A visit to Brooklyn

June 11, 2009

Near Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a place I have often visited, and which I visited again some weeks ago on my way back to New Jersey at the end of a brief trip to Long Island: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Since my return to the Northeast in 2005 after seven years of teaching in New Mexico, I have probably spent more time at this garden than at any other place in New York City, with the possible exception of the New York Public Library; at one point I contemplated moving to Brooklyn and taking a job there, which I have not done and probably shall not do, chiefly because my horticultural skills are nonexistent. But this has not prevented me from enjoying the garden; and since it was a bright spring day, and my birthday was approaching, and I had not been to the garden in some time, I made a point of stopping there.

The scriptures, of course, speak of the first man as a gardener, someone whose original task was “to dress and keep” the garden in which he had been put (Gen 2:15) — more literally, “to work it and to keep it,” לעבדה ולשמרה, le-ovdha ve-le-shomrha, LXX ἐργάζεσθαι αὐτὸν καὶ φυλάσσειν. The same verb עבד occurs, for the first time in the Bible, at v. 5 of the same chapter, where it says that “there was not a man to till [to work, le-avod] the ground”; man is there presented as a being whose essential activity, as his name adam suggests, is to work the ground, ha-adamah, to get it to do the thing it is meant to do, i.e., produce beautiful and healthful plants. From the verb עבד is derived the feminine abstract noun עבודה avodah, “service,” which, in the Septuagint, usually gets translated by the Greek word λειτουργία, from which we get the English word “liturgy.” So it might be inferred that liturgical prayer is itself a form of gardening, a working of the ground of the heart, although, admittedly, such an inference would not hold up in a book of logic.

St. Gregory the Theologian, in his poem On the Soul, interprets man’s original employment as a gardener in a particular way. The poem speaks of God having created man to be a being partaking in both the material and the spiritual worlds, a being of a mixed constitution who, because of this dual nature, exhibits a longing directed towards both heaven and earth. Having given man this evenly balanced nature, God also gave him an internal law, and placed him “in the vales of an ever-verdant paradise, … observing which direction he’d incline” (Poem 1.1.8, De anima, vv. 101-103; PG 37, 454). As for the paradisiacal garden, Gregory says, “it is the heavenly life, it seems to me. So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words,” λόγων δρηστῆρα γεωργόν (ibid., vv. 105-106). The word δρηστῆρα, in one sense, implies that Adam was placed in the garden to be a doer of God’s words, to live a life of practical virtue. But I have translated it as “cultivating” God’s words, his λόγοι, in keeping with what St. Gregory states in his Oration 38.12 (PG 36, 324B): Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is perhaps meant the Divine Conceptions (θείων ἐννοιῶν), both the simpler and the more perfect.” Man’s original, Edenic activity was, on St. Gregory’s view, to contemplate the divine reasons of things, and, by perceiving them, to catch a reflection of the glory of God.

Perhaps it was this original Adamic task that drew me to the garden in Brooklyn on that bright afternoon some weeks ago, although I confess that, in recent months, my ability to perceive the divine reasons of things has been very sporadic and limited. Perhaps I have had too many other things on my mind to fulfill that Adamic task in the proper way.

I stayed at the garden only about an hour and a half, having arrived there in the middle of the afternoon and not wanting to get caught in rush-hour traffic. In driving there, I passed by various examples of New York life and death: vast marble cemeteries; some Hispanic men playing baseball; a car with a bumper-sticker that read “Islam is the answer”; a Torah scholar, gaunt, black-clad, with a long black beard, looking strangely other-worldly, sitting on a park bench in front of a yeshiva.

At the garden, I bought three cheap books (two on recycling and one on composting), had lunch (a bowl of split-pea soup), and then walked around, observing the plants and the people. The boughs of a dark Canadian hemlock hung down over the walkway: a beautiful tree, but poisonous (remember Socrates). Two women in the rose garden wore hats that reminded me of those seen in photographs from my grandmother’s day. Mothers pushed their baby-carriages and talked on their cellphones. I stopped for awhile at the Japanese pond, one of the most beautiful spots in the garden, a place where people invariably take pictures and have their picture taken; a wooden, covered shelter there extends over the water, from which one can gaze down upon the goldfish swimming below, which gather when they see a tourist, knowing from experience that tourists frequently ignore the sign that tells them not to feed the fish. Some visitors there were speaking Modern Greek; a Spanish woman, who pronounced her “c”s as “th”s, was telling her young daughter, in Spanish, to behave.

I also took a walk through the “Shakespeare Garden,” a small enclosure that apparently contains specimens of all the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was in that garden, some two decades ago, that I bumped into the elder sister of a friend of mine from college. Elaine Gluckman always impressed me as a kind and gentle person, a sort of Leah to her sister’s Rachel. She told me there, with evident joy, about her upcoming marriage. About a year later I learned that she had died in childbirth; her son survived, and has been raised by his father. Perhaps she was actually the Rachel (cf. Gen. 35:16-20).

There are many things I do not understand. Perhaps the greatest attraction of a botanical garden is that plants do not say anything. They challenge one’s assumption that all of life is susceptible to analysis and explanation. If one is to perceive the λόγοι of plants, their speech, in which they declare their nature and show the divine glory, one clearly has to go about it in a different way than is usually done in this world of instant information and constant self-assertion. One has to learn great patience, something I still lack.

God willing, at some point I will attain that necessary patience and humility, so as to perceive God’s reasons, and God’s glory, in plants and people. For the present, much of what I ought to understand seems strange and inexplicable.

7 Responses to “A visit to Brooklyn”

  1. ochlophobist Says:

    This is a truly beautiful post.

    Thank you.

  2. ochlophobist Says:

    A truly beautiful post.

    Thank you.

    I worked at Loome Theological Booksellers for a half decade some years ago. How long have you been a customer?

  3. bekkos Says:

    Hello, Ochlophobist!

    I must have bought my first book from Loome something like 20 years ago, when my dissertation adviser, Prof. Robin Darling Young, then of Catholic University (she now teaches at Notre Dame), recommended it to me as a place for finding theological books. I know that I sent them some search requests, and was able to buy through them a copy of Paul Gallay’s French biography of St. Gregory the Theologian. Later on, when I was teaching at St. John’s College in New Mexico, I actually made two trips to visit the store, once, I think, in 2002 and once in 2004. The idea of applying to work there has certainly occurred to me; Stillwater, Minnesota is a beautiful town, with a fine drawbridge, and there are attractions to being surrounded by theological books; although my experience working at a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey leads me to think that the life of a bookseller resembles that of a waiter who goes hungry in the midst of banqueting. I put links to Loome and some other small, privately-owned bookstores on the sidebar as a way of encouraging visitors to my blog to support independent booksellers, who provide a service essential for civilized life but are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth.

    Thanks for commenting on the blog!

    Peter

  4. ochlophobist Says:

    Peter,

    Herr Loome, former owner of the establishment in question, had Dr. Darling Young out to Stillwater to give a lecture once. I had dinner with her at the Loome’s home. Very interesting lady. I have always liked the “Communio” crowd in American Catholicism. I wish that American Orthodoxy had the likes of David Schindler & friends.

    Your trips to Stillwater were after my time. I left in 2001 after 6 years as an employee and many years as a customer. The former manager of Loome’s, and the most brilliant bookseller I know, Henry Stachyra, now has his own book business. You might wish to peruse his online resource: http://www.henrysbooks.com/

    Perhaps I sold you a book over the phone once. Your name sounded familiar to me the first time I read it.

    I now live in Memphis, TN, and have occasion to miss the beauty of Stillwater.

    I enjoy your blog. While I have some reservations about the Bekkos project, I enjoy reading about it, and I found your lectures on Predestination in the New Testament and St. Augustine to be quite lucid and profitable.

    Warmest regards,

    Owen

  5. J Blood Says:

    Curiously enough, Peter, I read your posting as I was preparing my notes from the Peralta Community Garden, of which I am secretary. I have more than once thought of the word “garden” in the Garden of Eden as a paradigmatic example of the inherent difficulty in translation. I have heard people say, “Oh, I just want to read a straightforward translation of the Bible, without any interpretation from any church or sect”, but what, then, would the word “gan” (oh to be able to use the Hebrew font) mean to its earliest readers, or hearers? The word would surely not conjure up the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Every translation, clearly this is nothing new I’m saying, involves some sort of infliction of meaning, ambiguity resolved generally at the cost of a new ambiguity created.

    And, correct me if I’ve got this wrong, but I believe that in Genesis, Eden is referred to as “gan” and only later as “pardes”, which my dictionary (Langenscheidt Pocket version, specific to the Hebrew Bible) defines as “park, pleasure-garden, hence Paradise [Persian]”. I’m not sure what that last parenthetical means, but do you know that PRDS is the four levels of Torah reading? I hope so, as I’m probably not the best person to explain it. But the gan/pardes distinction is, I think, somewhat germane to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, because a garden can be both a source of food and flowers for consumption and a pleasure-park, a means or an end in itself. Gardening of any sort requires, of course, sweat and dirty hands, and the artificiality of creating rows where plants best grow, and selecting some plants and removing others, an imposition of will on nature. The botanical garden, however, transforms this necessity into a source of pleasure, the arrangements and choices becoming a matter of spectacle, a sort of theater of plant life.

    I am not insightful enough to divine what the logos (a Greek font would be nice too!) of plants may be, perhaps I need to spend some more time in the garden, but I have considered their psyche, the so-called vegetative soul. My memory of Aristotle’s definition is vague (time is the crudest translator), but my observation is they don’t merely take in nourishment, grow and reproduce, they, presumably without consciousness, struggle to be alive. Though there’s little sense of talking about a plant’s volition, plants give every indication of really wanting to be alive, a quality I cannot help but find lovable, even as I pull weeds, trim overgrowth and eventually eat the products of those that are healthiest. The shape of trees is to me a picture of the vegetative soul’s need to grow, to expand, to be alive. “That green fuse”, as Dylan Thomas called it, is a sweet, beautiful and awesome thing, and it’s in every plant and in fact in every living thing.

    Which is to say, come out to Berkeley later this summer or in the fall, and we’ll share some tomatoes and cucumbers.

  6. bekkos Says:

    Johny,

    I’m pretty sure that the last time I visited your home in Berkeley I saw an old Macintosh laptop perched on a ledge behind the dining room table. I’m not sure what version of the Macintosh operating system it uses; but, if you have access to a computer with OS X version 10.4 or higher (or, for all I know, even version 10.3), inputting Greek and Hebrew fonts is no big deal. Go to System Preferences, choose International, and, at the top right hand side of the window, you will find a button that says “Input Method.” Click on that; you will see a list of languages. Choose which ones you’d like to write in. Also, at the top of the list, check “on” for “Character Palate” and “Keyboard Viewer.” The result of this is that you should thereafter see a little flag at the top right hand side of the screen, next to the battery indicator (if you have one). If you click on that, it will allow you to switch from writing in one language to another, using Unicode.

    There are methods for doing exactly the same thing in Windows XP and Vista. Linux also allows for this sort of thing, although I have never found a version of Linux that has a Polytonic Greek keyboard that actually does what it’s supposed to do; this is one of my many gripes about this supposedly superior operating system that I have generally found to be a great waste of my time.

    Peter

  7. J Blood Says:

    גן ףרדס

    Oh yes, how delightful. Where are the vowels?

    And by the way, I neglected to wish you a happy birthday. Many happy returns of the day.


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