Attention in the Garden
Time slows among soil and seedlings
I have a fascination with British television. Shows from the UK tend to end well and rarely continue past the point of exhausting their concept (like many American TV shows), which I appreciate. Lately, I’ve taken to the hopeful joy of British shows like The Great British Bake-Off and, thanks to my pandemic gardening, Gardeners’ World.
Where Bake-Off took the venom out of cooking competitions, Gardeners’ World forgoes any contest at all. Instead, viewers tune in to Monty Don, and other presenters and guests, as he offers practical gardening advice and radiates appreciation for the slow, quiet world of things that grow.
Between planting my first basil plants and discovering Gardeners’ World, I encountered Walt Whitman’s poem, A July Afternoon by the Pond. The poem is a compendium of wonders too often ignored in the rush and press of life. In it, Whitman narrates the observations of a man sitting in his garden, attending to the details. He flits from flowers to dragonflies as if distracted by the activity of nature, yet paradoxically paying far more attention than I seem able to muster on my best days.
The fervent heat, but so much more endurable in this pure air—the white and pink pond-blossoms, with great heart-shaped leaves; the glassy waters of the creek, the banks, with dense bushery, and the picturesque beeches and shade and turf; the tremulous, reedy call of some bird from recesses, breaking the warm, indolent, half-voluptuous silence; an occasional wasp, hornet, honey-bee or bumble (they hover near my hands or face, yet annoy me not, nor I them, as they appear to examine, find nothing, and away they go)—the vast space of the sky overhead so clear, and the buzzard up there sailing his slow whirl in majestic spirals and discs […]
The poem continues like this for many more lines, an unbroken stream of wonder in a single sentence. It’s particularly enjoyable when read aloud.
There’s a learning curve to attention. The practiced ease with which I flick through my iPhone is just that: practice. And learning to see the slow, sustained activity of my little garden requires its own effort, not to mention the strength to leave my iPhone indoors.
The BBC’s Gardeners’ World, like Whitman’s poem, depends on my willingness to pay attention. It also sharpens that ability to give sustained attention. The show frequently allows the camera to linger on subjects that are unfriendly to the medium of television. Sometimes it rests on a well-composed garden path, or lavishes a full 10 seconds of devotion on a swaying lily. Gardeners’ World, assuming a gardener’s attention, reinforces the necessary patience for gardening and imposes the time and space needed to appreciate life, at any stage of growth.
I began this apprenticeship in attention with little more than my neighbour’s spare soil, containers, and a few transplants and seeds. Life during the coronavirus lockdown slowed down all on its own, but my taste for fresh herbs sent me outside. The near-bottomless content on Netflix lost my interest, and I started checking on my seeds with the anticipation once reserved for my iPhone. One, two, three cilantro sprouts, moved from window to window as the sun makes its daily sweep across the sky. Then a sunflower, still sans-flower, peeked out and rocked me. So much from so little; it seemed like every other day a new leaf appeared!
The longer the timescale for gratification, the more sustained attention is repaid in pleasure along the way.
I’ve already reaped a harvest of herbs, but if my prize plant — a pumpkin destined for Halloween — should fail me, nothing will be wasted. Practice shapes the practitioner, and I may become a gardener yet, with or without the dirt.