A Gardner's Reflection on Life and Gardens

What vegetable gardening can teach us about the meaning we seek in life

Good morning, West Shore! My name is Brian Gardner, he/him, and today is my first experience getting to share a reflection as a new member of the worship associate team.

This week, I was asked to explore a metaphor for the meaning of life.

My first thought was something near and dear to me: vegetable gardening.

With a last name like Gardner it seemed fitting as I grew older to attempt living up to that namesake.

For me, it is deeply rewarding to observe the cycle of life in a growing season. From seed to seedling to a robust, flowering plant that eventually bears fruit, and continues to keep producing until, at last, the season comes to a close.

For each plant, starting as a seed, it’s purpose is to grow so that it can live and then live on through the fruit produced.

However, one key difference between my life and that of a tomato plant is that my life’s meaning isn’t defined end-to-end in my DNA. Even still, are there lessons that can be drawn from the vegetable garden that could help define life’s meaning?

One thing that I have noticed this year in particular in that our garden space has become an example of the interdependent web of life. There is a whole ecosystem going on there this year.

Perhaps the most obvious, aside from the plants themselves, are the pollinators. Without pollinators, the plants would never be able to bear fruit. A solitary plant bears no fruit.

Beyond pollinators, there are a number of other inhabitants in the garden space. There are snakes that primarily eat the slugs that enjoy eating the leaves of young plants. Ants have built intricate tunnels that help to aerate the soil, which helps the plants better absorb water and nutrients. There are aphids that come along with the ants and so in come the wasps and ladybugs to the rescue. There are the spiders that then join in the fray. I would love to hear David Attenborough narrate the daily drama that occurs in our small backyard ecosystem!

So many different types of life, all pursuing different paths yet all part of a system that leads to the thriving of all involved. And while the meaning of life for all these varying lifeforms is different they are all deeply connected to the garden itself: a garden that they probably have not seen in its entirety nor could its intent be understood fully even if it were.

But do the ants, for example, need to know the gardener’s purpose for the garden in order to find fulfillment there? Do they even need to know they are in a garden or that there even is a gardener?

So what can this teach me about the meaning of human life?

Perhaps the most obvious is that, just as a vegetable plant is unable to reach the potential of its predetermined life’s meaning without other life (pollinators, in particular), we too need others in our life to reach our potential. And what our potential is, in my opinion, is up to each of us to discover.

The story of Creation in the book of Genesis has a garden as the starting place of human life. So what if I took the observation I made prior about much of the life inside the garden not being able to see the entire garden or understand its purpose and translated that to myself on this amazing planet that is able to sustain life? The earth as the garden of life. In the same way that some vegetables can grow without any human intention or design, did this planetary garden oasis, in the middle of a galaxy inhospitable to life, come into existence through unintentional and purely natural mechanics or, perhaps, was there a Gardener that built this space for us?

In either case, this space, this planet as a garden has sufficient resources for both survival and thriving. And, like the mini ecosystem of the backyard garden, the key to thriving is in working together even though our own individual journeys and purposes may differ. I am not sure if I have determined my life’s meaning, or meanings, but I suspect that it is connected to all of us here today and to the many millions and billions sharing this garden with us. May our mission be not to merely survive, but to thrive.