Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Gardening

A life in commercial landscapes
     What a gardener sees

In places that are prosperous, gardens abound. In modern America, that means commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. I quite like many of these spaces, but they are quite different from most private gardens maintained by individual gardeners. Many who move past them every day cannot really see them in the way that gardens are seen. They remain partly abstractions, more the idea of a garden than an actual garden.

They are like paintings--abstract compositions with an unchanging quality, maintained at a moment of perfection.

I don’t dislike these plant designs--actually I enjoy them quite a lot, finding them a huge improvement over the asphalt and concrete expanses that characterize poorer places. But they have much in common with silk and plastic flower bouquets that present an image of flowers without quite capturing the essence of flowers. The dimension of time--the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying--that inform the gardener’s vision is, as far as possible, absent, leaving an aesthetic dimension somewhat emptied of meaning. Though such plantings are alive they are somewhat not living.

Typically, they rely heavily on annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This normally limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common, but rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, usually measured in dollars and understood as a cost. They are ironic constructs, in the sense that a carefree garden is, to some degree, an invisible garden. What is visible is not a garden so much as the image of a garden, in somewhat the way that what is present in a Pizza Hut is not Italy but a sense of Italy.

And so we create a world that has its beauty, but the beauty more of a modern mall than that of a centuries-old village. Such places do not evoke a sense of the people who made them and keep them. In such spaces, we are oddly alone, no presiding presence of a gardener or of life beyond our own breaking the spell.

Of course, the modern mall is the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice and compel the primary function of urban humans: wanting. We move through an aura of wealth and well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We pass by a constructed now, going on with our dreamy business, undistracted by care. We are left, sometimes, with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Goodness is a vision
     A happy person is like a garden

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
Proverbs 29:18

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was a gift. So it wasn’t really ours. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

The way back to the garden is to create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what “goodness” means, or how to talk intelligibly about what it means, because I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of the world as it has been and can be, a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

The rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

To know the place for the first time
     Learning through care

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets)

Eden did not require care, so in choosing death over imperishable bliss, Eve was choosing to be human--to be a planter and a cultivator, to watch and labor in a place where there was a need for care. Her tasting the forbidden fruit may have been done in a desire to make the fruit real.

So her descendants labor outside the garden, catching glimpses of an imperishable beauty that we experience almost as nostalgia. Through care we learn what beauty is really, and how much of a gift it is, really. Through care, we learn to have a human heart.

“What we lost through [Eve’s] act of transgression we never really possessed, for without a human heart in its midst, Eden was wasted on us,” Robert Pogue Harrison observes. “Yet the mortal earth into which we fell was not.”


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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

A garden is slow music
     Making time visble once again


A garden is like slow music, a composition that arises in time. A garden is always a story, a series of events constantly evoking care from the gardener, who sees both what he hopes will be and what is actually present, actually unfolding.

Unfortunately, gardens are largely invisible to modern people, who are living in a hurry, seeing kaleidoscopic surfaces which change constantly, without meaning, without rootedness in narratable time within which the thoughtful person learns to transform images into radiant phenomena. So the hurried soul sees only the image of the garden, the garden itself as invisible as the soul.


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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

The context of childhood
     Waiting for Superman?

An attentive young girl in her school desk surrounded not by a garden but by desolation--it’s an evocative bit of propaganda for a film I haven’t seen: Wating for Superman, which won the “audience award” for a U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s by the director of An Inconvenient Truth. So that’s two strikes against it.

The image catches my attention because it suggests an important truth: the environment in which education takes place matters profoundly. The School of Epicurus was a garden at his house on the outskirts of Athens. Withdrawing to a garden in dark times, when humanity is under siege from the forces of darkness, can be a sanctifying mode of sanity.

If our culture continues its “progress” towards “ideals” that are toxic to childhood people of good will are going to have to contemplate the realities of our public schools, the environments in which childhood is embedded.

I’m skeptical that this film--emerging as it seems from progressivism, which is much of the problem--is likely to tell important truths. However, since its promotional poster does resonate in me, I’ll look forward to giving it my attention.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Which stories? (24 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

As we contemplate stories, both in books and in living, we increase their prominence in our personal narrative environment. It’s helpful to have some general principles in mind, just as we rethink our diet in the light of principles of nutrition that we learn. We might note, for example, that stories that only evoke fear are not as important as those that also teach understanding. We might consider that stories that only clarify principles are not as good as those that somehow manage to kindle or encourage a love of rightness.

I think that a story that leads me to delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself; and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family. Further, I’m confident that a story that leads me to feel empathy for all of humanity is better than one that tempts me to expect outsiders to be enemies. A story that instills a reverent sense of co-creation with all of life may be about as good as stories get.

Though details may vary and shift as we see more, we can nonetheless discern a hierarchy of stories based on the vision of reality that they encode, with better stories helping us glimpse larger realities, preparing the mental structures we need to inhabit such stories.

This doesn’t mean that I think such a hierarchy can be defined or promoted in any useful way by any coercive bureaucracy. Beyond the level of law, we can only invite, entice, persuade and perhaps seduce. Besides, literature is more subtle than organizational policies, and a powerful vision of evil sometimes teaches much about why goodness works as it does. A principal (and Jesuit priest) at a Catholic high school where I once taught forbade the teaching of Once and Future King--T. H. White’s telling of the Camelot story--because the novel’s central action was the adultery between Lancelot and Guenever. It occurred to me that adultery is also a central theme in the King David story from the Bible, and that the more important issue might be whether the story tells the truth or not. The infidelity in the Camelot story leads to the fall of the kingdom and the suffering of all the main characters. But since I had not been asked for my opinion I didn’t offer one. My point is that I have no interest in any “authorities” imposing a hierarchy of better or worse books, though I do think we, as free people, need to be discussing always which books are better and why. Socrates argued that the good life is the life spent asking the question, “what is the good life?” Thinking one has arrived at the final answer is a way turning away from the question, a way of failing. So it is, I think, with the question, “what are the good books?” It’s death not to ask the question, but it is also death to think it has been finally answered.

We need to recognize that some stories are more useful than others, and we need to keep the discussion about good and better alive. We cannot give the authorities the power to settle the matter. The power to compel belongs to lower orders.

But our problem today isn’t authorities imposing reading lists. Instead, the difficulty of answering such a question has led many of us to make the mistake of thinking that we can turn away from it. The current trend is away from such questions, so teaching literature devolves to teaching reading, and the question of what to read is answered by noting what kids seem to like. This serves the need of children to develop powerful moral imaginations no better than planning meals based on children’s preferences serves their need to for nutritional diversity and balance.

Having a vision about what a good life might be and what a good society is like is an adult responsibility. Having such a vision, we have a sense of what stories young people will benefit from experiencing. When it comes to educating children, no question is more important than how we will constitute their narrative environment, what stories we will consciously live and tell.

To some extent the moral sense–the feeling that some things are right and some are wrong–is innate, but the moral imagination that shapes the cognitive and emotional landscape of our fears and desires does so by constructing coherent wholes from the patterns of intention, action and consequence that we learn from the stories we inhabit--those we hear, but also those we experience and those we learn to tell.

Our narrative environment includes the curricular stories of history, science and literature, of course, but it also includes the informal storytelling that goes on without pause in the hallways and lounges. It includes the carefully structured narratives of the football team’s movement through a series of planned contests toward the resolution of the seasonal script. It includes the way the principal deals with a recalcitrant student and the way the school board responds to a parent’s challenge over a book.

The better schools are those that manage to pull all these levels and genres of narrative into more coherent wholes. Such schools are orders that waste less energy than failing schools at enacting competing tales, trying to will contradictions. To a large extent, then, school reform requires many acts of literary criticism in which participants increase their narrative intelligence.

Just as we get more intelligent as individuals by recognizing when we are working against ourselves, learning bit by bit that we can only make our lives coherent by devoting ourselves to higher purposes–in the way that being healthy is a higher purpose than tasting candy–and by editing the profusion of whims and desires–"goods," the utilitarians call them–that threaten to dissolve us, so schools get better by trying to make the story of their desire and their action coherent. Kierkegaard argued that “the good” is our name for that which we can will without contradiction. “Purity of heart,” he said, “is to will one thing.”

So it is with schools and other organizations. As they get better, their purposes become more harmonious. They become more beautiful–more sustainable and more healthy–at the same time they become more free. They are lively with stories that bind us together in common cause, in contemplation and discussion about what works and what does not work. They are animated by high purpose, and they are rich in chances to speak and to listen.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within that is in harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

Still, there are lots of troubles, and it is not clear that much of the world is getting better. The world has never been an easy place for working toward peace. When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. Nevertheless, no matter how urgent things appear around us, we can’t evade the responsibility to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the very contention and conflict we hope to resolve.

I understand that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and others find support for the work of peace through a kindred faith that larger powers are operative in the world, and that our efforts, insufficient on their own, are part of a bigger story.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Paradox: on the value of hierarchical thinking 5/24
     The way of the teacher

Living amid a multi-level reality, we are often confused about questions of value. Consider a simple question (posed by Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen) : is a forest fire good or bad?

At the level of one tree, fire is catastrophic, leading to the complete destruction of the individual. Clearly, fire is bad.

But seen from the level of the forest as a whole organism, the fire releases nutrients back into the cycle, allowing diversity and vitality to continue. Fires are part of the life cycle of forests, necessary to their health. Clearly, fire is good.

This only sounds like a contradiction. In truth, it is a paradox. A contradiction arises within a unified descriptive system, and it signals an error: This is Jack, and this is not Jack. Something is wrong.

But a paradox occurs when we mix descriptive system or levels in a hierarchy, and it only signals a limit. When Jesus said, “You must lose your life to find your life,” he was using “life” in two different senses, inviting people to consider the possibility of a larger and more liberating reality beyond what they normally thought of as “life.”

He said his mission centered on peace, and he often spoke in paradoxes to awaken people to the multi-level, hierarchical nature of reality. Seeing the hierarchy is an important step both toward seeing the futility of much of our fighting and toward being at peace with much of what happens.

A good deal of conflict between well-intentioned people occurs simply because opponents are looking at different levels in a hierarchy. People who are looking at the same phenomenon but seeing different realities often seem to each other so unable to see the obvious that both sides begin thinking the other is unforgivably stupid or downright malicious. Visit any cable news talk show for examples.

If your attention is focused upon a particular tree engulfed in flames while your opponent is focused upon the 500-year cycle of a cedar grove and seems unable to grant what you are seeing much worth, it’s natural to get impatient. When neither our clear evidence nor our sound reason can persuade those who oppose us, it’s easy to begin suspecting that we are up against something evil.

So an important rule of peace is to appreciate paradox--that in the complexity of life, our opponents may have experiences and perceptions that are simply invisible to us, and that they might not be contradicting us so much as calling our attention to aspects of reality that we do not yet know.

Consider some of the educational questions that have led people into shrill divisiveness: Should we use the whole language or the skills approach? Should schools be centrally administered for the sake of efficiency, or should they adopt site-based approaches for the sake of flexibility? On specific discipline questions, should we favor consistency or flexibility? Is it the family or the community that educates?

Partisans on each side of such questions tend to argue past each other, like ships passing in the night. They often become angry with each other, although the best answer to each of these questions is “both, within limits.”

This may also be the best answer to even more vexing questions. Should a woman have the right to control her own body, or should others step in and prevent the wanton destruction of unborn children? Should our leaders take courageous stands, even when they must act alone, or should they adopt consensual approaches and bend to political power?

The ecologist Aldo Leopold noted that “nature is full of laws that begin working at some lower limit and cease working at some upper limit.” So, too, societies. The fundamental insight of ecology is that nature is a complex hierarchy in which every level is related to levels above it and below it, and that this complex hierarchy is characterized by a stunning array of feedback loops connecting all the levels in communication systems that we are only beginning to discern.

Still, the universe is one thing. Many value conflicts emerge from our own perceptual limitations.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Beside the sumac
     Autumn gardening during the cold civil war

Sumac, Umphrey's gardens

I put on a heavy sweater to plant spring bulbs. Pink tulips, white tulips and every color of hyacinth. It’s a way of looking past winter, which I feel on my cheeks, in my legs, and hear in the cold tonality of the election fight this year.

The ground is not yet frozen. The dahlias are black and fallen, the peonies still green.

One of my designs is to divide the pinkest peony, the fragrant one, when it goes dormant. I have a hedge of red peonies that bloom earlier that I want to move back, to make room for pink peonies and lilies in front of it, so when the red peonies fade in June the blooms will continue. I pause at a wilted bug bane and wonder again what I might plant around it. Dwarf asters?

Through the cooling weekend, I plot a thousand little things, a small swirl of intentions, lifting and settling moments of color, drifts of scent in a distant summer I build from memory.

Am I dreaming or remembering? I look at the red sumac, bleeding or flaming with something too doomed for defiance, too lovely for defeat.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

The best thing about living in a garden
     Grandkids

image
Bryce, Jenna and Daij.

On a church blog a few days ago, people were wondering whether it were doctrine that people should have a garden. I don’t know, but it does seem to me that we are meant to live in a garden. Living in a garden is quite different from having one. It may be the destiny of human beings that they come to understand that earth is their garden.

For now, five acres gives me plenty to think about. Though most of my effort goes into flowering plants, we do grow some things for the kitchen--tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, peas, beans, pumpkins and potatoes.

The thing I like best in my garden, though, is grandkids. Here Bryce, Jenna and Daij harvest some potatoes. I get more pleasure out of their discovery of the wonders of nature than I do out of the food itself.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Wild gardens reveal the only world
     Waking up in an alpine place

In the Montana where I grew up, I never visited elaborate gardens. The gardens I knew were not grand creations, but humble efforts made with little more than shovels and hoes, aimed more at food than design. A neighbor, Mrs. Dunn, was a marvel because she actually built raised beds out of recycled planks and filled them with black soil dug by hand at Mission Dam in late fall when the reservoir was nearly empty and the rich deposits of top soil could be easily loaded into a truck. She talked beets and rutabagas more than peonies and thyme.

Lots of people grew potatoes, cabbage and corn in long rows, along with beds of cucumbers and tomatoes, but gardening for beauty was quite limited. An occasional line of marigolds beside the beets and radishes, a few petunias along the sidewalk, a small bed of snapdragons, an heirloom yellow rose bush by the front gate. There was one house in town that, for a couple of years, had a lush display of flowers I had no names for then but now know included lupines and irises and and lilies. I stopped in wonder that such things could actually grow in Montana. It was like something from a movie or magazine.

But I hardly thought about gardens. The strongest influence on my gardening aesthetic has probably been the wildflower displays I saw in rocky meadows around alpine lakes in the Mission Mountains. Waking in wilderness mountains beside meadows brimming with morning light, I felt a sense of pure grace. For a gardener, awakening comes before planting. Sometimes I inarticulately felt I could see more deeply into the heart of creation and sense there not the unintended accidents of a world of chance so much as gardens within gardens. Awakening there was being young in a way that does not wane with mere passage of years.

What moved me about those wild alpine gardens probably had as much to do with my attention as with what was “out there"--because I since have had the same sense in many other places, including urban parks. Much, maybe most, of what I like about camping is the absence of noise and distractions which makes it easier to pay attention to the moment, to the light which both reveals and feeds the world, to the endlessly varying mosaic beautiful in each of its details and sublime in its depth and breadth. A dew-sparkled world of flowers and shrubs and rocks and water seen in the slant light of morning is a world that, once seen, is always there, everywhere.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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