From the window above the kitchen sink, I watched as my daughter’s head bobbed up and down in the back garden. She disappeared into a swath of green shrubbery and tall, gold grasses, reappearing every few minutes with a flushed, dirt-streaked face, her dark hair slicked back with sweat. The air shook with waves of wet August heat as she bent down again and again, pulling deep-rooted, thistle-covered fireweed from the vast beds we’d planted in the backyard a few years earlier. I knew she would reach her limit soon and return to the air-conditioned house cranky, dirty, and frustrated.
When Rachel was unable to find a job while home from college for the summer, my husband suggested we “hire” her to tend the gardens planted throughout our two-acre property. Being familiar with a lifetime of family work-weekends in the yard, she hated the idea immediately, telling us later, “I hope you know this summer of weeding ruined me. When I move out, I will never plant anything.” As I watched her from the window all summer, I sympathized with her about the back-breaking work of weeding, mulching, and replanting, but I was silently grateful I wasn’t the gardener baking in the sun, wrestling our plot of earth into submission.
Of the five members in our family, my husband Michael is the only one to possess an enthusiasm for gardening. He grew up kneading manure into the soil of his grandmother’s flower beds with his bare hands, planning summer abundance from spring seed, planting, and weeding. Always weeding. He refuses to wear gloves when gardening today because, decades after helping his grandmother and his mother plant lush home gardens, he likes the feel of warm earth in his hands as he tends his own suburban land.
Unlike their father, our three children have grown to so dislike the level of tending required to maintain our backyard beds that, when not paying them to weed, Michael has resorted to using it as a form of punishment for undesirable behavior. I sometimes fear we’ve passed the point of no return in helping them develop a sincere love for the process of placemaking in the garden. All they’ve known is the work associated with it. They have little use or appreciation for the “finished” product because a garden remains resolutely, frustratingly unfinished.
Michael sees cultivating our yard and garden as an act of co-creating with God—a form of creation care that requires loving the Lord with manual labor. I confess, much like our children, I grow weary at the energy our yard requires to maintain its bloom and beauty. I wish to plant and then just watch from the window as the profusion of lilac and coral bells and English roses fill the landscape with color. I’d rather drink in the beauty of the chalice-shaped apricot Lady of Shallot roses than prune back the prick of thorns.
Throughout my years as a reluctant gardener laboring beside my husband, I’ve learned from him how caring for our small plot of earth is a means of ministering to creation. When I feel frustrated with the never-ending cycle of physical labor it requires, I’m reminded that part of our role as believers is caring for the earth. It’s easy to view creation care in the abstract and associate it with larger environmental concerns we struggle to understand and change. But the truth is, caring for the environment is important and simpler to start than we may think. To cultivate and tend the earth, however small, that greets us every morning is an act of love for our Creator by caring for the created. Creation care can begin in the soil of our own gardens.
In her book A Theology of the Ordinary, professor Julie Canlis writes “In the Genesis account, God is pictured as a temple-builder who is constructing His house. But here is the twist: what is God’s temple?” She goes on to say, “His temple is … the earth … Adam was intended as the priest of creation, tending God’s cosmic temple.”
My kids and I rarely feel like priests of creation. We feel like laborers, suffering for a temporary reward. The work of the garden feels like a punishment. But to tend the earth is to minister to it and to participate in the redemption of all things—even this thorny, weed-covered, complicated inheritance.
Rachel now shares an apartment with three friends in the city, and she no longer weeds our flower beds for gas money. Her life is constructed of concrete, brick, and steel. Before visiting her recently, I clipped a rainbow of zinnias from our garden to brighten her apartment. But when I got there, I smiled as I noticed a row of small succulents growing in mismatched containers on her bedroom windowsill.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip