The madonna of the roses, Stefan Lochner. 1448. Wallraf Richartz Museum, Koln, German.
If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
My mother has a rose garden. On cooler summer mornings you can find her there, gingerly working her way around the rose canes, her head enveloped by a large straw hat.
My mother's garden has evolved over the years, largely due to her desire to wean herself and her roses off pesticides and fungicides. For a while it seemed this choice meant fewer and smaller roses, more plentiful mildew and aphids. But my mother is very patient and she persisted with her garden.
Over time and through experimentation, she soon discovered that by replacing her showy (and high maintenance) hybrid teas with heirloom and "antique" varieties, her tiny garden developed a natural immunity. By simply adjusting the composition of her garden it slowly became more disease, pest and drought resistant. And quite surprisingly, none of the aesthetic was sacrificed. In fact, the rambling beauty of her garden is now far more rich, the experience of its perfume more sweet.
I know why you are here.
Let us leave my mother's garden for a moment and consider an evening many years ago in a brownstone on the east side of Manhattan. The instructor began the evening by saying, "I know why you are here." He then picked up a small index card and read,
"There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of man where the divine used to be. Sartre." And then he looked at us for a moment before adding, "That is what brought all of you here tonight."
I did not realize then that a God-shaped hole was the reason I had selected that seminar but maybe he was right. The "God-shaped hole" is just another way of saying -- we are a society that has lost our myth. We are a society that has lost our relational compass and we are trying to find our way. We know that something important and fundamental is gone. And to describe that as a "God-shaped hole . . . where the divine used to be" seems pretty spot on. That God-shaped hole, our lost myth, whatever you choose to call it, plays out in all of our relationships and I am going to reflect on one dimension: the way it is playing out in our planet garden.
Is this the end of the world?
Drought and famine and disease. Species extinction. Civil instability due to compromised and limited resources. Katrina and Darfur are only just the opening chapters to an unfolding epic that is straight out of end times mythology. And just how much we can do depends on how quickly we act.
How did things get so out of hand?
There are many ways to answer that question but I will offer my own perspective: the planet is the expression of our myth. Remember myth is the system for meaning and relationship and the myth we are living is based on the monomyth. The monomyth is a mythological framework which places a premium on the individual, conquest of the environment and personal reward. When creation is seen through that lens, creation ceases to be part of us. Creation becomes somehow outside of us, something to be conquered and exploited. When our human numbers were smaller, this paradigm served us well without long term consequences. All that changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, extraordinary advances in science and technology catapulted humanity forward. But the post-industrial monomyth had a darker side as well: hazardous waste and pollution, the depletion of natural resources, ecosystem exhaustion. Change was not confined to science and technology. There were also major socioeconomic and cultural changes which reflected a valuing of thought over feeling, science over mystery, technology over Nature.
And now, just two hundred years later, we are on the precipice. The life-sustaining balance between Nature and Humanity is in jeopardy and, as if that weren't bad enough, it would seem there are a whole lot of us walking around with a God-shaped hole in our heart. But the crisis at hand provides us an extraordinary opportunity. An opportunity to re-enter the garden, the original garden, and the myth that was lost. Alice Walker wrote:
I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible--except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.
When Alice Walker contemplates her mother's garden she laments what might have been. She observes her mother in the garden and sees an icon for all the women who, because of their color and gender, were limited in their personal and creative expression. Women who might have been great painters and poets and writers but for a racist and patriarchal system that enslaved, exploited and silenced them.
The same mythic underpinnings that exploited those women, exploit the earth. Nature has long been associated with the mythic feminine. For thousands of years, while the sacred feminine dominated, civilization was centered around a life in harmony with the natural world. In modern times, the patriarchal myth has eclipsed the matriarchal one, resulting in a world where Nature and Humanity are at odds. The consequence is a planet approaching freefall.
Yet, as the world receives the grim news from throughout our planet home, a message from the past has provided us with a blueprint for the future. Near Stonehenge at Durrington Walls (UK) a recent archeological dig brought to light a society in harmony with natural cycles. I am hopeful that while we consider the global crisis at hand, guidance has actually come up out of the earth. Paradise lost and found, side by side.
It is certainly not necessary to abandon modern science and technology in order to bring our relationship with the planet and each other back into balance. The paradigm shift that is necessary here requires both our present and our past myths to inform our future one. And this makes the memory of our mothers and their gardens more than a story, it makes it an essential part of a unifying vision. A vision of how to be in relationship with the earth. As Creator: hand and eye. And it is only through this relational approach to the planet that we can address the challenges at hand and fill the god-shaped hole in the heart of our collective myth.