Sunday, October 13, 2013

Generative Grace

My yard is full of ostrich ferns: tall, elegant, a sturdy green presence, shading toward brown as winter edges toward us. A friend gave me one, not too many years ago, and soon I had more. Then more. I dig them up when they crowd other treasures, move them to dark corners under trees, give them away. This week I’m moving some to a park, to replace invasive honeysuckle vines. If you’d like one – let me know. I have plenty to share.

My grandmother was a collector of seeds. At this time of year, she’d be pocketing things, planning where to grow them. She had flowers no one else had, from seeds friends gave her over the years: billowing annuals she grew along the edge of her little trailer home, or planted along the edges of her tiny yard. When she came to visit us in the first house we owned, an aging twin in West Philadelphia, she arrived with a small suitcase in one hand and a bag of twigs in the other, bare root plants for our first garden. We cleared broken glass from our little urban yard and planted what she brought: native phlox, lily of the valley, foam flower. They’re still there in that West Philly yard, lush and green in the alley between the twins. And I took starts of them with us when we moved to Virginia, then again when we moved to our home here in Pennsylvania. The phlox has spread, seeding around the yard in shades of pink and purple. The foam flower carpets patches of ground in my woodland garden, blooming in billowing clouds of white. I give bits away, scatter phlox seed in friends’ meadows. If you need phlox, or foam flower, or lily of the valley – let me know. I have plenty to share.

Last week I dug an armload of plants to take to a friend’s home. Her daughter and I planted their first flower garden, with brown-eyed susan, coreopsis, phlox, perennial geranium. Right now it looks like dirt and sticks, battered down by October rain. Next spring it will look like something new. By summer it will be blooming, a bright wash of color along a sagging fence.

As I dig, and plant, and watch the way things spread, it occurs to me that this is how grace works: we put ourselves in its path, align ourselves with God’s work in this world, sow our seeds of shalom, and then watch a mystery far beyond us. I’m not the one who makes plants grow. I have no control over where the ferns send their runners, little say about where the phlox seeds land. But I can shepherd the generous growth going on around me, share it, celebrate it.

Friends who aren’t gardeners are sometimes reluctant to accept gifts of plants, or seeds. There’s an invisible wall.  My space, your space. If they want plants, they’ll go buy them, thank you. No need for charity here.

What they miss is the joy of the interplay of plants: the give and take, the sharing of the mystery. Fellow gardeners get it. We walk each other’s yards, exclaim over unexpected beauty: vines in full bloom, unusual seed pods, a cotillion of butterflies in a patch of morning sun. We pause to ask about unfamiliar plants, to note how things spread, to offer additions. “Let me dig you a start of this!” “I’ll give you a cutting. Just stick it in the ground and it will grow.”

My friend shows up at our birdwalks some weeks with odds and ends she’s dug from her yard. She likes explaining them.  Cardinal flower. Blue lobelia. A baby juniper that seeded in her yard. I’ve promised her a start of my symphoricarpus orbiculatus – native coralberry. I have it growing in the shade, where it spreads by runners, looking for the sun. I need to start moving it to other places – the park, Sarah’s yard, a sunnier spot in my own. Again – if you want some? Let me know.

I have friends who say they don’t need grace. Don’t want it. Can live without it. God is a crutch. His love an illusion. My space, your space. If I need something I’ll get it myself. No need for charity. I’m fine on my own.


Entomologist Doug Tallamy, brilliant bug man at the University of Delaware, has written about the suburban yard: manicured dead zones where not much will live. Perfect grass. A few clipped shrubs. Everything under control. Nothing unexpected. No caterpillars, praying mantis. No loud bird song under the bedroom window.

C Judd Patterson, 2008, Backyards for Nature: Fireflies
His research is on bugs, the native plants bugs depend on to survive, the layering of nature that makes habitat for bugs, birds, bats. A healthy multi-layered yard holds water, breathes out oxygen, attracts pollinators, provides habitat for nesting birds.

And billows up in new life: tree seedlings, unexpected vines, spreading groundcovers, butterflies.

My neighbor mentioned that he and his daughter sit on their deck and watch the fireflies in our trees. They have some in their yard, now and then. But our trees are full of them. His daughter thinks it’s magic.

Fireflies, like many other native creatures, are disappearing due to habitat loss. They can’t survive in well manicured yards. They need fallen logs, leaf piles, lots of native trees and shrubs.

It’s possible to live a self-enclosed, self-motivated life, with nicely delineated borders, carefully manicured edges.

For a while.

As a culture we’re exploring that option: lives lived in reference only to ourselves. Neatly packaged food from well stocked superstores. Entertainment on individual screens. Personal cars parked in personal driveways. My space, your space. No need for grace.

The dead zones keep growing. In our bays, choked by the nitrogen runoff from our perfectly green lawns. In our cities, struggling under the weight of our self-referential neglect.

In our firefly-free yards. In our fractured families. In our carefully guarded hearts. 

But God’s generative grace is just a heart-turn away. Like the rain, that can run off to flood our streams and spillways, or soak in slowly around ferns, moss, willows.

Like the sun, scorching the chemical-laden turf, or smiling through the layers of locust, dogwood, fern.

Like the spread of sundrops, phlox, and foam flower: someone else’s sticks and weeds, in someone else’s yard. Or gifts of grace to be given, received, shared, swapped, enjoyed.

It’s the perfect time to be moving plants: cool, wet, still warm enough for roots to settle in. 

It’s also time for harvesting seed: aster, ironweed, goldenrod, rudbeckia.

And time, as well, for slowing down enough to think: how does grace flow from my life to others? How does generosity spill from me, to you, my yard to yours, my heart to yours, your heart to mine?

Need some coralberries? Phlox seed? Time? Prayer? 

Let me know. Some days - by God's generative grace - I have plenty to share.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. . . Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

This post is part of an ongoing series on God's Green Equity.

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions are welcome.