“The man and his wife heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” – Genesis 3:
Soon after the Monastery’s renovation began in July 2010, it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be much left of the old Cloister garden. With changes in shade patterns from the large plane trees along Memorial Drive, the garden already had been in a state of decline. Then, since the Monastery sits on a relatively small plot of land, the old garden soon became a staging area for the project. Scaffolding, electrical conduit, heating and ventilation piping, copper plumbing pipe, plywood, drywall, granite blocks, brick, mechanical and tool storage cabinets all had a presence at one point or another. There was lots of foot traffic from contractors, laborers, electrician, plumbers, HVAC installers. In short, the garden was no longer a garden.
In August, 2010, shortly after we had moved out of the Monastery for the duration of the renovation and our annual Community retreat, the Brothers made a trip to “Garden in the Woods” located in Framingham, about twenty miles west of Boston. None of us were prepared for what we would see there: a spectacular woodland garden first begun in the 1930s and entirely populated of native plants species. It was that trip that allowed us to re-imagine what the cloister garden might become.
This afternoon, as I look at the old cloister garden I am delighted to see what remains. With a barrier erected to create a “no man’s land” during construction staging we were able to save two magnificent American dogwoods as well as male and female American holly bushes. There also is a beautiful Japanese maple. A couple of heroic tulips have made a springtime return as testament to the power of resurrection.
I took the Community’s dream of a native species woodland garden to my dear friend, Patrick Smith. Patrick is a walking native plant encyclopedia. He is also sensitive to ecological issues and naturalistic garden design. Patrick presented the Community with a vision to create a space that will clean the air and provide oxygen, sustain birds and other wildlife, and provide year-round color, architectural interest, noise abatement, and topographical interest, using organically grown, native plantings.
The plan is to create an under-story of trees with relatively dense plantings of native shrubs with paths winding their way through the under-story. All the trees have been carefully selected for site compatibility (the right plant in the right place is the motto), spring and fall color, fruit production for both human and wildlife consumption, and natural architecture. The under-story will consist of service berry, pawpaw, ironwood, old-man’s beard, sweet bay magnolia, and red bud, a variety of witch hazel, to name only a few of the seventeen different trees planned. Shrubs under consideration include southern bush honeysuckle, drooping leucothoe, native viburnum, spice bush, and mountain laurel, and many different rhododendron specifically chosen to provide rhododendron blossoms and color from spring through late summer. There will be some grass planting, but only native varieties and no real “lawn” area. We are learning that large plantings of fescue grasses are both unnatural and ecologically problematic.
The garden presents us with what must be one of the greatest of blessings: to be the best possible stewards of our land. Our vision is that the garden be life-sustaining. Native plants require minimal watering, are naturally heat-, drought-, insect-, and disease-resistant. In a meaningful way, the cloister’s berries, water, and shelter will provide a welcome place for wild birds one might meet in the Eastern low-land forests or nearby Mount Auburn Cemetery, as well as crickets and katydids.
We Brothers are convinced that the opportunity to be caretakers of the earth is not only a mandate from our Creator, but one of God’s greatest gifts. Today, this call to be stewards comes with a sense of urgency. We are learning that Earth itself is a living organism, something so-called “primitive” people have known instinctively but which we somehow seem to have forgotten. Embracing that realization makes us, both at the Monastery in Cambridge and at our rural property, Emery House, most at one with our hearts and better selves. Here is a posture that allows us to sustain life, while wishing all of the creation well.