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.