Years ago I started gardening around the entrance to my house. Begrudgingly. It was strictly to make our home more presentable. Not for any joy or love. Because I had to. I couldn’t have the neighbors thinking that I didn’t care about my home. And it looked…ok.
But then, one summer something changed in my approach to those growing little green things. To this day I cannot explain it. I began to love the way they reacted to different light. I was fascinated by the transformation of perennials throughout the growing season. I adored the bees and butterflies they attracted. My garden began to expand. More sod was torn up. More trips to the nursery for new specimens.
I looked at magazines. Read gardening books. Paged through catalogs for the latest cultivars. I spent my days hunched over, pulling weeds. Kneeling to examine insect damage. Carefully tending my lovelies. Moving flowers to a new location when I saw that they were not thriving.
I talked gardening to anyone who also tended the earth. I quizzed them about their fertilizing protocol, their watering regimen, and their bloom successes. I listened to those who had been doing this for years. They had to know, just because of sheer hours spent in the dirt. Right?
But sometimes they were wrong. Sometimes a fertilizer burned the plant it was meant to feed. Sometimes a plant was perfectly healthy in the shade where they said it would not survive. Sometimes I was told to give up on a particularly weedy area because it would never work as a garden.
I loved stopping at a local flower farm to quiz the master gardeners that owned it. They were elderly, wrinkled from years spent outside, and always had dirt under their nails. They were walking treasure troves of information and experience. The husband was also a little crusty at times. But I loved talking with him, walking through the gardens, and choosing potted plants. I listened to his advice about what plants would do well under trees, when to trim shrubs, and what to do with struggling ferns during a drought.
Then one summer, I decided to create a trail through the trees between our house and the neighbor’s. It was a rambling little walking path surrounded by shade plants. There was no plan. I just chose the turns according to the trees and shape of the land. This lack of plan is how I ended up in a large patch of wild roses. I went to my master gardener friend for advice. He advised me to just avoid that area. Wild roses are invasive and cannot be conquered. He suggested that I would forever be fighting them and should not frustrate myself.
But he didn’t know how stubborn I was. He didn’t know how much I wanted that curve in the trail. He didn’t know how many hours I was willing to dig out root after root after root. He didn’t know the satisfaction I’d feel in finding the “mother root” as he called it. It was a fist-sized gnarled knot that required a hatchet. That area of the trail eventually became my favorite section.
A few years after discovering that my master gardener friend was not perfect in his advice, I planted a vegetable garden and tossed in some cosmos seeds to attract bees. I always enjoyed the delicate leaves of these happy flowers, but I had never planted them. They looked so dainty as their little ferny greenery developed. I anxiously waited for the buds to set. This was a color that I had never seen before. Would it be as gorgeous as the picture on the seed packet?
I noticed that one of the plants grew faster and sturdier than the rest. That was fascinating! Why was that? Hmmm. Then, as the buds developed, I noticed that the shape of the baby flowers was different on the odd plant. Curious.
As a side note—I was severely allergic to ragweed. I had allergy shots for years to eliminate the yearly flu-like days and weeks I suffered until heavy frost killed that evil weed. It was my nemesis. I despised it. I knew what it looked like. I would never allow one to survive in my yard.
But, when I noticed the different buds on that larger than normal cosmos I decided to look for a picture of the dreaded ragweed. Just to be sure I really knew. To my surprise, I noticed a striking resemblance to the large plant I had nurtured all season.
I hadn’t known what ragweed looked like after all! I felt foolish for weeding around the textbook specimen that invaded my flowers. My husband and I (who is also allergic to ragweed) laughed and laughed about my cultivated allergen. It was unceremoniously yanked from the ground and tossed in a bucket for the city to pick up. While it sat in that five gallon pail awaiting the monthly pickup, it bloomed! In a bucket. With no dirt. With no care. It bloomed! Evil plant!
I may have mumbled under my breath at it each time it came into my line of sight.
I couldn’t resist sharing my stupid care of the evil weed with my master gardener friend. He smiled and said, “You learn gardening as you go.” He then pointed his long finger toward the lush trumpet vine swallowing a trellis and said, “If I had known how nasty these things were 30 years ago, I never would have planted this thing. We learn by trial and error.”
Now I can identify a ragweed plant at the earliest stages of its development. I will not be fooled again. Live and learn.
Tonight, as I tossed another of that dreaded weed into the wheelbarrow, I thought of lessons learned in the dirt. I thought of the years I spent living by the code of what others said Christianity was. Following the rules passed down generation to generation. Listening to the giants of the faith. They had to know what it meant to be Christian just by sheer number of years spent as one. Right?
But, what I see so often displayed by those who profess the loudest, preach the most forcefully, and judge the harshest is…ragweed.
All those years I assumed I knew what ragweed looked like. I listened to some outdoorsy people who thought they could describe it. Some were not clear and I misunderstood. Some were describing something entirely unrelated. The result was the same. Both did not help me identify the real plant.
I finally discovered what ragweed was when I went searching on my own. I looked for pictures. Many pictures. Pictures of young plants. Pictures of blooming plants. Pictures of enormous plants. Pictures of plants mutated by their environment. All slightly different yet all equally toxic to me. Now I know.
The past few years has been troubling to see just how much ragweed there is amongst the cosmos. Some appear inviting, yet sicken others when a crosswind blows. Some blend in beautifully with the cosmos, until you breathe too deeply and find yourself wracked with sneezes. You may try to live peacefully with the ragweed for a time; stubbornly working along as if it wasn’t there. But I always found that it sapped my energy and weakened my desire to be among the flowers. Best to avoid the garden when ragweed is in full bloom.
I’ve tried pulling it from the ground. It’s roots are shallow, after all. But it inevitably comes back somewhere else. It grows in nearly any soil. It prefers neglected and infertile ground. Ground where the patient and tender care of a gardener has not toiled. It grows wherever its seeds fall unless an attentive and loving hand nurtures the delicate blooms around it instead.
We are past time in our churches (and, truly, in our culture as a whole) from allowing the ragweed to overshadow the cosmos. We need to nurture the loving, the welcoming, the inclusive, the generous, the kind. The self-protectionist, the self-centered, the angry, the judgmental, the proud must be uprooted and exposed for the false specimens they are.
Our environment should be one of beauty and grace. We need to stop allowing people to claim the irritation they cause is because the Bible says we will be misunderstood and attacked. So very, very often the hurt and pain caused by the professed protector of the faith is really just their toxic selves cloaked in godliness and spirituality. Deep wounds are not caused by God. But a multitude of gashes have been inflicted in His name.
I am uncertain if I will return to the church someday. My soul feels defeated when watching “Christians” defend rejecting refugees. I feel deflated when I hear them argue the virtues of making the lives of the poor harder. I feel ill when they turn a blind eye to children separated from their parents at the border. And I can’t even begin to accept the demonization of the LGBTQ community when Jesus himself never uttered a word about it. I have no interest in the side-eye from longtime members when they see me. (There’s that one who asks too many questions. The heretic. The blasphemer. The bleeding heart liberal.)
In the meantime, I suppose I will do my best to nurture the cosmos. And the lilies. And the sunflowers. And the roses. And the odd cactus or two. I will study and ask questions of the Master Gardener. I have found a love for all the glorious creations in the garden. Not out of obligation or to please the neighbors. Love. That one big rule that Jesus actually left us with. Love.
And maybe some day the ragweed will be overshadowed by all the glorious blooms around it.