'Finding God In The Garden'

Rabbi Balfour Brickner takes a new approach to religion and spiritual matters by using the metaphor of his garden.

Each of the 10 chapters of his book, "Finding God In The Garden," takes readers through Brickner's garden and the different cycles of birth, maturation, death and decay — a parallel to life.

Brickner told The Early Show that his goal in writing the book is to have readers understand that religion ought to be based on reason and not superstition or foolishness. He says people should demand logic and reason in religion as in everyday life situations.

"Finding God In The Garden," he says, can be used to help heal the emotional, physical and spiritual wounds of Sept. 11.

Read an excerpt from Chapter One:
Eden: The First Garden

Eden is that old-fashioned House
We dwell in every day
Without suspecting our abode
Until we drive away.

How fair on looking back, the Day
We sauntered from the Door —
Unconscious our returning,
But discover it no more.
-Emily Dickinson

How can one write a book on gardening and God without starting in the most obvious place? Eden is the first garden described in any Western religious literature, and if one accepts what is written about it in the Bible, it must have been an incredible place. But what did it look like?

Where was it? No one knows or could ever have known. The Eden described in the Bible probably never existed. I think of it as being like that mythical village of Brigadoon — a lovely imaginary place, repository of all our yearnings. But was there ever such a place as Eden? Could there ever have been? We may find a hint of an answer to such questions from the word itself.

Linguistic scholars tell us that while the Hebrew word eden means "delight," the word actually derives from the language of a Middle Eastern civilization, the Sumerians, who predated the Hebrews in that part of the world by some 1500 years. We find in their vocabulary the word edinu, meaning "steppe" or "plain." So Eden, a diminutive or corruption of edinu, might have been a plain or steppe nestled somewhere between the two great life-giving rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and Euphrates, the possible sources of our garden's water.

By the time the Hebrews appeared on the scene, the phrase "Garden of Eden" came to signify some mythical afterdeath place for the righteous, and it lost all geographic meaning. It ceased to be a place and became instead an idea, even an ideal.

As a professional religionist, I know how theologians through the ages have used the story of the Garden of Eden either to create or to justify their own religious views. Later in this chapter, I will deal with one of the more powerful (and damaging) of these ideas, but for now it is as a gardener that I approach this tale. From that perspective, I am uplifted spiritually by the story every time I read it. A garden — and surely that first, most perfect garden — fires the imagination. Imagine its beauty. Imagine its serenity. Within our deepest parts, there seems to be a drive to seek and surround ourselves with beauty, whether through art, music, or great literature. And that is precisely what brings us to appreciate a beautifully designed, exquisitely executed garden.

Rare indeed is the person who does not resonate to a garden. I have seen hundreds of people who did not know a petunia from a privy walk through both public and private gardens enthralled by what they saw. They may have had no knowledge of bloom time or sun requirements; they may have been totally ignorant of, and oblivious to, what it takes to make a plant bloom. But none of this is required for the sheer enjoyment of that combination of shape, color, size, and spatial relationships that helps our senses respond to a garden. I have watched the most cynical people melt into silent wonder as they viewed a mature quince or crab apple tree in full spring bloom. A couple of years ago, I planted a young one, Malus 'Indian Summer', along our drive, and it has become a spring traffic hazard. Drivers can't seem to take their eyes off it as they approach our house.

What is there about a garden that generates so much pleasurable response from so many? Perhaps we see the garden as a symbol — a place, yes, but more than a place, a space that represents some fulfillment of homogeneity lacking in our too frequently unsatisfying societies. Perhaps it beckons to us with a simple goodness, a lovely innocence to which we would like to return. A line from the song "Woodstock" captures this longing: "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden." Gardening can represent the simple values — integrity, wholeness, purity — but the compelling power for me lies in its challenge to be creative and in the personal satisfaction that the arduous work of a garden brings. Turning bare space into a place of beauty is a form of birthing. It brings into being the potential hidden in the source. Perhaps God experienced such a feeling when looking down on the results of creation. Nurturing a garden into maturity challenges only the self. It threatens no one. The only things one has to "beat" when gardening are weeds. Gardening can be exhausting, but one rarely grows tired of it. No wonder I find it so hard to stay out of the garden — except, of course, in the dead of winter.

I've done my share of digging in virgin ground, jolting shoulder, elbow, and back as shovel clanged on some humongous, defiant, glacially buried rock resisting, as each one does, every effort to be pried loose from its antediluvian resting spot, and I can assure you that all of us seriously addicted to gardening ask that "what was Eden like?" question. Anyone who knows the pain and the reward of turning lifeless compacted dirt into fertile soil — enriching it with bales of peat moss, bags of rotted cow manure, and compost from an oftturned pile — must wonder how that first garden got put together. Since Genesis gives us only hints of what paradise must have originally looked like, we have to use our imaginations to complete the picture.

In the beginning, it was "unformed and void" (Gen. 1:2), and if the earliest texts are to be believed, the place must have looked like a bog or swamp, much too wet to plant. God took care of that problem not with the addition of ferns or dozens of moisture-loving plants such as aconitum, astilbes, or turtlehead, but with one sweeping command. So simple. One can almost hear the entire firmament echoing with the sound of the Great One's order: "Let the water below the sky. . . be gathered into one area / That the dry land may appear" (Gen. 1:9).

One would expect that divine bellow to establish a proper and perfect place, and in fact, everything seems to have grown just right in Eden: "And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and bad" (Gen. 2:9).

God's luck, not mine. Not only do weeds stubbornly reappear each season in places I thought I had rendered permanently weed-free, they also grow with such deceptive camouflage that sometimes even I, weed expert that I think I have become, cannot distinguish between plant stem and weed stalk. I hate to think about how many innocent obedient plant stems or monarda shoots I have mistakenly yanked up. The Master Gardener seems to have had none of these nagging little problems or, for that matter, problems of any kind. In Eden, a perfect biosphere was obtained, with God in full control: no aphids on the roses; no black spot; no weevils in the cotton; no borers in the Japanese black pines; the astilbes and the hostas planted in just the right parts of the shade; the garden in continuous bloom from April through October. Many mortals have come close to creating such a garden compleat. The landscape designers and those knowledgeable in plant material and the habit of plants at famous gardens such as Sissinghurst, Winterthur, Longwood Gardens, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to name but a few, have created breathtakingly beautiful spaces, but none, I suspect, could compete with the Divinity's handiwork in Eden. Yet, strange as it may seem, God found that he did need help.

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