Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
I can’t help but think of my own garden when I read these words from Isaiah. As a person who grew up in my mother’s garden and who has longed for a few free feet of soil to work in, and who has despaired of their absence during years in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia where open space is a dream, and container gardening the only option, my first year at my new call in Belvidere, NJ, a land of open space, was a dream come true (Phew! That was a long sentence!)
Back in the fall, hubbie and I (okay okay, I) pored over seed catalogs–territorial seed, seedsavers– and made lists and lists of our dream plants. We ordered garlic for the fall, and I eagerly rototilled what seemed like an ambitious plot of land– 15 feet square in the open space of our back yard. We debated planting strategies and the merits of fences in a land of woodchucks and rabbits. In the fall we planted Garlic–German extra heavy–and I watched for signs of life. I ordered tomatoes and carrots, rainbow chard and beets, ground cherries and salad greens and potatoes and winter squash, accumulating a growing bag of seeds for the spring months. In March I could stand it anymore, and as the garlic peeked out of a mix of compost and snow, I started seeds–cucumber, tomato, squash, ground cherry. My eyes danced with glee as bits of green began to struggle out of the dirt, leaves unfurling slowly, and then faster as the plants got their legs.
We fenced our garden, pulled weeds, prepared soil for our tender newborns. We babied them into the soil and fiercely guarded them from those who might do them harm. We relished the first cucumbers, the first tomatoes, ground cherries, carrots and beets, offering hymns of praise to our Creator.
If what I have written sounds too perfect to be true, it is. For just as we relished the garden, just as we planted it and whispered to one another our dreams for its life, so did our garden teach us. First of all, we learned, as many do, that gardens do not always want what we do (they dont, for example, always look or sound like this one). Our garden, for example, has decided to become a monstrosity that we must contain more often than encourage. Our little babies, our beautiful little plants, are more often than not at war with one another–for food, for light, for space. The ground cherries, for example, would love nothing better than to blanket the beds of carrots nearby with large, dense foilage, for no other reason than that they can. The Butternut Squash, who waited for our two week vacation, has decided to make a break for the back yard, and has covered 30 feet of fence and made a 10 foot run out over the grass and towards the garage. And the tomatoes, well they have grown to 7 feet tall and counting.
And this is just the garden, the things we chose to plant, the things we want to grow. Add in the tomato horn worms, the japanese beetles and june bugs, the cabbage moths and slugs, and our garden begins to sound less like the orderly vineyard that Isaiah envisions and starts to sound a whole lot more like a battlefield.
Which is precisely the point, I think, of Isaiah. You see, God planted a vineyard (that’s us) and like so many God had the best of intentions. But like all vineyards and gardens, what is planted is not always what takes root. The fertile ground of a garden is welcoming to every plant, and every hungry beast and bug. The garden beckons to the weed–grow here! the ground is soft and moist and full of potential!–and if we are not careful, and if we do not pay attention, our garden risks becoming overrun by all of these forces of nature.
It is in this sense, then, that I can relate to Michael Pollan’s insight in his book entitled “Second Nature,” that you haven’t become a gardener until you begin to recognize the distance between the dream of the garden and its reality. For a garden cannot flourish without the ever-present hand of the Gardener. You can’t just plant grapes and expect them to grow–they need attention, just like my own garden needs me if I want it to do what I want it to. In other words, to Garden is to hold the chaos at bay, to build a fence and tend the soil and, when necessary, to pluck out that which is not what was planted.
Perhaps this is why, then, in Psalm 80, the people of God push back at Isaiah, begging God to return to the work he started. “Come and save us!” they cry to God, from the forces that seek to destroy us. “Let your hand be upon us” they ask, knowing that the garden cannot live without the presence of the Lord. the Garden of God’s people needs weeding, and God is the only one that can tend to the health of the Vine.
When we do tend to the garden, of course, then we experience the joys that result from our work. For a healthy garden offers its fruit in abundance to the Gardener–luscious cantaloupes, tender carrots and chard, mind-blowing tomatoes, the queens of the garden haul. The gardener’s hands cannot hope to carry all that the Garden produces–it is truly a wonder and a blessing, beyond anything one might expect.
What a blessing to be privileged and challenged by my time in the Garden, and to be challenged and cared for by no less than the Great Gardener of Creation.