On Wednesday morning I was standing rapt in the early morning garden. The sun was touching the first, highest branches of the trees, but the night’s moisture still beaded the spiderwebs in the rosemary. The fingers of sunshine were closely followed by groups of little grey birds, hopping and chattering as they cleaned tiny insects off the plants. Handsome white-crowned and yellow-crowned sparrows foraged under shrubs and in the pathways until the shadow of a red-shouldered hawk sent them scattering. Although the traffic on 7th Avenue jostled and complained only a few yards from where I stood, I was in a magical world apart.
The word “garden,” like the word “yard,” comes from ancient linguistic roots meaning an enclosed space. The garden is a protected place, set apart from current dangers. In the countryside, the garden might be protected by a deer fence. In the city, our garden is protected by layered foliage of established trees and shrubs from the noise and smoke of traffic.
In the raised vegetable beds, the tender plants and rich soil are protected from foot and wheelbarrow traffic in the pathways. In the greenhouse, our seedlings are protected from the elements and the foraging birds and snails.
On the steep sandy hillside, a thicket of native plants guards the shelter and nesting spots of birds and insects, and provides cover for the possum, raccoon, and skunk families that call Twin Peaks and the nearby reservoir their home.
The garden is also a guarded place for people. Our outdoor classroom, compost demonstration area, our greenhouse, and our lunch spots provide habitat for learning and growing. Kids and grownups have held their first worm, and tasted their first snap pea straight off the vine. They’ve watched the foraging honeybees loaded with pollen, and seen the steam rise from the compost pile as it is turned.
Our city is rich in culture, diversity, innovation, and creativity of all kinds. But as urban dwellers, we are also deprived of the simple connection to nature which human beings need. We need to find the place where we belong in a fierce and fecund natural world.
Each school garden, each classroom with a worm compost bin, each family with salad and Swiss chard growing in barrels on the fire escape, or with bees or chickens in the backyard, weaves back a little of the broken thread of nature’s web. Our food, our water, our seasons, the wild animals and birds we share our city with, can be tended and understood, watched and protected.
Garden for the Environment, and the many other community gardening projects here in San Francisco, create space for people to belong to nature rather than just long for nature. And by guarding nature and our connection to her, perhaps we can open wider the garden of our hearts.