Books to bring readers down to earth

Published May 1, 2006

The garden as spiritual autobiography is a common theme explored by Donna Sinclair’s The Spirituality of Gardening and Gunilla Norris’ A Mystic Garden, Working with Soil, Attending to Soul. The Spirituality of Gardening by Ms. Sinclair, an award-winning writer with the United Church Observer, has stunning photography and prose powerful enough to convert one into a novice gardener or an environmentalist. Ms. Sinclair declares that her book is about the spirituality of the garden that is “not attached to any one faith.” There are references to stories from the Bible, the Talmud, native spirituality, and other beliefs and faiths. After all, she states, “the stories that illuminate the long relationship of the people of earth with their Creator are many and varied, and belong to all.”

Divided into sections that explore the spiritual meanings of gardening, it is, in many ways, Ms. Sinclair’s own story of faith. Yet she is smart and sensitive enough not to stick to her own divine afflatus – a trap that some writers of spiritual books succumb to, at their own peril. Instead, she intersperses her own spiritual journey with those of others.

On gardening “as resistance,” she reflects on the gardener as activist. Gardeners, she writes, see the world as Gaia (in Greek mythology, the early earth goddess), “one single organism, the living and sacred earth,” and they become restless when they see governments “intent on licensing for harvest every forest, the lungs of the planet.” In another, a reflection on the plight of farmer refugees, she tells the story of Central American campesinos making the dangerous return to their villages in the 1980s, because they say, “we must go home. Our children are forgetting how to plant the corn.” Her account of how nature and spirituality first stirred her soul is poignant. “As a small child, I remember leaning over the side of our rowboat, letting my hand trail in the water. And I remember happiness; a powerful sense that I, and the water and the boat and the trees on the not-so-distant shore were one. As I grew older, I put away childish things.”

Fortunately, for Ms. Sinclair, her passion for gardening reconnected her with Eden. A garden, she writes, is “body prayer;” it is “is an attempt to build harmony, to place life into proper proportions, to compensate with order where there is chaos, or to offer a tangle of wilderness where life has grown too rigid.” In a world “of sensory overload, with too much noise and too much harsh light, gardens offer a certain silence, a quality of light, smell, texture and color.” Some fascinating facts dot the book. Referencing Edwinna von Baeyer’s book, Rhetoric and Roses, Ms. Sinclair tells us that the Canadian Pacific Railway had once been “Canada’s head gardener” for decades until cars and airplanes diminished railway travel. “At its peak, says Von Baeyer, the company oversaw ‘gardens dotted along 25,749 km of track, from coast to coast, through every climactic condition possible in Canada.'” Why gardening? It was deemed “therapeutic” for workers. An added bonus is a timeline of the history of gardening and quotations on gardening from historical figures like Gandhi and Bertrand Russell.

A Mystic Garden is a slim book of meditations and apothegm about a year in a garden, with the four seasons serving as metaphors for life. Of course, one need not be a gardener to associate winter’s long, cold nights with grief or spring’s light with life. Ms. Norris says as much and more. Winter, when the garden “lies mute” is a time to “Accept. Be still. Stay inside,” she counsels. For Ms. Norris, “perhaps more goes on in the winter of the soul than any of us can imagine.” Yes, there is death. But there is also for plants (and certainly for people) a “potential for the next season.” On the other hand, in spring what is visible is the radiance of flowers in bloom. But in truth, she notes, spring “is an ache; bulbs cannot stay in their casing. There is the breaking out of one state into another. This is true in inner development as well.”

A Mystic Garden offers a glimpse of one’s gnawing contradictions. Contemplating the Japanese beetles that ravage the roses in her garden and which she destroys by locking them in a Mason jar, she asks, “How can I do this? … God’s gift of life is equal.” Still, she tightens the lid on the jar. “Asking questions is easy. Taking responsibility is another thing,” she realizes.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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