“Why do you garden?”- My Answer

by Ciaran Burke

Would you garden if you had no garden? What if you were imprisoned, locked away for life, unjustly, punished out of hate? Would you ask your captors for compost, for pots, for seeds? And if they let you, would you share your earthly bounty with your jailers?

One man did. And in his actions he found freedom, freedom of his spirit. Through his caring for seedlings, nurturing of plants and toiling with soil, his soul found solace. It was many years later that he walked to his freedom, for that man was Nelson Mandela.

In his writings he speaks of his gardening, his love of the natural world and his need to connect with nature, and to nurture. His captors provided him with seeds and compost. He created a garden in a hostile prison where his crops grew abundant. The prison guards shared in the crops, which he happily gave to them. Gardening helped to keep his mind free when his body was held captive.

Madiba wrote of his love of walking through the long grasses of the veldt. For an Irish man it might be the bog on a summers day, for a Finn it could be the journey through a lingon berry carpeted woodland, for a Moroccan the cool meander beneath the palm trees of an oasis. Nature connects us all, reconnects us to the reality, and transports us to the eternity.

In a plant we can see the wonder of creation; the sacred geometry of an unfurling frond, the sacred spiral of an infloresence, the dazzling beauty of colour in a speckled or striped petal. In the wind we feel power, in the sun, magnificence and warmth, and with rain we our showered with life. When we feel the earth, we feel the past, the present, the future. The product of erosion millennia old, teeming with life, the essentials for our seeds to grow and one day our labours may bear fruit.

One of the greatest pleasures of gardening and maybe most important, is that which is not often spoken about with such freedom and ease as is the harvest, or or the perfectly trimmed lawn or disease free rose. One of the best reasons to garden is that it sets us free, through the act we gain freedom of our spirit. As we nurture our crops and care for our plants we also feed our soul and ease our minds.

Gardening sets us free. Whether you are a prisoner or a judge, black or white, a leader of a nation or slave to a regime, nature is the level playing field. Moments spent in reverie, admiration of the sunset, listening to the drone of a working bee, or moving to one’s own rhythm making the garden weed free. In the act of gardening our spirits are nurtured and our minds revived.

Recently someone asked me why I like to garden. I said it because I liked the exercise, that I enjoyed the air and the smell of flowers. That it was nice to grow your own food. I did not mention that I did it for my soul, as like many gardeners I felt shy to speak of its spiritual benefit. If I am to be honest with myself, and with others, this is probably the main reason, the whole reason. When asked the question, I should have replied, “it sets me free”. I think that is an answer Mandela would have liked.

3 Comments to ““Why do you garden?”- My Answer”

  1. This was a perfect answer! I want to thank you for this fine story about Mandela.

    I have just read Hanna’s book ‘Vihreän saaren puutarhoissa’ and enjoyed Irish gardens. Hope I can see some of them one day.

  2. Gorgeous series of photos.

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