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Starting Point

Caring for a plot of Earth in need of redemption


Another sister and I moved into a rented two-family brick flat in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis in 1991. In this neighborhood named for Henry Shaw, who in 1860 designed and plotted the now famous Missouri Botanical Gardens, we found we had inherited a small backyard jungle, wonderful neighbors and a summer of weeding. After a concerted Saturday afternoon’s work, friends, relatives and neighbors left us to our own plans and devices for that yard.

Always a casual, no-effort sort of gardener, I had left a trail of crocuses in the many other yards I had lived with over the years. I now realized that this particular plot of Earth was a unique gift, one in need of redemption. The former owners and an occasional tenant were gardeners; the topsoil was an earthworm’s delight. So we had goodness from which to grow.

After that first summer of weeding and eliminating mysterious growths that a neighbor called “swamp cabbage,” we had a plan for the next summer. Over the springs and summers, the garden grew; brick walkways eased passages between beds. Clematis twined the wire fence on the side; Virginia creeper and honeysuckle quickly covered the wooden fence in the back. Ajuga was a lovely ground cover for a few years until it developed a fungus and died; dragon’s blood sedum has taken its place. On a hot summer day, the cat hides in the brilliant orange cosmos, and monarchs and hummingbirds hover in the butterfly bushes. Gardening talk sprinkles the block as neighbors share seeds, bulbs, plants and too many tomatoes.

As I learn from my companion gardeners, I also learn from this small piece of Earth that came as gift. I’ve learned the necessity of boundaries and borders -- zoysia needs to be separated from the bed with the raspberries, Michaelmas daisies and lamb’s ear. On the other hand, some boundaries can go -- let the vinca by the back fence take over the long, narrow strip it seems to want.

Usually a person with a plan and agenda, I often go to the yard with one purpose in mind. I have, however, learned to listen to the Earth, to let it tell me what it needs for that early morning’s work. My plan evaporates like the dew in the sunlight of the Earth’s request. Gardening, like life, means getting down, dirty and sweaty if both are to be really lived. Redemption happens in the down, dirty and sweaty times as well as in the joy of flowers and vegetables. And the weeds are always a friendly reminder that the jungle is only a lapse in vigilance away.

The province center of my community, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, is rooted in the middle of a 400-acre working farm in rural southern Illinois. Several years ago, Jesuit Fr. Al Fritsch, land-audit consultant, advised us that the apparent devastation of the Earth is desecrating a place made holy -- redeemed at great price -- by the Precious Blood of Christ. Now communities are called to enter into this suffering as compassionate healers and renewers of the Earth, he said. In part, they can do this by beginning at home. The manner is to be simple and modest; the method resourceful; the atmosphere one of joy.

Those words are large enough for our farm and flexible enough for an urban backyard. Rain forests need saving in Brazil, but jungles of weeds in a yard need redeeming. I like to think that in some small way our efforts in backyard St. Louis participate in redeeming the Earth. It is indeed a joy.

Adorer of the Blood of Christ Sr. Regina Siegfried gardens in the Shaw Neighborhood in south St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999