Gardening Mu Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Clenched Fist of “NO!” – Deprivation, Abundance, Gratitude

There are times, sometimes a whole day or week, or maybe just moments in the day, when life feels like it is waving in our faces a large, hairy clenched fist of NO! or WAIT!: unable, or perhaps unwilling to meet our needs and wants. Our need for affection, reciprocity, self-expression, freedom to play and be creative. Our wanting to have an email answered asap, or for it to stop raining, or for a family member to show interest in us.

Whatever form this deprivation takes, however small or large, it doesn’t feel good. It’s also not uncommon for the clenched fist of NO! to move from the source of deprivation (the resistant, unyielding environment) to our inner-world, feeling like heartburn or haemorrhoids punitive in nature, as if we really are being fisted by someone or something. We might develop a masochistic taste for this experience, but on the whole we are averse to pain, seekers of pleasure, to hands that are open, welcoming, willing and wanting to clasp ours in theirs, leading the way, guiding us, accompanying us on our journey.

This winter of the soul takes on an anthropomorphic resonance as we head towards the dormant season as gardeners. Even though the icy frosts have yet to come, so much in the garden is already dragging, drooping, dying. The tomato bushes still have dots of colour to them, but it is a rancid, inedible red. The late-blooming Michaelmas Daisies of mid-October are now shrivelled, wasted, mortified.

Where does one look for abundance and plenitude when all we can see or feel is insufficiency and want?

One way is to actively seek out those places in the garden or our lives where there is prosperity, or at least comfortable adequacy. Turning purposefully away from the clenched fist of denial or refutation, not in an angry or dismissive way, but rather as if we might turn from a Henry Moore statue we’re no longer getting any pleasure from looking at, towards another piece in the sculpture park that might offer something we need or want. Or to a tree. Or a handful of seeds. Literally and metaphorically.

This is what I’ve been trying to do this week, working from the premise that next to, or under the clenched fist of withholding, of nix, there is always some kind of indulgence and gratification to be found. Maybe I’ve just got to get on my hands and knees and scrabble about in the dirt a while to find it.

Behold a pink chard plant grown wild and tangly from last summer, having developed a profuse, Medusa-like pink afro, now ready to harvest for its seeds. Hundreds of corky nubs which next year, and for many a year after that, will give me pink patches of good-to-look-at, good-to-eat loveliness.

Behold, from the withered husks of my Cosse Violette and Neckargold bean plants, two Amazon book-package loads of bean seeds. Jack, as we know, gave away the beloved family cow, Milky White, for far less. Seeds to plant, or put in soups. Seeds that feel cool and silky-smooth to hold, pleasurable and sensual objects in and of themselves.

Bruno Bettelheim in his psychoanalytic reading of this fairy tale sees Jack and The Beanstalk as a fable about how we might overcome our developmental oral stage, which is to say our utmost dependency on our caretaker’s breast/teat/hand, wrenching ourselves away from the comfort and safety that the source of this nourishment supplies. Compare the utter despair when Milky White stops giving us milk, the non-lactating breast or teat, to the clenched fist of NO or WAIT.

“Given all the dangers of regressing to orality”, writers Bettelheim, “here is another implied message of the Jack story: it was not at all bad that Milky White stopped giving milk. Had this not happened, Jack would not have gotten the seeds out of which the beanstalk grew. Orality thus not only sustains—when hung on to too long, it prevents further development; it even destroys, as does the orally fixated ogre.”

So how not to turn into orally fixated ogres ourselves?

The answer may lie in an old-fashioned virtue, which now in the updated language of positive psychology would be referred to as a “character strength”. The virtue/character strength is Gratitude. Recent research (Park et al., 2004) has shown that having a strongly developed sense of gratitude (alongside Hope, Zest, Love, and Curiosity – although gratitude alone works just fine too) is “substantially related to life satisfaction”.

Interestingly, in this same survey looking at the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction among 5,299 adults, other virtues such as modesty and intellectual competencies (appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgement, and love of learning) were much more weakly associated with feeling good about ourselves and our lives.

This makes a lot of sense to me. My top character strengths (you can do a 15 minute survey here to find out yours) are love of learning, creativity, appreciation of beauty and excellence, perspective, curiosity, love and judgement.

Gratitude is number 19 out of 24 for me on this list (teamwork is number 24). Might gratitude better inoculate me/us against the clenched fist of NO? Was old Cicero right when he wrote more than 2000 years ago that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but a parent of all the others”?

The difficulty we face when turning up the dial on gratitude in our lives, notes Robert Emmons in a chapter entitled ‘Gratitude in Trying Times’, is that often when one part of us most need the benefits of this character strength, another part feels itself especially unwilling to apply it:

“It is relatively easy to feel grateful when good things are happening, and life is going the way we want it to. A much greater challenge is to be grateful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should. Anger, bitterness, and resentment seem to be so much easier, so much more a natural reaction in times like these.”

An important distinction might perhaps be made between having the faith to take the medicine we need and doing so, as opposed to feeling in the mood to do it.

As David Steindl-Reist writes: “”times that challenge us physically, emotionally, and spiritually may make it almost impossible for us to feel grateful. Yet, we can decide to live gratefully, courageously open to life in all its fullness. By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.”

So if you’re up for trying to live the gratefulness you don’t feel in the hope that by doing so we’ll begin to feel the gratefulness we live, here’s Emmon’s 10 point plan for doing so.

And my version of this with a garden focus:

1) Keep a plan of everything you’ve got growing in the garden, and regularly reflect on the richness and variety of your plants, providing colour and interest every time you step out of your back door.

2) Remember the bad and harness the power of counterfactuals (things that haven’t happened, but could under differing circumstances): when it’s not raining or when you notice something lovely in the garden that you hadn’t seen before, call to mind the likelihood that it could equally be the other way round, appreciate that it isn’t!

3) Ask yourself 2 questions: What have I received from the garden today? What have I done for it?

4) Learn or write your own poem/prayer to the garden. Sing or recite it inside your garden and away from it. In the depths of winter, bring to mind the joys of spring and summer by whispering to yourself the poem below and luxuriating in the memories of summer days past, and those to come.


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

-Billy Collins

Adam Phillips Fritz Perls Gardening Guilt Procrastination

The Forbidden Guilt of Unfinished Projects & Unforbidden Pleasures

If the winter had been colder, I would feel less guilty, but it has not been cold.

In fact, it’s been so freakishly temperate, that many a day, I could have stepped out into the garden quite comfortably with nothing more than a t-shirt, a fleece, some trackie bottoms, crocs (navy blue, so almost permissible, I hope?), and a thick pair of socks on my feet.

There have been previous winters where I’ve suffered in a noble but excruciating fashion with chillblains in my fingers and toes, after digging in the dirt with only a light cotton gardening glove on my hands, nothing but wellies on my feet for warmth and padding. This winter is not one of those.

Guilt is a social emotion, a sense of having failed some kind of moral order. Martin Buber talks about three spheres of guilt in his essay “Guilt and Guilt Feelings”: civil guilt, existential-religious guilt, and psychological guilt. The guilt I feel towards the garden, as well as writing, I think falls into the second category.

Perhaps because, in my mind, bringing a garden into being stands as a kind of covenant between me and some of the 300 thousand species of multicellular eukaryote (plants) known to be currently co-existing with us on the planet. A covenant, not that dissimilar to the Noahic or Mosaic covenants (the former to protect, the latter to cherish and nurture). A covenant struck between Man and his Judeo-Christian sky-deity.  Also the more familial and familiar secular versions of this: parents and children, dogs and their owners, clients and therapists.

In all of these spheres, a seed has been planted, cultivatory energies unleashed, and so perhaps to abandon the project as it begins to grow might be seen as a form of neglectful oversight, or in the worlds of Lady Bracknell, just plain carelessness.

Not that this should matter, you might argue to readers of the blogosphere where the “product” you’re consuming is just one of 70 sextillion (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) grains of data-based sand lying on Google’s abysmally vast text-beach. But it matters to me.

Guilt is not necessarily assuaged by reminding ourselves of the polarised demands on our energies. Time spent in the garden, writing about the garden, and more or less every other pursuit in my life has been heavily truncated since the arrival of Max, as every puppy or non-puppy parent would no doubt acknowledge.

If I were a better organized parent, I’m sure I could probably do a bit of everything (parenting, gardening, writing, socialising) in moderation, and so continue to keep all those generative plates spinning, but I am not especially well-organised, so I tend to either binge on one extra-curricular activity to the detriment of all the others, or hand-wringingly bemoan the whole lot of them being swept aside by kibble, odiferous calves hooves, and the demanding timetable of daily walks, grooming, and general beady-eyed monitoring.

Or maybe it’s more complicated than this I-Don’t-Know-How-He-Fails-To-Do-It dynamic sketched out above. Perhaps a more congruent way of exploring this kind of guilt, or any kind of guilt we might have, is to think in terms of a dialectic Adam Phillips explores in his recent book-length koan, Unforbidden Pleasures: an attempt to redescribe and rethink the show-stopping or show-stealing forbidden pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – or whatever floats your boat in that sphere- in order to help us focus with more gratitude and joy on our unforbidden pleasures like gardening or blogging.

The unforbidden, as you well know, usually falls into a diminished category: “a merely a forlorn consolation for the middle-aged”. But what would it mean to become more mindful and curious, Phillips wonders, about “our largely unarticulated experiences of unforbidden pleasures, in all their extraordinary variety”?

“The aim of development may be to become as dependent as possible, not as transgressive as possible,” he suggests. Particularly if transgression always sets us up for a kind of “tragedy”, which is “what happens when we let the forbidden narrow our minds. The idea of pleasures that are not somehow painful – that are not cures or compensations or alibis for pain – has become literally inconceivable, so wedded are we to our perpetual dismay.”

One of the ways I am wedded to perpetual, guilty dismay, is in the way I compulsively seek the forbidden, and then abandon it as soon as it settles via habit or unrestricted repetition into the unforbidden.

Do you do this too?

For example: I might turn to the pursuit of gardening to satisfy a need for forbidden pleasure (transgressively carrying out unremunerative work when everyone else is slaving away at desks for their daily dolour/dollar). But as soon as this starts to feel permissible and legitimate (gardening in the morning, seeing clients in the afternoon), a new contender for the forbidden must be found in the way that a certain kind of man might at some point in his marriage require a mistress in order to make up for the unforbidden pleasures of having a wife.

In my case: I start writing a blog about gardening. And when that mistress also becomes as unceremoniously unexciting as the wife I’ve given her up for, i.e. just another “forlorn consolation”, I then move on to another project. And as I go along in this back and forth pull between unforbidden safety and certainty and forbidden excitement and stimulation, results in the ever-increasing likelihood of a series of fractured, unfinished and incomplete endeavours. You might not be surprised to discover that I have a number of writing projects that fit this modus operandi.

The only problem is that unfinished business doesn’t seem to be particularly good for our psyches. Compare our feelings towards artists who manage to complete a major piece of work before they die (two recent examples: Bowie’s Black Star and Oliver Sacks’s On The Move), compared to those who don’t (Dickens’ Drood, DFW’s The Pale King, Jeff Buckley’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk).

Or think of poor Edward Casaubon, the fusty academic who in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is higgledy-piggledy enmeshed in the research and writing of his lifelong project The Key To All Mythologies. We, as readers, know straight away that Casaubon is a man who has lost all rhyme or reason (the bon-cause?) in terms of the functional completion of his work. But it takes his new wife, Dorothea a little bit of time to catch up with us:

“And now she pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins—sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child….[His] was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.”

You don’t get more unfinished than that, do you? To understand why Casaubon’s unfinished business feels so piercingly painful to Dorothea (shattered mummies, crushed ruins, aborted infants, cosmological confusion), we need to understand why unfinished projects weight so heavily on all of us.

In thinking about the forlorn dissonance of any incomplete work of art, it might also help to think about matters as diverse as the irritating ditty playing in my head at the moment on repeat (Right Said Fred’s “No One On Earth), as well as how waiters without pads to write on, remember long and complicated food orders, but just as quickly forget them as soon as the order has been filled.

In 1947, Fritz Perls, the aggressively zany founder of Gestalt therapy, popularized the idea of a self-regulating experiential cycle that maintains the internal equilibrium of each individual by seeking to complete itself. He called this the Cycle of Experience, and we can use the idea to track the writing of this blog post:

  1. The organism (me) at rest: sitting in the summerhouse working my way through a packet of Fox’s Ginger Creams.
  2. The disturbing factor: this may be external (noticing how untended and unloved the garden is looking), and/or internal (thinking about the last time I updated LLFOG)
  3. The creation of an image: me spending a few hours each day getting back into the gardening groove, as well as gestating some ideas on what to write about next
  4. Behavioural activation with the teleological image in mind: such as making a list of what needs doing in the garden, or scribbling down a few thoughts on the unforbidden/unfinished in a notebook
  5. A decrease of psychic and physiological tension as the activities carried out mark for the organism a reboot of the incompleted task
  6. And finally, hopefully: the return of organismic balance as a section of the garden gets tidied, or this blog post finally gets written. Only for the whole cycle to then start all over again.

Twenty years previously, Bluma Zeigarnik, a student in Berlin, had noticed how waiters in a Venetian restaurant were able to remember complex orders while they were being filled, but forgot them as soon as they were completed. Her realisation (which Perls must have mined for his Cycle) was that until we complete a task we’ve set out to do, we experience an internal tension that rattles around in the psyche with a teleological clatter until we finally take heed and actualize our need to complete.

Similarly with my Right Said Fred earworm: one way to get the 15-30 second snippet off the inner-turntable, would be to sing the whole song all the way through, in order to “complete it”, and so remove the mind’s need for one more ruminative, how-does-it-go spin.

And this is ultimately why, on another sunny, almost-spring-like day, having completed the next few paragraphs, even with the realisation that there is much more to be said on this topic, I will put down the laptop and step back into the garden, trowel in hand to once again take care of the unforbidden.

Unforbidden tidying, unforbidden weeding, unforbidden decluttering of a space which reflects back to me just how cluttered my own forbidden internal realm sometimes is. Yet in sticking with these unforbidden projects, until the experiential Cycles in which they lie are good-enough complete, something good is being done.

How could it not be good, as we carefully if somewhat laboriously tend to our unforbidden tasks? Attempting to knit together techne and telos, aspiration and conduct, all the while hoping that some of the “organismic balance” that we crave and need, that delicious sigh of job-done, game-over relief, is finally restored.