A Reconciling Landscape: The New Cloister Garden – Br. Robert L'Esperance
Most High, all – powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.1
There is a cost to being in touch with our natural world. Like just about anything worth having there is a cost to it. There is real joy in discerning nature and its wonders, yet there is also pain in knowing this.
How utterly removed many of us are from nature that we don’t even seem to have a care for what we are looking at. On the one hand we see the autumn colors in the fall and we think “What a pretty picture!” What a glorious creation. Or we see the first spring green in the woods and say to ourselves, “How thrilling!” What a glorious creation. But we know the names of nothing. And that makes our lives easier. Once you learn the name of things, maybe you will see the early fall color along New England roadsides and think, “Oh, my, look at all those choking vines aglow in yellow: oriental bittersweet, everywhere.” That first spring green in the woods? Japanese barberry. The downside to knowing the names of things can be an element of disenchantment.
To witness the Creation truly, it should be an honor to know the names of things, to know our world by name. Naming the world was one of God’s first gifts to humankind. We should be able to name Creation, even though it might sometimes mean introducing new heartache or anxiety into our lives where before there was none, where before there were just pretty pictures.
Learning the names of things also deepens our appreciation for the sugar maple, the white oak, the tree or the shrub we may before have regarded as just some tree or bush like all others. The tree and the shrub become individuals, which is what they are, with an identity in the Creation that is unique and fantastic, with an ancient lineage all its own. A lineage like your own that brought you to this place, time, and moment in Creation. That tree, that shrub is an inheritor of billions of years of survival and each also is a giver to pollinators, birds, and the myriad upon myriad of icky things from which we would rather turn our gaze.
Birders can tell a sparrow from a sparrow, or a gull from a gull – and the world becomes richer, truer, more real. And what might be thought of as a dull sparrow becomes a source of excitement and joy.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flower and herbs.
On an August afternoon during the Monastery’s renovation, the Brothers made a field trip to Garden in the Woods, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. That trip constituted a turning point for the community in thinking about how to restore and renovate the Cloister Garden after the site was cleared of the construction materials that were housed there during the renovation. Up to that point, we had been thinking along quite conventional lines. That trip to Framingham helped us to begin to imagine something that would seek to bring other values to our idea of what our garden should be like.
It was in that visit that the idea of a naturalistic, native plant garden was born. The results of that vision are now visible from the cloister windows.
With hundreds – no maybe thousands – of hours of careful research, planning, and design, the community’s friend, Patrick Smith, helped us bring to birth (the process sometimes felt just like that!) a vision of the cloister space that has been a transforming and life-giving experience for the entire community and our guests. Like so many other notions about the earth, the environment, and our role in that great interchange, ideas about what a garden is and should be are undergoing great changes. The garden design that Patrick developed for us tries to take many of these new understandings seriously and put them into practice.
We have been encouraged to think of our garden as an opportunity for us to be the best stewards of the land that we can be. Each plant was chosen with the site in mind, bringing into play the current thinking which advocates choosing plants that are appropriate to the existing environment rather than trying to artificially modify the environment to accommodate a less appropriate choice. This is about working with nature and what nature has already given to the site, rather than imposing something out of place. We also saw our garden as a being that should be life-sustaining to itself, us, and the other living beings with whom we share this space. This impulse lies behind much of what motivates any gardener to sink her hands into the soil: the desire to cultivate and connect with life itself.
Our garden is also intended to be a marker of time. We live our life according to a liturgical calendar that marks the natural rhythms of the seasons by recalling the great salvific acts of the Creator. Through the four seasons, the garden is designed to be a grand calendar, from snow covered limbs, through the bud-break of a million shining chalices, the steamy heat of summer alive with crickets and katydids, and then through the cool and refreshing fire of autumn’s colors.
Finally, the garden is a way of extending monastic hospitality to non-human guests. We are blessedly close to the beautiful Mount Auburn garden cemetery, the home or migration ground to so many birds and animals. Our garden’s berries, water, and shelter are already drawing wild birds that we have never seen before on the Monastery’s urban-enclosed grounds. In a sense, those visiting and lodging birds have become ambassadors by carrying those seeds and berries outside the garden perimeters into the wider world. As a nourishing and nurturing place, the Cloister Garden has in common with other native plant gardens the capacity of existing beyond its borders for the benefit of all.
The new Cloister Garden is a palate that will hopefully help each of us grow more and more into relationship with the individual plants. We hope guests who come will learn, as we Brothers have, to name and know the beautiful and varied forms and flowers of native dogwoods, sourwood, sweet-bay magnolia and autumn witch hazel, old man’s beard, ironwood, serviceberry and paw-paw. We hope you’ll spot the divine presence along the paths that wind through an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, holly, spice-bush, and mountain laurel.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, and serve him with great humility.
1. [The italicized lines throughout this article are taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures (The Society of St. Francis, Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, NY: 1926).]↩
I just want to say that I found this incredibly moving — as in a tingle ran down my spine as I was reading. So beautiful.