Believing In Tomorrow



“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
–plaque in a public botanical garden started by a nurseryman.

Recently, I’ve visited several gardens, taking in their winter beauty, the quiet, the restful time before Spring gets started.
One garden was the kitchen garden begun by a Jesuit missionary in the 1690s. Walking hundreds of miles through the desert to a dry, almost abandoned area, he brought a new religion and new crops to a community on the verge of starvation.
His first task was to build a church, but I’m sure near the top of his list, like any gardener, was laying out and planting the beginnings of his garden. An irrigation ditch soon brought essential and dependable water. Plants from his beloved Italy found new homes. In a few years, an orchard flourished, and grains and vegetables supplemented the local diet of roots, seeds, and other traditional local fare.
The herbs were planted in orderly beds, near the tomatoes, peppers and other plants that thrived in the hot, sunny climate. An ancient wrought iron hoe laid against a gnarled fruit tree, likely the third or even fifth generation of the first orchard planted here. I wondered how many generations of gardeners had held that hoe, steadily weeding and tending this fertile space next to the church.
A substantial adobe storage building wasn’t very far away, a symbol of the bounty of this land and the investment in sustainable agriculture, 1700s style. Inside, large terra cotta bowls stored next year’s seeds, and the winter supply of the year’s harvest.
The priest must have smiled, seeing his garden feed his parishioners, helping the community to thrive and grow. How many gardeners started here, gently nurtured by others, learning of the miracles of seeds, the tending of plants, the pleasures of harvest?
In good years, there was enough surplus resources so that the villagers could make more adobe bricks, hew more wood beams brought from the forests in the mountains. They slowly added on to the church, making it into a bigger symbol of their faith in God, a rising symbol of their success as a community.
Now, the ruins of the church dominates this place, bringing visitors, teaching us of old ways, the power of faith.
Yet, the real church, the real symbol of faith is here in this simple garden.
Over three hundred years later, the Jesuit’s garden still produces fruit, and the irrigation ditch still brings water to this thirsty garden. In a few months’ time, a new gardener will plant tomatoes and peppers, prune the orchard, trim the rosemary and deadhead the oregano. The new gardening year will start again.
That Jesuit priest left his mark here, his love of the land and his design still apparent to those who now visit his garden. If I began the spring work, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him looking over my shoulder, perhaps even discussing where to set out the tomatoes this year. We probably could talk for hours about this place, how to make it an even better garden for next year, for yet another year of tomorrow.

–Neal Lemery 1/11/2017



“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
― Maya Angelou

I’ve been learning about perseverance lately. Springtime brings out the gardener in me. I watch tiny seeds sprout and then miraculously grow into healthy green plants. I transplanted and divided a rose bush, and a stalk with just a few leaves and a bit of root now is thriving, and sending out new growth.

Those tiny seeds, lost in my dirty fingers, turn into plants for my garden and the promise of a bountiful harvest in a few months.

People around me are like those seeds. Full of promise and determination, they “plant” themselves in the challenges and struggles of our world, and grow themselves into beautiful, productive, and love filled people.

A few days ago, I heard the poet Nikki Finney read some of her poems and talk about her life and her work. She is a naturally gifted writer and teacher, using words to create rich, abundant images, and beautiful poems. She is inspiration and talent, and her passion for caring about life and our world electrified me and the other 2,000 people who listened to her every word.

When she was eighteen, she read a poem at a workshop. A wise woman commented that her words were pretty, but wondered what she was going to do with those pretty words, and how she was going to use those pretty words to make a difference in the world.

“What is your plan?” the woman asked.

Indeed, what is anyone’s plan for their life? What am I going to do with what I have?

Several of the young men I mentor at the local youth prison are now gardeners. The master gardeners from the local farm extension service visit now, and have shared their passion for gardening. These young men, perceived by some as criminals who need to be locked up and forgotten about, are becoming skilled gardeners and farmers. They understand the importance of weeding, pruning, and watering in order to grow for the coming summers in their lives, nurturing their souls and living the metaphor of sowing crops in fertile soil.

They persevere. They overcome the obstacles of their lives. They take risks, putting their souls into inhospitable conditions, knowing that there will be sunshine to grow their tender new leaves and nutrients to feed their roots growing deep into rich soil. There will be frosts and cold rains, and bugs and weeds. But, they keep working at the task at hand, at life, and in growing strong.

They learn new skills, and they heal from the wounds and struggles of the past, becoming part of a community, moving into their manhood.

It is hard work, as any seedling knows, settling in and putting down roots in the garden we call the adult world. Yet, they keep at it, and they move on.

Almost all of them wouldn’t finish high school, outside of prison. Yet, this spring, a record number of them will become high school graduates. They don’t opt for a GED, and instead, they choose to go to school, learn with others, and do the work they need to go in order to pass a challenging high school curriculum.

Many of them move on to college, taking college classes. One of my young friends there became the first inmate to achieve his associates degree, becoming the first college graduate in his family. Others saw how he worked, and how he dreamed, and they, too, are working on their degrees.

They are going beyond what they thought they could ever accomplish in their lives, and they are moving ahead. They can dream, now, and know that if they work hard, if they are like the tough little seed thrown into the garden soil, they will sprout and grow, they will move ahead in life.

They persevere.

—Neal Lemery, April 25, 2013