At the risk of sounding like a crank, I want to talk about the Big Lie of gardening, the one set forth in hundreds of glossy magazines each spring, illustrated with mouth-watering photography. It says that gardening is a way to bring happiness and tranquility into our lives.

I’ve been a passionate gardener most of my adult life, and I’m not saying that I’ve never experienced pleasure or beauty while gardening. But just as often, its been gardening dukka. Dukka, as you may know, is a Buddhist term usually translated as suffering, which can just as well be interperted as dissatisfaction. It’s fueled by the twin afflictions, Craving and Aversion, and boy, do we gardeners know a lot about them.    

Craving is what sends us out to the garden center after we see the aforementioned gorgeous photos of “garden rooms,” where every plant is in bloom and there are no weeds. It’s what we feel when we leaf through seed catalogues in the dead of winter and ponder the qualities of heirloom tomatoes. Aversion is what we feel when the early blight starts to creep up our tomato plants and the horsetail tries to take over the daylily bed. The very essence of gardening is to be at odds with the way things are – not exactly a recipe for tranquility! We always want things that are not here to be here (a weeping cherry tree or a koi pond where there’s a boring stretch of lawn) and also for things that are here to be not here (weeds, bugs, etc.)  And when, through luck and effort, we achieve a moment of garden perfection and beauty, it’s guaranteed to change the next moment.

Take our terrace –  please! A week ago it was shaded by a gorgeous canopy of pink cherry blossoms. We sat out with our morning coffee and all was right with the world. But then – as happens every year – the blossoms fell, carpeting the bricks with soggy pink wads that we tracked into the house, cursing the fool who planted that tree. And before we could even get out the pushbroom to clear the terrace of blossom muck, the gentle rain of caterpillar poop began, covering the chairs, the table, and the cars like poppy seeds on a bagel, but way less appetizing. Coming soon is the ocean of green pollen that will have to be hosed away. And that just gets us through May.

Maybe it’s just me. I have neighbors who seem to enjoy their yards and gardens enormously. Nobody’s forcing me to be a gardener, so why the complaining? Because after all these years I’m still searching for a way to make peace with this activity. To me it’s like a Zen koan, one of those riddles that contain the secret to a happy life. Somewhere there’s a knife-edge we can walk on, balancing loving the world exactly as it is, and working to change it. It’s an attitude that applies to so many things in life:  relationships, politics, to name just two. But can I learn to love caterpillar poop?