Trimming Hedges in the Garden of Eden
Twenty-four hours ago, my back yard featured a pair of mammoth lilac bushes perhaps fifteen feet in diameter apiece, both towering some nine feet above the earth. Behind the wall of green leaves and purple flowers, lilac bushes are dense forests of thin, whiplike branches that bend backwards and then shoot forward, raking your arms, legs, and face. If you’re me, these branches will whip the cigar you’re puffing as you push through the foliage and cruelly snap the stogie in half with one swift blow. Our lilac bushes house squirrels, spiders, and an assortment of worn and faded toys abandoned by the children of property owners past.
They also blocked the view from our porch of Oregon’s famous Three Sisters mountains to the southwest, which is why I donned my floppy hat, took up the branch cut cutters, lit my cigar, and charged. The battle to lop off the top half of my lilac bushes lasted two sweat-drenched hours. It was an oddly theological experience.
Every landscaping experience is a religious experience. We learn from the Book of Genesis that God created man as something of a farmer, granting him dominion over the earth and all the plants and creatures upon it. God crafted Adam out the earth itself and moved to him to the Garden of Eden, which was made for man “to work it and keep it,” as Genesis 2:15 says. The texts give us no real indication of how long Adam and Eve worked the Garden; a quick reading of Genesis gives the impression the Fall took all of fifteen minutes, whereas they may have tended the plants and animals for years, perhaps decades. To work the land is to turn back the clock on history and step into the shoes of our ancestors who walked with God and tended his Garden.
Well, we can’t really step into their shoes, what with them being naked and all. You know what I mean. For a moment, as we tend and shape the life that grows from the earth, we are linked with primordial man. We do as Adam and Eve did.
As I shouldered my way through the thick curtain of branches to the wooden heart of the first lilac bush, I began wondering about Adam. On his walks through the Garden, did he ever turn the corner and find a long-neglected lilac bush that had grown so large he had no recourse but to take his loppers—did Adam have loppers?—and trim that sucker down? Did he ever have to fight his way through waves of sharp, springy branches to reach the middle of an intransigent shrub so massive in girth that he had no choice but to launch an expedition to its center? Did the branches whip and snap and break his cigar in half?
Of course, several of my questions are entirely anachronistic. It’s doubtful Adam smoked cigars; this was, after all, thousands of years before the invention of the Zippo. I would be surprised if he had a decent pair of scissors, let alone hedge clippers. Still, I assume the same physics in force today were bouncing about the universe in the Garden of Eden. It’s simply mathematical that a rogue branch, stuck on Adam’s leg, might suddenly release its tension and slap history’s first rebel in the buttocks. My forearms and calves are covered in cuts and scratches, and I had the Puritanical good sense to cover my body with clothes before diving into the lilac bush. Did Adam come home after a day of work covered in cuts and scratches?
Furthermore, did he ever worry about sweat getting in his eyes? Getting a drop of sweat in my eye is tantamount to getting shot in the cornea with a BB gun. I stumble around blindly in pain, wiping frantically at my face as if that will somehow extract the sweat drop from my eyeball. I can’t imagine Adam doing that, at least before the Fall. Perhaps I’m wrong, but hard, sweaty labor seems like a consequence of Adam and Eve’s rebellion:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
Now I’m wondering, will I still get sweat in my eyeballs in the New Heaven and New Earth? Or whipped by a branch?
As I tackled the second bush, my thoughts turned somber. Our lilacs abut the chain link fence that surrounds our back yard, and, as it turns out, they are slowly ripping the metal fabric from its posts. The many branches of the lilac have slithered through the open chain link and have slowly lifted away over the years. If it continues, the bush will destroy the fence. For the sake of maintaining my back yard (not to mention keeping my neurotic shelter dog from bolting through a gap in the fence), someday soon, I’ll return with the loppers and cut off all the branches pushing against the fence.
This may seem insensitive, or even misanthropic, but it seems to me that God has found himself in a similar situation throughout history. The Flood, the conquest of Canaan, the sacking of Jerusalem. . .there are several episodes in the story of mankind where we might see them in the light of a gardener tending a landscape gone wild. A couple of months ago, I tore out a holly bush the previous owners had planted on top of the irrigation control box for our underground sprinkler system. Its razor sharp leaves made accessing the box a literal pain, and its many roots threatened to damage the pipes or the control valves. If those broke and cut off the water supply, the rest of the yard would wither under our relentless high desert sun. The holly’s presence threatened the well-being of my corner of creation and had to go. In the same way, the sins of man in the days of Noah and the sins of the Canaanites were a blight on God’s Creation. They had to go. I took the loppers to the holly bush. God took the loppers to humanity.
With a clip of sin there and a cut of iniquity there, God prunes mankind as only an infinitely wise and kind omnipotent Gardener can. Perhaps it seems cruel to compare a human life with a wayward bough. Granted, the analogy a branch is to a man as a man is to God is inexact—but not in the sense a humanist might hope. Man does not create a branch out of nothing, and his wisdom is finite and marred by both that finitude and sin. While we have dominion over the earth, we are neither its creator nor its sustainer. God is infinitely more than man than man is to a branch.
So, as I clipped and trimmed the lilacs in the midday high desert sun, wiping the sweat from my brow—all the while cursing the branches cutting my skin—I conceded that through it all I must remain grateful to still be in a garden at all. I find it unlikely that in my own human way I am not destroying fences and breaking pipes like those invasive roots and branches. Sin is a universal characteristic of fallen mankind, after all. I am a wayward bough, and I am sometimes surprised that God has yet to take his loppers to my branch.
The image of an impassive God cutting down sinners is frightening, even disheartening. Our consolation is that the image is wrong. God is not beyond the pain of existence. When I fought the holly bush, the holly bush fought back, ripping my skin with its ragged leaves. God entered the world as the new Adam, the new Gardener, in the person of Jesus, to eliminate sin, to fight the destruction run wild on Earth. He felt the pain of a gardener. A whip lined with shards of metal cut into his back. A crown of thorns tore at his brow. Nails pierced his hands. God humbled himself and entered the world he created in a vulnerable state to fight our battles and share our pain. Whatever God’s impetus for pruning humanity throughout history, it cannot be due to alien indifference or apathy. He himself felt the full force of sin.
At long last, I stood back from the bushes and admired my handiwork. With several feet off the top of the lilacs removed, the Three Sisters sat in full view. I began with that vista in mind, and I labored until the vision was realized. The divine Gardener, I believe, also has a grand vision in mind. I look forward with hope for the day his vision is realized.
Photo by Chris.