Finding a Safe Space in My Garden

Photo by Markus Spiske

Today is January 1, 2024; later this morning I will head to my garden plot to perform my New Year’s Day Ritual.

Please stay with me until the first shovel plunge into the rich soil in Halaby’s God’s Little Acre.

With a few introductory comments, what follows are reflections first published in CounterPunch on January 1, 2013, and reprinted in EthicsDaily on January 4, 2013.

Way back then the late Robert Parham was the online  EthicsDaily’s editor;  and way back then EthicsDaily commanded much respect among online faith-based magazines. When EthicsDaily morphed into Good Faith Media and under a new group of youngish editors, it became a feel-good, religion-lite blog with no sense of real purpose. Only three of its contributors merit reading.

In the past few months I’ve turned to the online Baptist News Global and have found it to be meritoriously deserving of daily reading. As for CounterPunch, it has been and continues to be my daily bread for its advocatcy for decency, morality, justice, and accountability.

And like the  Roman God Janus whose dual gaze, one to the past and one to the future, I look back at 2023 with agony, despair, and good riddance, and to 2024 with guarded hope. Human brutality since I first penned my column on my New Year’s gardening ritual has multiplied exponentially. And Peace on Earth has been taken over by greed, tribalism, nativism, never-ending wars, political corruption, serious environmental degradation, and the use of mass starvation, mass bombing, mass killing, and mass ethnic cleansing.

To be perfectly honest, Since October 7, 2023, my faith has been jarred  and shaken. Losing several dear friends over a span for 5 months and the Gaza carnage have addled me. I’ve stopped attending Church and am tired of hearing what God’s people oughto and oughto-not-do regarding social issues without action outside the confines of  the stained glassed walls. As a result, I’ve sought a safe space for myself, a place where I am able to work through the daily traumas Palestinians and Ukrainians are experienced every minute of every hour, of every day, of every month of 2023 – and counting. My garden has been the safe space in which I find solace; retreating to the soil has been a must – so as to make life easier for my dear and loving wife. It would be very unfair to condemn her and our boys to the historic sentence of injustice and continued Palestinian inferno and ethnic cleansing using US tax dollars as though the US treasury has a bottomless pit of gold..  Further, the many friends who’ve called, sent emails or cards have been the perfect antidote and prescription gifted to me through the pharmaceutical factory of love, empathy, and support.

Encountering God in the Placidity of a Garden

Just a few days after Jan. 1, 2007, our Sunday school facilitator commenced the morning discussion by posing the following question: “Where do you encounter God?”

The answers were varied: “in the Scripture,” “in prayer,” “in church,” “in the laundry room” (it was one housewife’s only private time for introspection), and “in friends” were some of the responses.

Since our group is primarily comprised of professionals and fearing that my comment was too pedestrian, I reluctantly responded: “In my garden.”

In the past 67 years (today I am 78), I have been encountering God in the altruistic and selfless actions and deeds performed by millions of people of different faiths across the globe, by attending to the birth of our two sons, by seeing miraculous medical healing, and by the manner in which people across the world respond to collective manmade tragedies and to natural disasters.

However, it is primarily in my garden that I see the most tangible emanation of God’s greatness and mystery.

Some 42 years ago, I began an annual New Year’s Day ritual. After doing the traditional Southern New Year’s Day thing (eating pork, black-eyed peas for good luck, cornbread, turnip greens, bean soup and pecan pie), and after watching a football game, I head to our backyard garden plot.

Rain, snow or sunshine, I always dig up a small segment, usually a 4-by-4 area. Even though I have a garden tiller, I prefer to use a shovel. A tiller is too noisy and disturbs the placidity of this special day.

The shovel, on the other hand, allows me to turn over the soil in large clumps that crumble, not kill the earthworms, and allows for better aeration.

The slow and rhythmic process also affords me the leisure to think about my New Year’s resolutions and to plan my annual spring garden.

In recent years, numerous newspaper and magazine articles have expounded on the positive therapeutic effects (both physical and mental) that gardening bestows.

And numerous observers have pointed out that gardeners are by nature optimistic individuals. I agree with both notions.

Since I consider my garden to be a creative outlet and an extension of my personality, I am particular about its aesthetic appeal. I therefore try to coordinate the texture, design, color and space.

The cucumber vines make a wonderful green arbor along the fence, while the broccoli and cauliflower plants create an alternating schemata of variegated green and white textures.

The garlic, planted around the perimeter of the garden to ward off insects, creates a miniature bamboo-like cordon of protective natural pesticide.

Because of the enormous elephant-ear like dominance of their leaves, the squash plants are planted in the center of the garden to help create a central focal point that helps accentuate smaller radiating rows of spinach, onions and beans.

When the vegetables are ready to be harvested, the child in me emerges as I insist that my wife take photographs of my holding some unusually large squash or head of broccoli.

One zucchini squash measuring 22 inches in length and 7 inches in diameter fed the neighbors, a young couple and their three young boys, for three days.

The vegetables provide delicious fresh produce that is consumed by the family, shared with numerous neighbors and friends, and put away in the freezer for the fall and winter seasons.

My refusal to use chemicals has helped me discover another significant mystery of God’s creation.

Lady bugs, praying mantises, lizards and frogs have helped keep the garden free of destructive pests and insects.

For several years, lizards and horned toad frogs dwelled in the crevices of the stone wall and emerged every spring to feed on insects in my garden.

Unfortunately, they disappeared for a while when my next-door neighbor adopted a stray kitten.

And this year a foot-long garden snake bedded itself in the cucumber patch, and at season’s end I saw it slither away as the withering canopy of protective leaves dissipated.

As I pondered all the aforementioned and as I mulled on the notion that it is in nature in general and in my garden in particular that I encounter God’s majesty, I could not help but think of other folks in other climes who till the land not for leisure, as I do, but for providing meager sustenance, shelter and clothing for their families.

And I especially think of Pakistani tenant farmers who are exploited by greedy feudal landowners, the Colombian indigenous native farmers whose lives are disrupted by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, and especially the Palestinian farmers whose lands are confiscated by land-grabbing settlers aided and abetted by the policies of a heinous and brutal Israeli occupation.

Denied access to their fields, the Palestinian farmers are incapable of planting or harvesting their crops. Worse yet, the thousands of uprooted olive and fruit trees signify not only a heinous crime against humanity, but also an act of rabid malevolence against nature that is fully funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Observing Israeli settlers violate his fields with tractors, a Palestinian farmer, denied access to his own land, lamented this violation by stating that this dastardly act was much like seeing “someone violate my wife.”

I interpret my annual ritual of digging the earth as an affirming act, for the planting of a seed is an act of faith and hope.

My wish for 2013 is peace, harmony, good will and hope for the citizens of this world.

Less optimistic today, my 2024 wish is similar.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.