My table-top garden, aka soul imprint of the Indian Himalayas
We began with lumps of clay that we formed into balls and passed around in a circle. Some people’s were cold and wet, others hot and dry, with a lot of variation in sizes: what fit in one person’s hand was like a ping-pong ball, in another’s closer to an orange.
Then the lumps began to change shape. And every time they became something new, we passed them once more around the circle: in silence, from left hand to right - breathe in - exhale and place the new object in your right hand into the left hand of your neighbor.
I was trying to keep an open and empty mind during the exercise but my thoughts kept going to adamah, the soil that formed the primordial human being. Humus makes the hu-man. Feet of clay. It’s one of those metaphors that had never been alive for me until that moment, until I had a lump of the stuff in my hands. Clay is so solid, so dense, and yet it crumbles if it dries out or is too thin.
The block of clay we were carving pieces from was more like a column. Add another block to one side of it and you’d have an archeological remnant: a doorway in Petra or an arch in Ephesus. Yet this soft, wet brick was what had been cycling through not only civilisations but also through human bodies since antiquity and before. It was somehow resistant and yielding at the same time, both a wall of NO and a sheet of okay just this once. (Is this not the essence of the ego, so often at cross-purposes with the self?)
The clay was potential. It turned into so many different things: from the round balls of zero, our opening round, we formed seeds, and then we carved new lumps from the block and made bowls to plant the seeds in. The human metaphor continued to resonate (what plant would I be if sprouted from this seed?) and then others started to suggest themselves. What kinds of pots are our cities and nations? What growing conditions does our culture offer, for new shoots or networks of roots?
Those were my thoughts, typically jumping to the big picture and What Does All of This Mean. Our instructor, to his credit, was careful to ground our discussions in the moment and to check in with everyone’s individual experience. He kept drawing our attention back to the elements — earth, air, water, fire, space — both in how those manifest in the outer world as well as in the inner microcosm of the body.
For the remainder of the weekend, we focused on making miniature gardens. Everyone brought different materials to work with, and then it was a big potlatch to put it all in the center of the room, share it out and watch it become miniature worlds on our tables. Dried flowers and stalks became hedgerows, pine cones became fir trees, cut flowers turned into blooming bushes. Mulch and sand marked out paths; blue paint stood in for ponds and rivers. Each participant’s garden was so different! Some were as precise as a dollhouse while others were big-flowered and blowsy.
My garden was a forest retreat with a white temple, and a gently curving path meant to take the visitor through the garden’s special moments: a little hill with a cluster of pine trees and a large flat rock, a wildflower meadow, another grove of trees, this time blooming, and finally the shrine with a water tank outside for ablutions as well as for animals to drink from. More than anything (though I did not have this consciously in mind when making it) it reminded me of my time in the Indian Himalayas. It made me recall Mussoorie as a landscape that is part forest, part dry mountainside, with the marvellous rhododendron and lyre trees.
When we discussed our gardens in small groups — “chatting over the fence” — people asked if my garden had any crops or food plants and I said they were all wild plants, thought here would some foraging for medicine and food. Another question was “Is this a garden for one person only?” I said not necessarily but the focus was on connecting people with the living world rather than with each other.
After this discussion, we were asked to speak as our garden and say something about ourselves. My garden said, “I am an invitation to read the book of nature.” That made me happy.
After we had all had a chance to both talk about, and as, our gardens, it was time to give them back to the "all-one". Our instructor offered us a ritual to say goodbye - ring the gong in the room (we were meeting at a Zen meditation center) and crumble a piece of sage over the burner. I did the ritual and offered my garden thanks for what she had shown me. Then it was time to disassemble our gardens, back into substrates (mulch, sand, potting soil) and fresh materials (leaves, flowers) to take out to the compost.
We took our undone gardens outside in buckets. I went with my garden “neighbor”, and we ended up carrying the remains of each other’s gardens. It was oddly touching to empty each another's bucket. A thought arrived to explain the feeling: “I will dispose of your body and you dispose of mine.” Returning to the building, she remarked on how light the buckets were.
When we went back inside, the room that had smelled like a florist’s shop for two days and been cluttered with work tables, sacks of substrates and trays of art materials (paints, pens, brushes, scissors), was cleared out and bright again. We noted how the wind element arrived to whoosh everything back to emptiness. The weekend was comprised of cycles. We had moved from adamah to seed to plant to garden until we arrived at the compost pile, the ground of decay and ferment that nourishes new life.
And now I feel touched again. It was at once so personal, especially in the beauty and details of everyone’s gardens — the landscape of their heart! — and yet at the same time I felt the im-personal nature of it, in the best sense, the universal and essential and formless, as in Islam we say that all souls are formed of a single soul. Everyone’s garden is formed of a single Jannah, Ameen!