What I Learned from An Afternoon with a Guru in a Garden
“The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and secondly, that they are in consequence very happy...”
— G.K. Chesterton (From the essay “In Defence of Baby Worship”)
I spent a week in Vancouver, BC earlier this month to celebrate the marriage of two dear friends from my undergraduate days. The occasion brought together old friends from across Canada and from as far away as Hong Kong and Bulgaria, and it was a joy just to be among them.
After taking a beautiful hike up Mt. Seymour the day before leaving, the friends and the BC forests were in close competition for the best experience of the trip. But they were overtaken by the most wonderful experience I’ve had in a long time. I spent an afternoon with a master of attention to detail; a chubby guru of grateful wonder — I spent hours in a garden with a baby.
Hugo is 4 months old and deeply offended by motor vehicles and any method to secure him without physically holding him. Hugo’s dad needed to get some work done so, childcare novice though I am, I volunteered to occupy Hugo’s afternoon. I didn’t expect to learn anything from someone who can’t yet feed himself, but maybe I’m just as deficient in attending to my own needs.
Hugo’s dad suggested I take him out into the backyard because Hugo “loves the garden.” I was skeptical. I consider myself attentive enough to appreciate good landscaping and I love the awe-inspiring wilderness views, but staring at the same dozen or so plants for an hour or two? I doubted a simple backyard garden would hold the attention of a fussy 4-month-old because I doubted it would hold my own, more disciplined and cultivated mind.
We walked ‘round the garden a dozen times, ‘round the house twice, sat by the lavender bush and the mint patch, and stood by the overhanging apple tree and the tall puff-ball flowers I’ve forgotten the names of (but have not forgotten). This is what we saw.
A Spider of Seven Legs
On our first round about the garden, Hugo and I encountered a large spider and its web. It’s telling that my reference for what I saw is the giant spider, Shelob from from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, after all, loved the outdoors and took many more walks than I do. Never had I seen a spider do such spider-y things in a place where spiders live with my own eyes. The garden spider sat suspended in the centre of its web when we stopped to look at it. There were several good sized bugs (though a good deal smaller than the spider) wrapped up in web, but whether they’d already had the life sucked out of them or were weekly meal prep, I did not know.
Hugo didn’t seem to notice the spider and seemed much more taken with the leaves of the apple tree from which the web’s long anchor line hung. Maybe babies can’t spot spider-sized details. I was creeped out enough by the spider to move along to the mossy back gate.
But later, as we passed by the spider for a third or fourth time, I stared at it for a long time, watching it climb slowly up its web. This spider had seven legs. It was a good inch long, grey and mottled, and I have no idea why it only had seven legs. The spider didn’t limp and moved at a steady pace up the web higher and higher into the apple tree. As I watch it climb I wondered about the spider’s life. How does a spider lose a leg? Even a sparrow would’ve swallowed it whole, so was it born seven-legged and, in its own mind, quite whole if not slightly unbalanced? Maybe, I thought, it tried to subdue a wasp stuck in its web and it rushed across fraying strands to restrain the angry bug, only to lose a leg in the struggle.
As I considered the strange life of the seven-legged spider, Hugo busied himself with the nearest leaf of the apple tree. Although not more interesting than any other leaf, he reached out just the same. He watched it move in the breeze and then touched it, watching it respond to his hand as well as the wind. Soon, the spider finished its climb and settled under an apple leaf much like any other apple leaf, except this one hid a seven-legged spider.
A Lesson in Looking
My encounter with the spider was bookended by two long sits by a patch of mint and a lavender bush. I watched Hugo become utterly taken with the plants, his hands as curious as his eyes. I followed his lead and rubbed mint leaves gently between my fingers before breathing in deeply. Hugo may not have known mint’s powerful scent, but he knew anything he could sense was worthy of attention.
I modelled an effective rub-n-sniff technique and encouraged his grasping hands by leaning him over the mint patch to go at it with all ten fingers. Whenever Hugo fussed, I turned him to another mint plant which, while much the same to my eyes, always seemed to offer something new to his powers of attention. I felt myself becoming more attentive as I watched him, noticing these mint plants were a different kind than the ones in my own backyard. My own mint had long, sharp leaves — spearmint, I think — and this patch had short, broad leaves, though both were edged with soft, serrated teeth.
We spent almost as much time with the lavender bush but soon after Hugo began to fuss and couldn’t be consoled. He didn’t seem to care much for the apple tree or the grape vine now, or for the diverse textures and smells among the vegetable patch and the herbs. Turns out he only had eyes for lunch, but I was too tired for eating. I handed Hugo back to his dad, fell into a chair, and closed my eyes.
That day I exercised my cloudy eyes. It was my 29th birthday and seeing the wonder in Hugo’s eyes pulled the curtain back on wonder I’d long left buried.
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
— G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy)