Every year, in the dark and cold of winter, my family and I begin with magnificent intentions for the gardens of our little market farm in southern Indiana. And every year we go through the same ritual. My wife and I pore over a stack of seed catalogs and sort through the ones we already have in storage. We make a plan and then populate our basement with flat after flat of various plantings. I tinker with our rusty yellow Ford tractor, ancient Troy-Bilt cultivating tiller and other equipment, coaxing it all to run for yet another season. When the weather finally permits, we perform a marathon of frantic soil preparation: pulling up the tomato cages we meant to remove last fall but left in the garden all winter, burning off weeds and spreading more manure and compost, then hooking up a chisel plow and rotovator to prepare the garden beds.
Each year, things begin with hope and promise: freshly tilled, bare soil teeming with earthworms, seeds and seedlings in the ground and ready to grow—all of us ready to do battle with any weed or pest that might come along.
Anyone who gardens probably knows where this is heading. Imagine the scene a few months later. Heavy spring rains have washed out one planting, maybe two. The peas did not come up except in a few pathetic patches. We have already consigned the carrots to weeds, and we are fighting a losing battle with several other crops. Some we just give up on and till back into the ground. Some we forget or neglect to harvest regularly, and we end up with zucchinis and yellow squash that more resemble footballs than food. The lettuce has bolted in the heat; the broccoli and cabbage have become a feast for looper worms. Most of the potatoes have rotted in the ground. The beans (those we can find among the weeds) are tough and overripe.
For all but the most obsessive of gardeners, every season is in some ways an exercise in humiliation. Every year I am somehow shocked to discover anew that in spite of my best efforts—or, as often, because of my lack of effort—the gardens do not turn out as well as I had hoped. That is not to say that we get no produce; we usually have more than we can possibly eat, sell or give away. But weather, weeds, pests large and small and disease often claim so much that our labor always ends up being vastly disproportionate to the reward it yields.
The Messiness of Life
Gardeners are not alone in suffering such disillusionment. If we take an honest look at our private and civic lives, we are soon sobered by the wreckage, waste and dead ends that characterize so much of our activity, and also by how quickly and easily the good that we do can be undone. A marriage of decades runs aground on the shoals of a midlife crisis or an affair; years of careful statecraft and diplomacy are nullified by a corrupt government or an explosion of civil strife; a house is built lovingly by hand, only to be lost to fire or flood; a corporate consultant’s sage advice is unheeded, to the company’s peril; an unimaginable amount of energy and human capital is squandered needlessly by our economy. Life often seems to be a series of horrible risks and a messy exercise in inefficiency.
And yet we keep at it. We remarry, rebuild and replant; we suffer through endless meetings and mountains of paper to get the bill passed into law or the plan put into motion; we struggle interminably to get the line of poetry just right. Why? Where does it come from, our foolish willingness to believe that this will be the year we time our plantings perfectly, that the rain will come in the right amount at the right time, that we will stay on top of weeds and pests, that our fridge and fry pan and root cellar, and those of our customers, will overflow with bounty?
On a fundamental level, I think it is simply hard-wired obstinacy. From eons of struggle in a difficult and dangerous world, human beings have evolved with a genetic inheritance that makes us amazingly resilient creatures. We are built to slog through; and even under terribly adverse conditions, whether injured or depressed or despairing, most of us find a way to keep going. Sometimes by sheer momentum, sometimes limping or crawling rather than walking or running, we move forward nonetheless, despite the risks and untidiness of our circumstances. In other words, solvitur ambulando: “It is solved by walking.”
Motion and Meaning
Simple obstinacy, however, is not the fullness of humanity. We are creatures made not just for mere motion but also for meaning, which to my mind comes from hope. And we need not just the thin and flimsy brand of hope that is simple optimism, but a strong and tenacious hope that is wedded to obstinacy: a hope that can raise its head above the turbulent water of our everyday lives and enable us to see and swim stubbornly toward a vision on the far shore. In many ways, as the poet Wendell Berry once reminded me in a kind but steely tone, this sort of hope is a discipline: it is something you choose and practice and cultivate every day through concrete actions. I agree, but I also believe that hope has deeper and stronger roots than willpower. At its core, hope is a gift.
Where our ability to hope comes from is a mystery beyond solving. Perhaps we hope because we are created in the image of God, the author of all hope. Perhaps it is because we are creatures of earth and tied to its cyclical patterns of death and rebirth. Perhaps it is neither of these, but I would like to think it is both.
The Necessity of Hope
As a determined gardener, what I do know about hope is that however much a mystery it may be, hope is ultimately not just a gift but also a necessity. To be fully human and fully alive, we have to hope, even (or especially) when hope might well seem like folly, even when the seeds we sow fall among thorns or on thin and rocky soil. When we begin to lose a vision that things could be better than they are, we begin to lose our grasp on life itself. And life, like our weedy and riotous gardens, is messy, inefficient, painful, unproductive, diseased and pest-ridden, but also bursting with promise and reward, full of various cultivated and unexpected joys. Our lives do not unfold in neat, ordered rows, and the yield of our lives is perhaps not what we would have expected or wished for. Inevitably, the tares grow up with the wheat. But as I turn again year after year to the soil, with an obstinate if ridiculous hope of a good season, it helps to remember that the Divine Gardener is infinitely more patient in tending the wild stubbornness of my own heart. Grace always allows another beginning, and grace sustains the hope that this time, things will be better.