The Mower Against Gardens
I’ve been working a lot in my gardens over the summer: pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, spreading endless wheelbarrow loads of mulch. And, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry of Andrew Marvell, particularly “The Mower Against Gardens.” Marvell is rivaled only by John Milton as the best English poet of the late seventeenth century, and his poems on gardens contain themes of Eden, formal gardens, breeding hybrid plants, the untamed beauty of nature, and the fleeting joy of wandering solitary in nature.
(I know, I’m a literature nerd. But I love these poems that think about the relationship of humanity to nature pre-industrial revolution; Wordsworth’s nature poetry is lovely, for example, but I’m wary of the often sharply drawn dichotomies between [bad] industry and urbanization and [good] untouched nature.)
In “The Mower Against Gardens” the speaker — the mower — complains about the unnaturalness of formal gardens, with their expensive flowers, grafted trees, and hybrid plants. The mower contrasts this with the wild meadows, watched over by benevolent Nature and populated by “fauns and fairies.”
But the irony here is that the mower, armed with his scythe, tends to both the meadow and the garden: cutting down the grass, pruning the trees, exerting human dominance (dominion?) over both spaces. And both the garden and the meadow as the mower describes are imaginary: no gods dwell in the meadows, and nature, hardly absent from the garden, instead thrives there thanks to human cultivation.
Although the mower highlights the dichotomy between the cultivated garden and the wild meadow, Marvell suggests that both are spaces where humans tend nature, their responsibility since God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and where humans come into conflict with nature, their curse since the Fall.
Both the conflict and the joy of responsibility ring true for me, as I find both deep satisfaction and profound frustration as I tend my garden.
I have a shrub by my front porch, and I love the deep green leaves that welcome everyone who comes to my front door. But I also have to fight it, pruning it back every year as its branches threaten to grow over the walkway and block, rather than welcome, those who walk up the pathway.
I feel a deep satisfaction when I clear the weeds from a flower bed, allowing my plants to flourish free from competing thistles and clover. But I also feel a sense of despair, since I know that I will have to do this again, and again. And I know that now the rabbits will have unfettered access to the tender leaves of my new plants. My sweat drips into the soil as I fight nature in order to tend it.
And I wonder: how much of this work is good? How much is broken by the Fall? One of the things broken in the Fall was the relationship between humanity and the natural world; it is now marked by struggle and exploitation rather than harmony and care. Marvell points to this in his poem as people twist nature to fit into unnatural forms. But even so, the mower exists to keep nature from taking over fields and dwellings; the mower, despite his spoken stance in the poem, is an antagonist to nature.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly uses the figure of the farmer in his parables. These agricultural illustrations would certainly have resonated with his non-industrialized audience. But I can’t help but think that Jesus' use of nature is more profound: our struggle to both care for and protect ourselves from the natural world is one of the oldest struggles faced by humanity.
I think of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, found in Matthew’s gospel, where the farmer sows good seed but the enemy comes in the night to sow weeds. When both come up, the servants despair: what are they to do about the weeds growing up entwined with the wheat? The farmer says: let them both grow together. Let the good and the bad intermingle because it can be difficult to distinguish between the two; because rooting out the bad can damage the good; because the struggle can make the wheat stronger.
Just like Marvell’s mower, the farmer in this parable complicates the dichotomies we like to draw: natural and unnatural, good and bad, wheat and weed. My work in my gardens is a microcosm of my work in life, as I try to do good but sometimes cause harm, as I do work that must be repeated over and over and over again.
None of this invalidates the work. But our struggle with the natural world, even in as small a setting as the flowerbeds around my house, is one of the primal struggles faced by human beings. We can take hope in knowing that, in the end, the Farmer will separate out the wheat and the weeds. But until that day, we work in mixed ways in this mixed world.