6. A Garden of Note


The note was brief, written on a scrap of pink paper:

Your garden gives me great pleasure and hope in an otherwise desperate life.

It was signed simply Marion.

It was fitting that Sr. Kathleen, who spent a lot of time caring for the garden, found the note on the convent doorstep that morning.

Ours is a large, old convent building in inner-city Melbourne, one of those buildings that looks impressive from the outside but has distinct limitations on the inside, and is beginning to show its age: when things break down now they tend to demand replacement rather than repair. However, as Marion’s note reminded us, it does have a garden of some beauty.

Many people pass by our garden in a day: children and teachers on their way to school, recently arrived African refugees from the high-rise flats, elderly Vietnamese on their way to the Asian green-grocer around the corner. Some call in; amongst them isolated and itinerant homeless people asking for food.

Some sisters thought they knew the writer of the note; most of us did not. It was a strange irony that she was thanking us and giving us the gift of the note, even while revealing her own obvious pain and need. It seemed our garden, rather than any of us personally, was the agent which uplifted her depressed spirit. Her note definitely lifted our spirits.

The incident led me to think about gardens in general and our garden in particular. Pausing and standing back from it down the street a way, I realised how lovely it looked. It is not a grand garden by any means. It receives no sustained professional care, only the love and work of those sisters who can expend whatever spare time they can on it, so it sometimes looks a bit motley and rough around the edges when you examine it closely. However, it possesses a certain formality and elegance by virtue of its age amidst the urban wilderness of the high-rises and the ruthless streetscapes that feed onto the main arterial freeway nearby.

Its crowning glory is the Norfolk pine. It is probably one of the tallest trees in the area and must be nearly a hundred years old. There is a pergola with red and white intertwining roses; there is the grotto imitative of Lourdes in the corner. There is a fine Japanese magnolia; close by you see the bluestone verandah steps from which maidenhair fern grows wild each year, from the tiniest seams of soil imaginable between each stone.

These are the visible, tangible, fragrant aspects of our garden. But there is a secret life to this garden too. I don’t mean only the wonder of the earth-worms and birds and the less-loved snails and aphids; there is a hidden memory in the garden: the camellia given by a deceased sister’s family as a memorial, for example. As a truly communal garden it reflects the interests and passions of various gardeners over the years; this one’s vegetable patch, that one’s carefully tended daphne bush; some ill advised experiments, some surprising survivals. This garden makes truth of St Paul’s word: one does the planting; the next generation the watering.

I thought about Marion’s note and what it was about a garden that so moved her, what it is about a garden that inspires most of us. It is perhaps a place, accessible to most, where human beings and nature work together to create beauty and bounty. Most suburban gardens are magnanimous places: private yes, but bestowing a very public pleasure on those who pass by.

In a garden we experience the amazing alchemy of air and water, light and earth. It may be in the sweep and vista of a large garden, it may be in the subtle combination of colour and texture that God’s grandeur is made know to us. One of my favourite Irish photo-postcards shows a truly miniature ‘garden’: a dilapidated old boot sprouts a robust red geranium. It is a triumph of life over decay as well as an Irish joke.

If ever we needed a reminder about the potent symbolism of flowers it was there in the extraordinary gestures made after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Did they signify loveliness, the transience of life, honour, grief? Or all of those?

I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, wrote Kilmer, clearly a man who appreciated the serenity of gardens. His life though, like that of the writer of the note found on our doorstep, had its horror and pain: he died on the fields of France during the First World War. Gardens are places where the truth of the Paschal Mystery is evident all around us, season to season: dying and rising; the new shoot resplendent from the fallen seed.

Next time you water or weed your garden, no matter how meagre it is – it might only be a few pots outside your door – take pleasure in it, and thank God that it may give pleasure to others, even if they do not leave you a note.

First published in Madonna, July/August 1998