I have always known that gardeners, as a general lot, comprise some of the most optimistic and even-natured humans on the planet. The very nature of planting and growing something in defiance of the vagaries of wind and weather systematically weeds out the pessimists and those individuals who combine angry outbursts with a weak cardiovascular system. Planting tomatoes well past the expected last frost date and having them wiped out in a freak spring freeze is brutally Darwinistic. So is watching an ice storm take down the paper-bark maple you coveted for a decade before planting and have been nursing along for the past five years.
Recently however, I was simultaneously humbled, and almost driven to tears, by the words of a friend's father, a life-long gardener, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told he has mere months left to live, with many of those precious weeks likely spent in decline. According to my friend, her father has taken the news with a calm acceptance that has eased the minds of his family, saying only that "he is looking forward to planting his garden this spring as always, even though he knows he'll never see the harvest."
Dear God, what depths of faith are relayed by that simple sentence. Just as all religions state the concept in one way or another, Christian scripture cautions that "we know not what shall be on the morrow" (James 4:14). Few of us garden or live, however, as if the end WERE going to be tomorrow. It is one thing for me to know logically that, at 51 years of age, I will likely not live to see the second semicentury of the scarlet oak I planted a few years back. It is another thing entirely to recognize and accept that I might not live to see ripe tomatoes from the seeds I am preparing to start indoors in a few weeks. I do not know my friend's gardening father, but I have known two of his children personally and professionally and if his garden matches his family, I am sure I would be awed by the vigor and beauty of his plants. He leaves behind a legacy that will not just be this Spring's peas and this Fall's potatoes. His legacy is bequeathing the wisdom, to all those he touches, that living well is about doing every day exactly those same things we would choose knowingly to do in our last months.
I know not what life's end will bring. I cannot know for certain if there is an Eden above for gardeners to spend eternity dabbling in the soil, or whether I will return in the next life as a squash bug, or whether my soul and chemicals will simply merge with Mother Gaia. Like many in this Age, I feel sometimes that I lack the faith that I was raised on and should have, for I have seen far too many bad things happen to keep an unquestioning faith blindly intact. But I do know, looking out my window now at the snow and ice blanketing the ground in mid-Winter, that I can follow one brave gardener's path and plant again this Spring, even though I may not ever see the harvest.