Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

I have a lot of gardening books — I’m one of those people who learns how to do things from books, so the first couple of years I had this garden, I bought a lot of different things (especially if they were in the bargain bin at Borders).

But there’s a very short list of books I go back to again and again: Second Nature by Michael Pollan  and This Organic Life by Joan Dye Grussow. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal’s River Cottage Cookbook is also probably in this category (except that every time I look at it I have such livestock-envy that I forget how close to being paid off my house is, and have to remind myself that if I bought enough land to have livestock, I’d have to start a new garden, and a new morgage).

And now there’s Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. I love this book. I’m going to have to read this book a second time because I’m reading it so fast this first time through. I’m reading it like a novel — to find out what happens, and I know I’m going to want to go back to specific sections and pay closer attention to the content. But right now, I’m smitten. I’m like a little kid reading with a flashlight under the bedcovers. Wendy Johnson has been gardening at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center for over twenty years, and this book is a description not only of the physical act of gardening, but how the garden is a part of, and a challenge to, her Buddhist practice.

One thing I’ve been turning over in my head for the past couple of years is the way that my relationship with nature has shifted its focus. Throughout my teens, twenties and thirties my primary relationship with the natural world was with wild nature — whether that was through canoe camping in the BWCA/Quetico region of the Minnesota/Canada border, or through raft guiding in North Carolina or ski bumming in Colorado, or even through my graduate work in English which focused on wildness in American literature and the history of the novel. Since I moved to Montana my primary relationship with nature has been through my garden and my dogs — that my interest has become so domestic just as I moved to a region which encompasses so many of North America’s last intact chunks of wilderness has been something of a mystery to me. Why do I find an afternoon in my garden so fascinating that I’d rather stay home than take a long hike in the mountains?

In Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate Johnson describes twenty years of trying to negotiate a truce between what she wants from her garden as a human being from what is due to the  natural world of which the garden is a part. If one is deeply engaged in a spiritual practice which challenges one to live without discriminating between human and non-human needs, a practice which challenges one to honor all beings, then what does one do about pest control? selective breeding? the whole history of domestication throughout human history?
There are no answers, of course, but the depth of the discussion, accompanied as it is in this book with a wealth of practical information about actual hands-on gardening, has been my only solace for this weekend’s snow and cold temperatures (19 degrees! it’s the end of April! enough already!).

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