Nature is man’s teacher.
She unfolds her treasure to his search,
Unseals his eye, illuminates his mind,
An influence breaths from all the sights and sounds
Of her existence.
- Alfred Billings Street
I opened my eyes from a dream last night and found myself enveloped in a warm trance-like state of wakefulness. My mind drifted softly back to a time when I was growing up in a small town in South Carolina under the care of my mother, who had a very natural connection with her gardens.
I could see vividly the red roses, the wild flowers that grew unencumbered throughout her garden, the many different colors of flowers from yellow to purple to white and pink. I don’t know the names of them; I just remember the beauty and fragrance and the pride my mother wore so clearly about her garden.
She was the talk of our community; everyone called her the Green Thumb because it was said that she could make anything grow from nothing into a gloriously impressive piece of art. We did not have a lot of discretionary money in our home so my mother used a great deal of creativity in putting together her work of art.
She walked practically everywhere in our small community. As she went around the neighborhood, she would use those opportunities to stop and visit and enjoy the neighbors’ gardens. She would return home joyfully with sprigs of cuttings. She also found wild flowers along the way and brought those to her garden as well. She would get them home and husband them until they were ready to be planted in just the right place in her garden.
Neighbors, friends, and larger family members envied and admired her garden. Visitors would be given the grand tour of her garden and told the story of each plant and how it became a precious member of her plant family.
She was quite willing to share clippings, and teach people about what to do in order to get good outcomes. She liked to say that, “cutting is good for the plants, because it makes them healthier and stronger.” Naturally her generosity would be reciprocated. I think that people were proud to be a part of her work of art.
My mind continued to lazily journey back home as a larger, deeper view, of my mother started to take shape. By this time I had leaped out of bed and headed for my desk, because I needed to write. I have not thought about this part of my life so clearly in my adult experience, but I know that this material has always been just below the surface, waiting until I was ready to access it.
I slowly became aware of the significance of the fact that my mother had been raised on a farm by her grandmother and grandfather. She had been taught about living in attunement with nature and finding peace, community and survival there.
From my adult, mature, understanding I began to flood with deeper understandings of my mother, my grandparents and myself. I felt a deep sense of excitement, as though I was finally solving a puzzle that I had lived with for a long time.
My mother never asked me or my siblings to help with her flower garden. She did all the watering, and weeding, and protecting, and cutting. I know now that this really was her therapy, her teacher, her solitude, her quiet place. William Wordsworth said “Come fourth into the light of things let nature be your teacher.” I really get that.
My dad died when I was seven years old, leaving my mom on her own to care for five children. She was a stay-at-home mother before then. I have no memory of her cultivating a garden of any kind until that time in her life.
The flower garden was in the front of our house but there was a vegetable garden in the back, and it was large. My siblings and I were very much involved in that project because it was too much for her to do alone, and it was an opportunity for her to teach us about things. It also provided the lion’s share of our actual food for most of the year.
My mother was very serious about the vegetable garden. We had to do things on schedule. I never understood why it was always critical to plant at a certain time or fertilize or water, but she knew because she grew up close to the land.
I had a profound love-hate relationship with this garden. I hated the regimen and the never-ending responsibility that was required to maintain it, to harvest it, and to prepare the produce for canning. This process usually required endless hours of gathering things from the garden, washing them, shelling, if they were peas or corn, or cooking, and doing the work of getting the jars sterilized and ready. This part seemed to go on for weeks.
I loved seeing beautiful rows of vibrant red tomatoes in jars, and the deep greens of the peas and okra, the soft yellow corn, the rich purple of blackberries. It was very satisfying to see the fruits of our labor, and feel the connection between us as a family, because we had all accomplished a hugh task together.
This was one of the greatest lessons Mom taught us in so many different ways: the value and power of working together as a family. It was also great to eat those deliciously fresh things in the winter, together with her wonderful biscuits, which I regret not learning how to make.
Mom loved fishing also, and she was very good at it. I think she enjoyed it in the same way that she enjoyed her flower garden. I was often a part of the preparation for this particular elaborate operation. It would usually involve my digging for fat, squirmy earth worms and putting them in jars. Then came helping her cart all sorts of gear down to the lake, and spending the day fighting off mosquitoes, and keeping a watchful eye out for snakes. No talking was allowed. She said noise would scare away the fish. I think that time was actually a silent retreat for her.
She seemed to know exactly where the best fishing spots were in order to get the best results. Timing was critical as well. Arriving early in the morning was required. The weather could not be too hot, and the water was not supposed to be too high. There was magic in her madness, because we always returned home with an abundance of large, heavy, slippery fish.
That however, was when my work truly began. I was responsible for helping with the cleaning of all of those fish. She would then prepare them for the freezer. Fresh fish was one of my favorite things to eat when I was growing up. I just didn’t appreciate having to work so hard to have it.
As a therapist of 25-plus years, I find that I am thrilled to be maturing into understanding and appreciating the gifts my mother gave me. I am aware that she was only giving me what she had to offer, as it was given to her. At the time, it just felt like a whole lot of hard work that held no value for me. Today, I treasure the practical wisdom that she taught me. I wonder in what ways I have passed some of this on to my daughter.
This wisdom has stayed with me in a largely unconscious way. As these things do, it has informed my life personally, professionally, and spiritually. Maturing is causing me to look at my life span from a totally different perspective, and to my great surprise I am discovering how powerful and integrating it is to return home to my roots. My mother was not conscious of the generational process that she was passing on to me, but I am now conscious of receiving it.
“If there is any wisdom moving through my life now, in walking on this earth, it came from listening in the great silence to stones, trees, space, the wild animals, to the pulse of all life as my heartbeat.”
- Vijali Hamilton
My mother gave me a very sharp sense of attunement with the seasons, and consequently I see life developmentally in relationship to the seasonal cycles. I understand also why I have always enjoyed the study of Human Growth and Development.
To mature in a healthy way, it seems wise to maintain a conscious, mindful, connection to the changing of the seasons, both literally and metaphorically. Maturing affords us the ability to enjoy the best aspects of each season developmentally, from the innocence of youth or the spring of our lives, to the vibrant energetic romance of summer, through the power and grace of fall, and into the generosity, and compassion of winter. We continue to cycle through each season, time and time again, continually retaining, learning, and growing from each new experience, as we mature beautifully.
The way to live fully is to continue to grow. With growth comes change. With change, learning is required. The only way to learn is through exposure and the best way to be exposed is to throw ourselves open to vulnerability.
With or without gardens, awareness of the changing physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual, processes of our body and mind can come through the practice of regular contemplation, meditation, physical activity, prayers, creative expression, and continual learning and growing in every way.
One of my favorite things to do these days is to sit in my sunroom and look out at my favorite tree. I watch her change with the seasons, and I journal, and paint, and draw, and take pictures of her and the birds on the feeder as they come and go. I feel a real relationship with my tree. I suppose she is my garden. I am learning the fine art of letting go of one season in anticipation and preparation for the next, actually and developmentally.
My mother’s gardens ran according to the seasons and she moved in harmony with them. As my mother grew older, I saw her gradually lose her ability to garden or walk around in the community to visit friends, and neighbors. She lost touch with the days and seasons, with nature itself. When she lost that connection, she no longer knew how to live. I was aware of her disorientation in the world but had no clue about how to help her find the rhythm of her life without her gardens. I felt sad and helpless.
It is impossible to enter into a new season until we let go of the old one. I don’t think my mother was able to do that part. Because of her story, I think I am learning for myself how to do that. Gardens come in many shapes, sizes, and forms. There is always more to come, and more to learn and experience. Each emerging, new season brings with it the promise of wonder, surprise, hope, and love. I am attempting to pass that awareness on to others through my practice work, and through writing, and art.
My mother’s name was Dorothy M. Carolina. She died of Alzheimer’s in October of 2014.
Rosa Ashe-Turner, PhD, 2019