Skip to content

Gardening the City of God: An Interview with Loren and Mary-Ruth Wilkinson

Readability

Gardening the City of God: An Interview with Loren and Mary-Ruth Wilkinson

transcribed and edited by Thea and Jon Reimer

JR: This summer you will be piloting a new course entitled ‘Gardening the City of God’.  What was the impetus behind this course and what are your hopes for it?

LW: Well, for about forty years now we’ve been teaching courses that try to help Christians be more aware that their job in creation is to take care of it; that creation is not just the backdrop for the human story, but our reason for being here:  almost a definition of being human is to be an earthling - adam from adamah.  We’ve found that these courses we’ve done out on Galiano and other remote locations have been good courses and we hope to continue doing them.  But the problem with them is that they hide the fact that these issues are in fact even more important to address in the city than they are in rural areas.  They obscure the central fact that every human being is involved with the created world as a taker if not a giver and that therefore we’ve got to bring these issues into the city where the majority of the people in the world now live.  In reality everybody’s personal life is nested in a human economy, which in turn is nested in a natural economy—in creation, which is God’s gift.  And that’s true whether they live in the city or in the country.  We’ve been troubled that people might get the impression that in order to live responsibly they have to move out of the city.

MRW: … and that the only full life is in the country.

JR: With this in mind, does the title of the course reflect that impetus of Christian responsibility for creation within the city?

MRW: Yes and it also reflects the fact that the Bible begins in the garden of Eden and ends in a garden city.  Remember the description of the garden in Revelation, which parallels a description in Ezekiel, a garden city with a river running through it and fruit trees growing alongside—it’s very much a picture of a restored creation.  It’s not just a city apart from creation.  It’s really a picture of the way things ought to be; human community must always be nourished by a good, healthy creation.  But we’ve found that Christians often skip over that. All kinds of non-Christian groups including Muslims are taking very seriously the task of bringing creation into the city.  But we hear very little of this from a Christian perspective. Yet we are the ones, who, as Christians, are given this job of earthkeeping - of caring for creation.

LW: There’s a lot written on Christian ministry in the city that uses the metaphor of gardening. There’s a lot written generally on environmental issues by Christians.  But, there’s practically nothing by Christians about specifically connecting people in the city to their sources of food or about urban gardening, which is a growing movement - no pun intended. There is a Christian silence here, which is challenging because we seem to be exploring something that isn’t being done very much yet.

MRW: Often in Christian literature authors refer to the Jeremiah 29 verses - to plant gardens, get married, have children. When they quote the verses they usually leave the gardening part out and if they do include that phrase, they do very little with it. The most we’ve found is an isolated paragraph here and there. It’s as if all that matters is human presence and action,  but we can’t divorce ourselves from creation because of the simple fact that we have to eat  in order to act and eating inevitably involves creation.

LW: But somehow gardening is often used just as a metaphor.  For example we were talking to somebody recently and she kept talking about her work in the city as gardening. And so we were very excited and began telling her that we were doing this course, to which she replied ‘well I’m not actually gardening, gardening is just a metaphor’.

MRW: And saying gardening is just a metaphor is like saying Jesus is just God not man. Or it’s like saying that spirituality is just about reading our Bible and praying. Spirituality, as James Houston reminds us all the time, is about the whole person in the whole world. We can’t just take human beings and consider them apart from creation.

JR: Can you account for the fact that gardening has become merely a metaphor among Christians as opposed to something lived and tangible?

MRW: Well, it is a wonderful metaphor.  But it’s more than just a metaphor. It implies caring and being in touch with, knowing, the whole cycle of creation. It’s sort of like living with a child. We see the growth and we get to know what it means to be human by seeing those stages of growth. In gardening we are getting to know that about the created world.

LW: Nick Wolterstorff’s book on the arts says that the fundamental metaphor for talking about the human presence in the world is man as the gardener. And he’s talking about art, about gardening of clay and metal and so forth into things. But he doesn’t really talk much about gardening. I don’t know why there’s this vacuum. It’s odd to me because there has been a lot of Christian thought on the overall care for creation and a lot of Christian thought about the city, but they are rarely brought together in the obvious Biblical metaphor, that of garden and city together.

MRW: I think it’s the Bible’s fault.

LW: (laughs)

MRW: The Bible talks about gardens at the beginning and the end and all the way through. We take that and spiritualize it into just metaphor.

LW: When we look at Jesus’ metaphors, it’s very clear that he was deeply connected with agriculture. The parable of the sower, the vine, etc.  Most of his imagery is from agricultural activity and I think we’ve tended to say, ‘Well that’s because he is speaking from a primitive agrarian culture’.  But we forget we are all still in an agrarian culture – that’s what produces our food. I think we have allowed ourselves to be so insulated from where our food comes from because of the technical infrastructure that we think agriculture is part of a vanished age.  We are only about three meals away from gardens becoming a very crucial issue for every person. Similarly, we hear a lot about “Christianity and culture”,  and the “cultural mandate”, but it’s not just coincidence that culture and agriculture sound the same.  In fact culture is a word that means agriculture.  It’s the basic Latin word for farming. So culture is fundamentally what we do with the earth in order to provide sustenance for human life.

MRW: It’s interesting that that word is used metaphorically too. You talk about cultivating a garden but you also talk about cultivating a friendship.

LW: Or for example Regent’s new global mission statement up all around Regent.

JR:  Regent College cultivates intelligent, vigorous…

LW: That’s a gardening metaphor. And if we don’t have any connection with where the metaphor comes from, we’re going to miss a lot of the point.

MRW: God looked at every aspect of creation and saw that it was good; the point of that story of creation in the Bible is that God loved every bit of what he made. Not just the human beings, not just the fact that they go to church, but that they cultivate creation.

JR: Could you tell us a little bit about the course. Where will it take place, what will it involve?

LW: It’s a complicated course and still being put together.  It’s going to begin out on Galiano partly because the isolation of that setting does allow some focus that’s hard to get elsewhere.  That’s where we’ll lay out the main ideas of the course. Then we’ll move into the city and be centered for a few days in the downtown East Side--where a lot of Regent students and other Christians have been working with gardens as a part of bringing shalom to the city.

Some of them may have started thinking about these things in our courses out on Galiano but they’ve taken the ideas into the city as they should, and it’s partly through their urging that we’re trying to put this course together.  So we’re going to be looking at a whole range of urban issues—like the way the city functions both in its good and its bad aspects: urban gardening, the UBC farm, and gardens at a number of churches.  We especially want to talk with Christians involved in these projects – and there are quite a few.

Then in the last part of the course we will be going out to the new A Rocha centre, which is in Surrey.  They’ve got a big CSA (community supported agriculture) project and have done a lot of thinking about gardening.

This isn’t simply our course; some other people have been deeply involved—Dave Diewert who lives and works on the east side as a social activist has agreed to help us; Rudi Kraus and Ryan Weemhoff, who’ve been for a couple of years doing really ingenious urban gardening - urban scavenging almost - and sharing that with people, have sort of egged us on. So it’s Regent students who have gotten us into it and they continue to be a source of inspiration.

MRW: Also, Greg Kennedy, a Jesuit teaching at Corpus  Christi College (affiliated with St. Mark’s) who has written a book called The Ontology of Trash in which he discusses the city and food issues, has been invaluable in helping us look at the course as a whole theological unit; also, Veronica Gaylie, who has written a book on gardening with city school children, has been a great help. So we’ve got a terrific team of people.

JR: Just a final question. To those of us out there, (Regent students and otherwise) to whom gardening seems a little foreign and perhaps daunting, what words of encouragement do you have?

LW: Well,  I would first want to quote Wendell Berry…

JR: A great place to start

LW: …who says eating is an agricultural act. Whether you think you are connected with gardens or not, you are.

MRW: Eating is not foreign!

JR: (laugh)

MRW: All of us know that! And tell them to look out the window in the library by the reflecting pool and see all those, eight inches tall now, garlic sprouts that Rudi planted.

LW: And it’s not difficult; it’s tremendously rewarding to be even just a little bit involved in producing some of your own food even if it’s a single pot of basil on the window ledge.   That garlic in the library well will keep soup group supplied for at least the fall semester.  (We hope it’s just the beginning of a Regent garden.)

MRW: We have friends who run a gardening program at a rehab for drug addicts and alcoholics and they are finding that the farming part - the gardening - is a real catharsis towards health.

LW: And I would think that probably, though the average Regent student’s addictions are a little more subtle… (all laugh) … the gardening would be just as valuable for them.

transcribed and edited by Thea and Jon Reimer

JR: This summer you will be piloting a new course entitled ‘Gardening the City of God’.  What was the impetus behind this course and what are your hopes for it?

LW: Well, for about forty years now we’ve been teaching courses that try to help Christians be more aware that their job in creation is to take care of it; that creation is not just the backdrop for the human story, but our reason for being here:  almost a definition of being human is to be an earthling – adam from adamah.  We’ve found that these courses we’ve done out on Galiano and other remote locations have been good courses and we hope to continue doing them.  But the problem with them is that they hide the fact that these issues are in fact even more important to address in the city than they are in rural areas.  They obscure the central fact that every human being is involved with the created world as a taker if not a giver and that therefore we’ve got to bring these issues into the city where the majority of the people in the world now live.  In reality everybody’s personal life is nested in a human economy, which in turn is nested in a natural economy—in creation, which is God’s gift.  And that’s true whether they live in the city or in the country.  We’ve been troubled that people might get the impression that in order to live responsibly they have to move out of the city.

MRW: … and that the only full life is in the country.

JR: With this in mind, does the title of the course reflect that impetus of Christian responsibility for creation within the city?

MRW: Yes and it also reflects the fact that the Bible begins in the garden of Eden and ends in a garden city.  Remember the description of the garden in Revelation, which parallels a description in Ezekiel, a garden city with a river running through it and fruit trees growing alongside—it’s very much a picture of a restored creation.  It’s not just a city apart from creation.  It’s really a picture of the way things ought to be; human community must always be nourished by a good, healthy creation.  But we’ve found that Christians often skip over that. All kinds of non-Christian groups including Muslims are taking very seriously the task of bringing creation into the city.  But we hear very little of this from a Christian perspective. Yet we are the ones, who, as Christians, are given this job of earthkeeping – of caring for creation.

LW: There’s a lot written on Christian ministry in the city that uses the metaphor of gardening. There’s a lot written generally on environmental issues by Christians.  But, there’s practically nothing by Christians about specifically connecting people in the city to their sources of food or about urban gardening, which is a growing movement – no pun intended. There is a Christian silence here, which is challenging because we seem to be exploring something that isn’t being done very much yet.

MRW: Often in Christian literature authors refer to the Jeremiah 29 verses – to plant gardens, get married, have children. When they quote the verses they usually leave the gardening part out and if they do include that phrase, they do very little with it. The most we’ve found is an isolated paragraph here and there. It’s as if all that matters is human presence and action,  but we can’t divorce ourselves from creation because of the simple fact that we have to eat  in order to act and eating inevitably involves creation.

LW: But somehow gardening is often used just as a metaphor.  For example we were talking to somebody recently and she kept talking about her work in the city as gardening. And so we were very excited and began telling her that we were doing this course, to which she replied ‘well I’m not actually gardening, gardening is just a metaphor’.

MRW: And saying gardening is just a metaphor is like saying Jesus is just God not man. Or it’s like saying that spirituality is just about reading our Bible and praying. Spirituality, as James Houston reminds us all the time, is about the whole person in the whole world. We can’t just take human beings and consider them apart from creation.

JR: Can you account for the fact that gardening has become merely a metaphor among Christians as opposed to something lived and tangible?

MRW: Well, it is a wonderful metaphor.  But it’s more than just a metaphor. It implies caring and being in touch with, knowing, the whole cycle of creation. It’s sort of like living with a child. We see the growth and we get to know what it means to be human by seeing those stages of growth. In gardening we are getting to know that about the created world.

LW: Nick Wolterstorff’s book on the arts says that the fundamental metaphor for talking about the human presence in the world is man as the gardener. And he’s talking about art, about gardening of clay and metal and so forth into things. But he doesn’t really talk much about gardening. I don’t know why there’s this vacuum. It’s odd to me because there has been a lot of Christian thought on the overall care for creation and a lot of Christian thought about the city, but they are rarely brought together in the obvious Biblical metaphor, that of garden and city together.

MRW: I think it’s the Bible’s fault.

LW: (laughs)

MRW: The Bible talks about gardens at the beginning and the end and all the way through. We take that and spiritualize it into just metaphor.

LW: When we look at Jesus’ metaphors, it’s very clear that he was deeply connected with agriculture. The parable of the sower, the vine, etc.  Most of his imagery is from agricultural activity and I think we’ve tended to say, ‘Well that’s because he is speaking from a primitive agrarian culture’.  But we forget we are all still in an agrarian culture – that’s what produces our food. I think we have allowed ourselves to be so insulated from where our food comes from because of the technical infrastructure that we think agriculture is part of a vanished age.  We are only about three meals away from gardens becoming a very crucial issue for every person. Similarly, we hear a lot about “Christianity and culture”,  and the “cultural mandate”, but it’s not just coincidence that culture and agriculture sound the same.  In fact culture is a word that means agriculture.  It’s the basic Latin word for farming. So culture is fundamentally what we do with the earth in order to provide sustenance for human life.

MRW: It’s interesting that that word is used metaphorically too. You talk about cultivating a garden but you also talk about cultivating a friendship.

LW: Or for example Regent’s new global mission statement up all around Regent.

JR:  Regent College cultivates intelligent, vigorous…

LW: That’s a gardening metaphor. And if we don’t have any connection with where the metaphor comes from, we’re going to miss a lot of the point.

MRW: God looked at every aspect of creation and saw that it was good; the point of that story of creation in the Bible is that God loved every bit of what he made. Not just the human beings, not just the fact that they go to church, but that they cultivate creation.

JR: Could you tell us a little bit about the course. Where will it take place, what will it involve?

LW: It’s a complicated course and still being put together.  It’s going to begin out on Galiano partly because the isolation of that setting does allow some focus that’s hard to get elsewhere.  That’s where we’ll lay out the main ideas of the course. Then we’ll move into the city and be centered for a few days in the downtown East Side–where a lot of Regent students and other Christians have been working with gardens as a part of bringing shalom to the city.

Some of them may have started thinking about these things in our courses out on Galiano but they’ve taken the ideas into the city as they should, and it’s partly through their urging that we’re trying to put this course together.  So we’re going to be looking at a whole range of urban issues—like the way the city functions both in its good and its bad aspects: urban gardening, the UBC farm, and gardens at a number of churches.  We especially want to talk with Christians involved in these projects – and there are quite a few.

Then in the last part of the course we will be going out to the new A Rocha centre, which is in Surrey.  They’ve got a big CSA (community supported agriculture) project and have done a lot of thinking about gardening.

This isn’t simply our course; some other people have been deeply involved—Dave Diewert who lives and works on the east side as a social activist has agreed to help us; Rudi Kraus and Ryan Weemhoff, who’ve been for a couple of years doing really ingenious urban gardening – urban scavenging almost – and sharing that with people, have sort of egged us on. So it’s Regent students who have gotten us into it and they continue to be a source of inspiration.

MRW: Also, Greg Kennedy, a Jesuit teaching at Corpus  Christi College (affiliated with St. Mark’s) who has written a book called The Ontology of Trash in which he discusses the city and food issues, has been invaluable in helping us look at the course as a whole theological unit; also, Veronica Gaylie, who has written a book on gardening with city school children, has been a great help. So we’ve got a terrific team of people.

JR: Just a final question. To those of us out there, (Regent students and otherwise) to whom gardening seems a little foreign and perhaps daunting, what words of encouragement do you have?

LW: Well,  I would first want to quote Wendell Berry…

JR: A great place to start

LW: …who says eating is an agricultural act. Whether you think you are connected with gardens or not, you are.

MRW: Eating is not foreign!

JR: (laugh)

MRW: All of us know that! And tell them to look out the window in the library by the reflecting pool and see all those, eight inches tall now, garlic sprouts that Rudi planted.

LW: And it’s not difficult; it’s tremendously rewarding to be even just a little bit involved in producing some of your own food even if it’s a single pot of basil on the window ledge.   That garlic in the library well will keep soup group supplied for at least the fall semester.  (We hope it’s just the beginning of a Regent garden.)

MRW: We have friends who run a gardening program at a rehab for drug addicts and alcoholics and they are finding that the farming part – the gardening – is a real catharsis towards health.

LW: And I would think that probably, though the average Regent student’s addictions are a little more subtle… (all laugh) … the gardening would be just as valuable for them.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] Read the complete interview here. [...]