Gardening Through the Storm by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I spend a lot of time thinking about gardens. I think there might be something to them.

It seems strange to talk about gardens during such an intense time. The crucible of injustice, laid so bare during the pandemic, is overflowing all around us in a volcanic eruption of protests and retaliation. And more and more, we understand how it’s all connected – poverty, violence, choking black men, choking women, a choking planet. All connected in a huge, toxic river of greed, fear, destruction, and death.

As usual, I turn to my Methodist tradition during intense times; and the first chapters of the first book in our scripture talk about gardens. Genesis is not the oldest book – that honor goes to Job, a fascinating and timely exploration of the question of why bad things happen to good people. Even so, it makes logical sense to start the scriptures off with mythology about the beginning of the universe and of humanity. So, then: why all the gardens?

Well, after years of contemplating gardens, I think we might underestimate them.

See, sometimes we treat gardens like a feminine hobby, or a luxury, the thing that comes ‘after’ – after we have secured peace, after we have paid the bills. Maybe when I retire, I will have time to garden. But think of Ron Finlay, the ‘gangsta gardener’ from South Central Los Angeles. He got tired of waiting around for fresh food to arrive through policy reform; and now, his movement has inspired the whole community to buck the rules and engage in the apparently deeply subversive practice of growing our own food wherever we can.

St. Alban Tor, one of the remaining city gates into Basel. Photo by the author.

Finley calls his neighborhood a food prison. Being black in America… the pain is in your DNA, he says. So ten years ago, he left fashion design and started planting, offering food to anyone who walks by. Since the pandemic quarantine, he has been virtually self-sufficient by eating out of his 40 x 70 square foot yard. Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, he insists. People looked at my garden like ‘your little hobby’ or something; now people realize this is no damn hobby, this is life and death. This is our revolution.

I think Finley is right. What if gardens are not what comes after the violence? What if gardens heal the wounds and the violence right now?

According to Scripture, oppressive control of food and water are primary indicators of idolatrous greed, exploitation, and empire. The prophet Micah rages against the leaders who do not embrace justice; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, chop them up like meat for the pot, like flesh in a cauldron [Mic 3:1-3].  But in a just land, all the swords are permanently changed into pruning hooks and ploughshares; and everyone will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid [Mic 4:3-4].

A place to rest outside; a tree, for food; a vine, for drink; and safety. Maybe it’s as radically simple as that. Maybe that is heaven.

I used to live somewhere with a whole lot of gardens. The Swiss culture evolved from independent mountain valley communities, and it never lost those values – wilderness, independence, resilience. But in the 1800s, a terrible epidemic hit Zurich; the wealthy fled the city, hundreds of poorer citizens died. Swiss historians say the epidemic shocked a complacent society, revealing the lies about supposed well-being and equality:

It was discovered that many of our fellow citizens are positioned in such a way that, with the best will in the world, it is impossible for them to eat properly… Is the worker really there to make every effort to only partially acquire [their] life’s needs and be dependent on charity for the rest? Do you have no idea that such conditions must have a depressing and unnerving effect on the sense of honour and morality of the worker?

The result was a new constitution and what is now called ‘the most democratic political system in the world.’ The Swiss work hard, but not too long; everything closes up, and people take Sabbath leisure together. Everyone has healthcare, a living wage, paid vacation time. It’s not socialist, it’s a mixed capitalist economy shaped directly by the (mail-in) votes of its citizens. And, everywhere you go, there are community gardens, strawberries used as ground cover, balconies bursting with greenery, and clusters of grasses and wildflowers going to seed.

The resulting ethos is one of deep abundance – such that the Swiss literally each choose a charity that withdraws directly from their bank accounts every month. Both the Red Cross and the UN reach out from Geneva to the world, trying to learn about and share abundant shalom. Try, if you can, to imagine it. No one ever forced to ask passersby for donations. Or to beg. Can you possibly imagine such a place? 

Before I left Basel, I learned from a neighbor that when the old medieval wall was taken down, the area where it used to stand was turned into a garden – a tree lined pathway around the old city. Even as our US presidential candidate fear-mongered and grandstanded about another wall, my family walked each day in a flower filled garden where fear and exclusion had once prevailed. That image – a garden, where a wall used to stand – inspired me to write Eden, a song of farewell and hope.

Nowhere is perfect; but it was hard to leave what truly felt at times like Eden. And I do take hope. I see what happened in Zurich years ago unfolding around us. I see a growing awareness of inequity. I see unprecedented courage and solidarity. And I see more and more Coronavirus Gardens, part of the rapidly growing local and urban farming movement, reclaiming our right to deep relationships with abundant ecosystems – have you seen the seven and a half acre vertical forest apartment building in Milan?

Maybe Finlay is right. Maybe gardens are fierce. And when we don’t know what else to do, maybe we can take his simple, compelling advice – and go plant some shit. And maybe, somehow, together – will we find safety, abundance, rest under our fruit trees; and study war no more.


Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee does Climate Resilience Chaplaincy in the Boston area. She recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology and she is an adjunct professor for Wesley Theological Seminary. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Categories: Activism, Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, environment, General, Nature, Peacemaking, Poverty, Relationality, Scripture, Social Justice, survival, sustainability

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16 replies

  1. All I can say is that gardening is a form of survival for me – this spring I spent reclaiming an abandoned flower garden and when it came time to plants the vegetables the work seemed easy in comparison… Gardening gets you into the moment and the mystery of becoming – the miracle of seeds – it has kept me sane… and now with all the flowers I have a jooyous bouquet outside my door… every day I give thanks…

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree, Sara… survival is a great word. For me, there is something about the feeling that I am doing something creative, or productive, while also being present in my ecosystem. It’s a bit like playing music; I feel a sense of accomplishment, even when I don’t really have some specific purpose. Maybe because it nourishes me so much. I’m so happy for you about your garden.


  2. Thank you for this beautiful and true, hope-giving post and for your moving song. Amen, Blessed Be, So Mote it Be. And So It Is!


    • Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m so glad you found the post hopeful, and that you appreciate the song as well. I can’t sing that song without weeping. Blessings to you.


  3. My only garden is a plot about 2′ by 4′ next to the stairs. It’s filled with succulents, which I like because they require so little busy care. Nevertheless, I like the idea of gardens with veggies and fruits and flowers. It’s good to care for something, and when we’re supposed to stay inside and apart from other people, we can talk to our plants as we care for them. It’s connection. And, yes, seeds are miraculous, both literally and metaphorically.

    There are lots of community gardens in Long Beach, many of them in the path through the city that used to be train tracks. Long Beach is a high diversity city and, alas, has food deserts. The community gardens help feed hungry people and also bring people together who might not otherwise come together for any reason.

    Thanks for this post. Bright blessings to anyone who has a garden of any size.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara. I completely agree; a garden is in the eye of the beholder. One houseplant can feel like an abundant garden when that’s what we need. And I love that the tracks are a community garden! What a beautiful thing. Peace to you.


  4. “… A place to rest outside; a tree, for food; a vine, for drink; and safety. Maybe it’s as radically simple as that. Maybe that is heaven…”
    I do believe it is. That’s pretty much all I’ve had for decades and it feels like heaven every single day. Also like security, as much as there can be in a finite life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Laurie. Yes, as much safety as there can be – I love how you put that. And that is why we have to appreciate the moments under our tree while we have them; who knows what tomorrow brings? But for a moment, maybe we have heaven. Peace to you.


  5. Every word you say here is absolutely true and beautiful! I have been without a garden for a year now and am missing that work so very much. Soon I will have a garden again but in the meantime I’ve started a few things in containers. Organic gardening keeps us connected to Mother Earth and helps grow the understanding of how everything is connected. Thanks for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judith, I am so very glad. And I am also so sorry that you’ve been without a garden for a year, although I’m delighted to hear that you will soon have one again. I don’t think we can truly appreciate where our food and flowers come from until we’ve nurtured them ourselves. And it also helps us see why organic methods are so important! Many blessings to you in your new garden!


  6. Great piece! Not sure you know him, but Craig Hickman is a Representative in the Maine Government. “Hickman is the first openly gay African American in history to serve in the Maine House of Representatives. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Hickman moved to New England to attend Harvard University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in government. He and his spouse, Jop Blom, live in Winthrop, where they own and operate Annabessacook Farm, a sustainable farm raising organic produce, dairy and livestock. They also host the Winthrop Community Gardens and a fresh food bank for anyone in need.” He is an incredible speaker and a truly inspiring person. I heard him at the UMaine MLK Breakfast a few years back when I was giving the prayer. He and his husband give away free meals to anyone at their farm stand every Wednesday. Check him out! Maybe stop at his farm stand next time you’re speeding up the highway to see me!


    • Thank you for telling me about this! I did know how about him and what a wonderful witness and powerful form of ministry. I will check it out!


  7. So powerful. Not a fucking hobby. Life and death. Revolution. It’s almost 11PM and I just wish I could be out in my garden. Thank you for this Word of Life. <3


    • Trelawney, I have been thinking of your garden and what an incredibly powerful source of healing it is for you and your family, in so many ways. <3


  8. I always dabbled in the garden, but it was in the deepest grief of my husband’s ransom murder that gardening became my obsession. God led me to the garden and met me there in the soil of my own back yard. Life, hope, and faith are all found working and watching things growing in the dirt. Your words mirror my experience. Thank you for your work.


    • Camila, I am so incredibly sorry for what you have been through. Thank you for sharing the powerful healing you experienced. Peace to you, friend.


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