Embracing The Seasons: Memories of a Country Garden
Paperback: BlueBridge, 2017
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert
It is rare, in my experience, for the introduction to a book to include passages that inspire me to underline them and tuck them in my “Commonplace Book” for later reflection, but such was the case as I began to read this achingly compelling book by psychotherapist, meditation teacher and writer, Gunilla Norris. The opening paragraphs do a typically admirable job of introducing “a soulful journey through a country garden and the surrounding land with its stone walls, its brooks, its hemlocks and maples, its flowers and shrubs and its various living beings…” but it does something more—it articulates why this journal of observation of natural phenomena is a portal to understanding self and others, our placement in the world of things and the importance of engaging our curiosity about the natural world as an essential—and readily available– spiritual discipline. This is a book about human intimacy with creation focused on the intersection of the natural world with our human endeavors and relationships. The author understands well the hard work of relationship and of intimacy in particular and begins her narrative by challenging our most human and persistent folly: that we are in control or should be in control or anything or anyone dovetailing with her observation that control and intimacy cannot coexist:
Control and intimacy are mutually exclusive. Intimacy cannot be commanded or planned. It is not willed but happens by grace and opens the door of the heart. It more readily happens when we lay no claim to anything and discover instead what is already present and already given.
All true intimacies are gifts. They appear as if from behind us, beside us, above us, below us. They take our whole attention, and in the process, we have the chance to come face-to-face with something we did not know about the world and ourselves.
To commune, to discover, and to be discovered, is deeply human. Real convergences are revelations that lift us out of ourselves, out or recoiling from any aspect of reality. We experience the self then—all possessive pronouns gone—the joy of existence, which is the light within everything, the light the burns for its own sake, declaring, “I am that I am.”
The balance of this beautifully written book is devoted to an exploration of the seasons of growth and decay in the garden of plants and fellow creatures and in ourselves as we move through the years and stages of our own cycle of births and deaths and all that lies between. Starting with Spring and the sounds of peepers—those dear little frogs whose high pitched, cheerful peeps are the very sound of spring and echo for us the potential of using our “authentic voice” in the world and to do so—like the peepers – with vigor and clarity. As she reflects on the rich liveliness of the opening weeks of the growing, blooming season declaring it so “full of possibility and joy” and yet, she ponders the poignant sadness of the fleeting nature of this most abundant time of year—the sense that it all seems to fragile and precious—almost unbearably so, knowing that these few weeks of life bursting at the seams everywhere we look will soon give way to maturity and the hard work of tending the soil of the garden and of having to work for all that living.
As the book moves from spring to summer, she chooses various flowers: Peonies that grow heavy with blossoms requiring supportive stakes—to reflect on how often we weigh ourselves down with our focus on abundant growth or with caring for others to the point that we too, need the support – the staking—of others to help us keep going. Observing a black snake brings the thought that other creatures do a better job of balancing rest with activity and Hostas serve double duty as a reminder not to forget the quotidian work horses of our lives be they old friends or ways of being that still serve us in innumerable ways but might not be as flashy and immediately notable in our awareness.
Autumn comes and the book moves resolutely forward towards the dying season—starting with leaves, fluttering down gently all around us, “…their process is direct and clean. When it is time to let go, they let go.” And we are reminded of all that we might be clinging to that wants to be released and the vision of the surrendering fall of leaves to the ground amidst the patient toil of rooted trees makes it seem as a simple exhale. By the time I got ‘round to this chapter on the fall of the year, I was aware of a welling sadness around the corner because as I write this, it is, indeed, September and just past the equinox—we had very hot weather here in the Midwest for the time of year but today, it is cool and I feel that autumn has settled in—re-reading these words about dying down to the ground of new life has spiritual import and heft to it and I appreciate the value of words that do justice to the wild spirit of the created world.
And Winter: cold, dark, seemingly barren but all the fruits of the seasons are in seed form, waiting for new birth. The book brings the themes touched upon in the introduction full circle—not with a nod to the idea of life lying fallow but of the connectedness of all things—of the intimacy we are gifted with if only—to quote Voltaire—we “cultivate our garden”:
It is late December. The trees stand naked. Stripped, they have a sculptured look, and I have the curious sensation that I can both see and hear better in these winter woods. The wind is blowing hard. Above my head, tree limbs are clashing, making boisterous, wooden music. Here below, where I stand, the trunks seem to glow…this is the stuff of life and of art. Nothing dramatic. Just years of persistence. Growing in the same place. Extending a little further. Becoming a little more. A quiet work that enlarged by seasons….This is interrelatedness with a purpose.
This is a charming, lovely book is wisdom literature at its finest. This is a small volume, easily kept to hand; it can be read in a sitting but my future intention is to keep it nearby and read it season by season, using it to reflect on my own experiences of the passing of time and to nurture an ongoing desire to bring the natural and liturgical seasons ever inward—to deepen my experience of being a creature in the world and a person—growing and changing with each season—in God’s image and dream for me and the world.
Michelle Wilbert is a writer, spiritual director and a writing and spiritual retreat facilitator with a focus on the intersection of spirituality, the arts and nature. She is an avid “poemcatcher” finding, reading and sharing poetry and thought from wisdom traditions ancient and modern through her blog, “Temet Nosce” and in various online and print media. She shares a beautifully handcrafted life with her lovely husband of 27 years and four delightful young adult children. Her “Commonplace Book” can be found at Temet Nosce: http://kindredsoulsspeaking.blogspot.com/ and she also blogs at http://closetotheroot.blogspot.com/