Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Numenous Garden

I was searching for a word for one of my motivations for gardening and thought of a word that impressed me, numina.

Numina gets underlined with a squiggly line by my spellchecker. That's a good sign of obscurity. The first definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of the singular numen is: The presiding divinity or spirit (of a place). I recall enthusiasm for garden devas in certain circles and liked the sound of the plural form numina.

I only came on it from the word numinous, an adjective I understood to mean “sensing holiness;” “The American Heritage Dictionary” provides the definition: “Spiritually elevated.” I wanted a noun and searched the dictionary. The word I want is numinousness, but it isn't listed. I'm convinced that its a perfectly good word. Anyway, I'm glad to have found the word numina; I like it.

I was having a beer with a friend whose mechanical competency I admire. I was marveling at his clever solution to the problem of removing and reinstalling the engine to his backhoe. He had removed the bucket and propped the arms with angle iron. Then with a heavy steel bar between the arms he had attached a winch to hoist the engine. And reveling in his telling of the trials and tribulations of rebuilding the engine, although I had only the vaguest notion of what he was talking about
He said:
“Sometimes I put out little pieces of bread or cake out
and it seems like it helps to keep the fairies and pixies off my case.
You know, stuff like loosing my tools in plain sight.”
My face remained grave and my mouth shut suiting the masculine tenor of the conversation. But my friend's fiancee and gardening buddy cast her eyes towards me and gave me a wink; they know I believe in fairies and pixies too.

My favorite storybook as a young boy was Rupert. The stories follow a familiar pattern of children's literature: a child wanders from the safety of home to explore the wider world and returns safely. Rupert is a venerable comic strip in the British Paper, Daily Express. During World War II space was limited by rationing, but space was made for Rupert the Bear to contribute to morale.

My affinity for fanciful creatures inhabiting the natural world can be traced to my childhood delights in the adventures of Rupert, a bear in a comic strip and his encounters with fairy beings. As time has passed since its beginning in 1920, Rupert has had three illustrators. My storybook was from the long
middle period when Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated the strip. Bestall's story lines followed the fairy tale tradition including underworld beings such as Brownies.

I understand that in today's Rupert such encounters have been ditched in favor of the more pragmatic sensibilities of today's youth. But the popularity of the Harry Potter books suggests that kids haven't lost their taste for fantasy. I haven't read the new comic and I'm curious to. But from looking at the new illustrations on the Web, I can see that the numinous rendering of the natural world that Bestall masterfully captured is retained,; oh well, I really don't know about that. Of course Rupert of my childhood was experienced through books aided by my active imagination.

What does capture the some of the numinousness of Rupert from my childhood is a 1985 film, the brain child of Paul McCartney, Rupert And the Frog Song. Apparently it was re-released on DVD in 2004, but I can find no trace of that at Amazon. There are copies of it for sale on VHS tape, and pricey at that. I noticed a short piece today about this being the last Christmas that a distributer of VHS tapes will be shipping them out. Ah, but there are several clips of the film at YouTube. Here's a link to the climactic scene. The whole film is lovely and I found myself looking at some of the other clips too.

I grow Inula helenium, Elecampane because I read somewhere--probably some cleaver ad copy-- “Fairies live beneath it.” It's probably long past time that I gave up such childishness. And it curious why I'd want to invite fairies into the garden as folklore makes plain they are hardly always beneficent. If I were to encounter a garden deva, gnome, brownie, pixies, fairy, or Pan himself, I'd surly leap right out of my skin! It's not as if I expect to see them.

The numen, the presiding spirit of a place, suggest a being of some dimension. The American spirit conjures up a different notion; a psychological outlook and shared values.

The quintessential American poet begins his epic poem about the Civil
War, John Brown's Body:
“American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land...”
The plan for American global hegemony and domination is a grand
ambition. In this time of war, the call rings out: “Either your with us or against us.” The sound is clear and shrill; still it's too small an ambition. It diminishes the big and diverse heart of our American spirit.

Donald Rumsfeld strikes out against critics of American warring as aiding terrorists. He complains about “hits” the administration is taking and said, “It is hard to function in the world without there being losses.” I read recently that nearly 40,000 of the troops wearing American uniforms in Iraq are “green card soldiers,” aliens seeking a fast track to American citizenship.

Today many of our social institutions are riven by polarized opinions. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum Americans find themselves, perhaps we might all agree that Americans are big hearted. How strange then to cast an accusing finger towards those of us who ask, “What are we loosing? Who lies wounded? Who has died?

While garden devas, fairies and a tendency to attribute human characteristics to plants and animals begs the label flaky, “numinousness” isn't so easily dismissed. Gardening is in part a spiritual journey.

Sometimes in the garden the awareness of the sacred is present. It's not something I've made rather something I'm responding too. It's a feeling of awe, wonder, and being a part of creation. It's not the garden alone I experience numinousness. The experience is something we've all had. Perhaps we experience it in a beautiful landscape, or perhaps in the light at sunset; sometimes, somehow some moments in time
are special.

More competent gardeners than I know that gardening often demands a ruthlessness. Seedlings need thinning so plants will thrive, and pruning to insure fruit. It's often observed that spiritual growth begins when a person critically examines closely held notions and casts off ideas that serve poorly or do not map accurately the way things are. So our gardens in sometimes mirror our spiritual journeys.

Sometimes in our gardens, in certain magic moments a numinous present is experienced. Living is sacred. War means dying.

This post was written September 7, 2003. I updated it with links and made a few other changes.

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