The Gods of Home and Garden

My friend James Shelley has just recently posted on how community gardening has given him an appreciation of the role played by fertility dieties in agriculural societies.  Though anthropology is not exactly my area of expertise, and though I am wary of drawing conclusions from anthropological generalizations in any case, I think that there is something significant in the relation that he is recognizing between the physical labour of farming and spiritual practice of religion.  In fact, I am inclined to extend this relation to other aspects of the home as well, to cooking, to building, to eating, to storytelling, to sewing, to all the activities that should form a spiritual practise for us but often do not.  It seems to me that as we engage in these things more fully, as we participate in them more intimately, we begin to understand the spiritual significance that these things once had.

As James recognizes, it is only in our affluent society that we can afford to be separated from these things, by technology, by the labour of others, by space and by time, only in this kind of society that we can seriously believe that the activities of the home and garden are not in fact spiritual in nature.  It is only because of this affluence that we become subject to the illusion that these things are merely physical and mundane.

To use the language of classical mythology, there can be no dryads so long as trees are merely for shading our patio sets, no nyads so long as rivers are merely for feeding ducks.  There can be no Pomona when the garden is just one more way to impress the neighbours, no Lares or Penates when the house is just the place where I sleep between work and amusement.

The local gods and godesses only appear when we become concerned with them, when we begin to love the trees and the rivers, the garden and the home. When I grow the tree from seed or from cutting, when I nurse the tree from a sapling, when I eat of its fruit and sleep in its shade, when I watch it grow year by year, then I discover that a spirit inhabits the dance of its branches.  When I wade in the water of the river, when I clean garbage from it with my own hands, when I watch the tadpoles and the minnows increase as the water grows cleaner, then I discover that a god stirs its waters.  When I plant what feeds me, build what shelters me, cook what nourishes me, sew what clothes me, then, and perhaps only then, I discover the gods of home and garden, the little deities that make the work of the home and the garden into a spiritual practise.

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4 comments
  1. Curtis said:

    Perhaps I am missing your point Luke, but I think you should have put the slightest more time, or a longer mention to this piece.

    In your first two examples, I do not, in fact, much relate. Since you have mentioned, in the paragraph above it, that ‘only in this society’ and truly, only in this day and age, I find it interesting that, going to the river, ‘only to feed the ducks’, or that, ‘the trees shade our patio’… albeit the furniture on it, as signs that we have lost a sense of the spirituality that belongs to and should be retained towards these armatures of the galaxy all around us. Your second two examples strike immediate accord, as direct abuses of the spirituality, that makes a shy retreat or a violent sortie to or fro the human being.

    But I see your first two examples as indicators, homage, the smallest, ‘rational sacrilege’, that serves as an honest worship, which is the last fort on the front. For example, going to the park, only to feed the ducks, is in our day and age, usually a practice indentured to those ripe in years, who to the speedy children, find a new peace and ease, which is foreign to the furtiveness of youth, or in our time, the rigorous demands of self imposed necessary of success. We should be seeing the value in feeding the ducks and other things, but going there to feed them alone is something that can only truly keep the fighting on with the little sanctity stolen from them presently. To the other example of shade, it seems that to acknowledge with simple recognition the stem of a tree with either enjoyment or frankness is better than seeing it and removing it so the sun can shine on the artificial canopy the previous foliage guarded. Appreciating the shade is one more factor, even if it is all that takes place, that small absent minded homage to the shadow of a titan, far wiser than us, if not conversed with in out moments, that keeps greater possibility and future opportunity alive for a later conversation.

    Your mention about the river as well, shows, that somehow, to step into and take on the awakening tasks you speak of and wish, either to be endeared to, or endear others by, you must be moved first by the mystery of it. You must first have this love for it, which wading in and serving can only be called love making, because as you say, it is spiritual, and it is the reward of affectionate labour, where you can feel a brief, subconscious sigh from each of you in the effort and culmination. The other examples, with exception of your latter two, come across as hopeful flirtations, not as detrimental circumstances. I think we should be grateful that in the apostasy that has been, and may continue to be our day and age that there is still even room for people to have, as all they have, even the briefest of flirtations. At the very least they can encourage the wonder that can be warned into generations, not to walk away from fraternisation, and actually encounter the awe of which I believe you are speaking.

  2. Curtis,

    If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that feeding ducks and putting our patio furniture in the shade is the beginning of a flirtation with the gods of tree and river. I will not say that this is impossible, but I chose my examples carefully to demonstrate the difference between a response to the mystery of the tree and the river and a mere use of them.

    It is one thing to lie in the shade of a tree. It is another to use the shade of the tree merely as a place to put the lawn furniture that I have bought because the advertisements told me how impressive they would be to my neighbours. It is one thing to care for the river by making it clean so that there will be food for all its animal inhabitants. It is another to simply throw scraps to ducks that only become more dependent on these scraps in their deteriorating environment.

    The first cases may be examples of a flirtation with the tree and the river, but they in no way recognize the mystery of these things. The second cases are the beginning, however rudimentary, of worship.

  3. Katerina said:

    umm im too lazy to read the rants but it thought this post was poetic and immediately applicable. i understand it and really like it.

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