me would never think of, like different characters having different voices, and backstories of great intimacy known only to the writer that never appear in the text.
Howards End has backstory in every character. It’s also a novel about the specific era in an industrialized country’s history when the past is being erased by modernity, and urban/suburban lifestyles begin displacing rural tradition. There are lots of people and events, plotting twists and turns, sociocultural issues editorialized, dilemmas of inequality raised, questions of sexism, exploitation, and infidelity explored, and at the end you stop reading and go…hey, wait a minute, what just happened?
Because the real story is that of a woman in love with a garden bequeathing it to an almost total stranger, and that (spiritual?) contract being honored despite every person and event in the visible world striving to prevent it. It seems to be a story about women’s lineage, and that lineage following the line intended by the ancestor, no matter what. The ancestor in this story is not a blood relative, and not really much of a friend; she’s a rather tiresome middle-aged woman who recognizes something in the younger woman. (Other ancestors older than she are hinted at.) The older woman chooses that younger woman over her own children to inherit responsibility for tending her sacred place after her death.
Women, like men, feel compelled to bequeath their lineage – perhaps women more so than men since women are expected to give up their own names if they partner with a man. Having no children or all sons or angry daughters who don’t give a shit frustrates this need to pass along one’s feminine line. But chin up ladies! Howards End is the story of the line persisting by some unseen force of its own; it is the story of a garden getting the steward it wants, and of the ancestors we may have forgotten exercising their power. It tells of undervalued land outliving and overcoming human trivialities through the power of land itself. It is a story of the magic and the deeper world we hardly recognize from day to day, except when we take time to smell the snow or feel the wind.
Thus two vastly divergent books make perfect companions: one is chatty and vivacious, the other simple and meditative. Both are in their own way about the wordless wisdom of gardening, feeling part of the earth and the soil you were made from. Any gardener, male or female, is part of this lineage when they start getting dirt on their hands.
Oddly, Howards End seems to do something Shamanic Gardening does not: it looks fiercely at the unspoken contracts humans have with each other and the land we inhabit. For me, the central image of Howards End is Leonard Bast’s trek into the woods. Leonard is a small man. His opportunities truncate his aspirations. He allows physical poverty to poison his mind and destroy him. But every now and then, he hears a calling, and responds. One day, he goes into the woods. He walks all night. He comes back changed, and becomes the fertilizing force and the human sacrifice that gives the land at Howards End its future caretaker.
Perhaps Melinda Joy Miller is wiser than she lets on. She espouses thankfulness, and the honoring of ancestors, and treading very lightly on the ground of the earth which sustains us; and if Nature is a beast who demands the occasional human sacrifice, perhaps we would do best to follow her example and keep secret things secret, and tread lightly as well.