STORIES OF SPIRIT: Jack the gardener

March 20, 2017 | | Comments 0

By way of introduction, the following short story – my first “story telling” since 1993 – started out shorter, and became longer and…just a little…longer – but not over 4807 words, or about as long as it takes to have a cupa tea, if not coffee. It was written while on retreat at home.
May you enjoy my friend “Jack the gardener” and rejoice in the same spirit.

Lao-Tzu- the gardener of the heart -riding-an-Ox
(a symbol of our five sensations)

If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past.
If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future.
If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.

An old brother of ours named Lao Tzu either wrote the above or inspired it. No matter. I’ve been reading him a little lately and I love to dip into that spirit of the man who disappeared in the ancient mountain mists only to reappear in these times of chaos and confusion; his spirit takes me to the “still point of the turning world” as W.H.Auden puts it. Like you, I love to linger, longer, there.

There’s yet another fine expression of spirit in humanity that I’ve actually met; his spirit too, lingers in my fading memory to deeply enjoy; it leaves the same taste as Lao Tzu, and that is Jack the gardener. Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the nature of all memory. A certain Indian sage named Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj once said:“Memory is material–destructible, perishable and transient; on such a flimsy foundation we built a sense of personal existence – vague, intermittent, dreamlike.” That being said and perhaps understood, we’ll continue to patch together this little rememberance of Jack, who was in his mid-seventies when I met him three decades ago

Nisargadatta further admonished his devotees in the 1980’s to “treat your teachers as milestones” and this man Jack was certainly one of those most important milestones for which I remain grateful, although that’s not because of anything he ever taught me with words or even actions so much as with silence . That silence cannot be talked about.

This story begins where it ends in a way, but like a good song, it’s worth the singing it seems – at least to me, and maybe, if you’ve read this far, it will inform and perhaps inspire you to allow that same recognition of your self nature. To glimpse, as I did then, the secret to living an uncomplicated life. And to enter into the spirit of Henry David Thoreau who advised himself in his hand-stitched paper notebook circa 1850 (the day he moved into his hand-built forest hut at Walden Pond in search of his nature) to “Simplify, simplify”

Snowshill, a stone Cotswolds village in Gloucestershire, England, located near Broadway, Worcestershire. The 2011 population was 164. It was 187 in 1991

You would have liked Jack – everyone did, as I recall. To me, Jack was and is Lao Tzu, resettled of course, in another century and in a little stone town called Snowshill nestled on top of an obscure Glostershire country road that wound it’s way graciously up, around and thru the rolling green hills and miles of stone walls collectively called “The Cotswolds” (Celtic for ‘little hills’) in which we lived in an Anglo-hobbit stone cottage the size of a double garage in the US. The 300 year old walls were about two feet thick – thicker at the foundation. Original windows were deeply inset; one larger kitchen window was new; it offered long, long views over and beyond the rich green lawn tennis court that was part of the old estate. Generations of gardeners and their families had sheltered there behind those heavy walls and slept, eaten and talked huddled around the deep, walk-in fireplace. It was built by my friend Jack the gardener. Well, not directly by him, but by his ancestors who’d had a hand in building many, if not most, of the cottages in the 12th century village.

Jack was born right there in a stone gate-keepers’ cottage in Snowshill, the son of a son of a son, who’d moved there rather in a hurry to escape the flooding of his nearby – but a lot lower – village called Stowe-on-the-Wold. In this instance, the “Wold” was not a hill but the name of the flooded river that made them refugees in their own country. Indeed, it seems spiritual refugees have always been forced to move to higher ground.

It was around 1991-92 I met Jack – or rather, glimpsed him in the early morning mist out in the garden as I sat probably reading or writing earnestly at the faded oak table by the kitchen window. My wife Alla and I lived there for about two years. It was covered across the entire front with climbing roses, so you might guess that it was called by the villagers “Rose cottage”. I’d just been paid a rather handsome sum to leave a failing real estate company in London, and my wife had arranged to work three days a week and didn’t mind the two hour commute to London in her company car.

You might have noted the general theme of stone or stones in this narrative so far. Well, if you’d ever traveled in that part of the Cotswolds in England, you couldn’t miss the stones at every turning – great grey stone homes, barns, cottages, walls and floors. All hand hauled stone-by-stone off the rocky hills, and forced into sundry forms that were serviceable, durable and integratively beautiful. By that I mean the way the grey slate and stone palate harmonized and complemented entire ranges of wolds dotted with villages whose very flesh and bones were stones drawn from the surrounding stoic and solid soil.

The high land wasn’t good for farming like in the fertile valleys. Its main and only practical use was for sheep. And for a couple of centuries, most of the best sheep in all of England and Europe were pastured there to produce not only mutton, but more importantly, wool.

Up until the 1940’s, before Australia became the biggest sheep producer, the world-wide wool trade and its byproducts had brought prosperity to many of the villagers; it made some folks rich enough to build and dedicate stone Wool Churches as monuments to their generousity and heavenly aspirations. Some aristocrats commissioned fine covered market places in which the locals congregate to this day.

Some days, looking out the small front window onto the village green and Saint Stephens, a “wool church” with it ancient grave stones, I’d hear the sheep bells, smell, then see, maybe two hundred head of sheep being driven to new pastures through the village by a shepherd with his hard working sheep dogs nipping at the heels of those who were inclined to wander. Some villagers gathered nervously along the route, anxious to help herd the herd, because the sheep could, and often did, break away and tumble a thousand hoves through village gardens, trampling peoples breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Rose Cottage, Snowshill,

Back to Jack. I watched Jack working in the early morning, rain or shine, for perhaps a fortnight before I got to meet him. He worked slow and steady, and every once in a while he’d pause, look out over the valley, his eyes squinted, following the flight of a bird, then the chatter of the squirrels (While the squirrel family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots and even woodchucks; flying squirrels, and prairie dogs amongst other rodents, I was to learn that Jack called all the bigger ones”squirrlies” and the rest “rats”.)

Mostly though, I’d find Jack eying the gathering weather front maybe a couple hundred miles away; it seemed a hundred thousand feet above us, always casting its massive creeping shadow over the valley below. Indeed, as I was to learn, among his many simple qualities, was his capacity to attend. His was a subtle communion with all things great and small; he was a master of contemplation and had been like that all his life. Even during the Wars, One and Two, as I was to learn.

The thing I noticed first about Jack when I finally met him was his hands. Though rough, these were not the hands of grunted labor, of vexation and argument. Like him, these hands were rooted, relaxed in being. Or, to say the same, the whole of him was like a living tree slightly and graciously bent with the fruit of its life-long labors.

Jack was Lao Tzu, although he never heard of him, he knew the same transcendence:

In ancient times
the people knew the Great Integrity
In all its subtlety and profundity.

Lao Tzu

*Ah, the Great Integrity! In all my wanderings through various translations of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, I was blessed to recently come across this immensely evocative interpretation of the ancient Chinese man in a book by one Ralph Allen Dale who uses not the usual term “Tao” but often calls it the “Great Integrity.” It’s from his book too, that some of these quotes were taken, with thanks and gratitude for his coining of such an expressive phrase.


Now let’s explore the depths of these two words. But before we do, I’d like to return to the “root” reference I made earlier here in describing Jack, using the voice of his alter-spirit, Lao Tzu:

…Each of us is compelled to return to our root.
Our root is quietude.
To fully return to our root is to be enlightened.

Jack was the embodiment of that quietude. He abided like stones, plants and birds abide. Indeed, he was rooted in a kind of primal simplicity which challenges any description or qualification I might contrive with mere words. He was simple – some villagers talked of him as if he were a simpleton, and it took me a few months of hanging out with him in his garden to begin to recognize his divine simplicity. (At that time I was looking for Truth as an Ideal, as something outside of me that I could, in time and with specific efforts, achieve, and become Enlightened.)

One day, after my daily walk around the countryside under a low sky, I happened upon him tending his own home garden a few blocks from the much larger estate gardens where I lived. He invited me in for tea, and as I stooped to enter and sat with him and his wife in their modest cottage near the top of the village, I entered into a two hour serenity that was, in hindsight, timeless. And it was not that anything in particular happened, but more like nothing happened.

We sat in their plainly furnished kitchen, talked about tea, tea cups, tea pots and tea kettles whilst brooding about the weather and their eight children living all over the world now. He told me about his childhood, his first stone wall he built at age 6 when he’d climb on top to place each heavy slab with his father watching from a nearby walling; his being saved from the Wars first by being too young and then, in the second instance, by being too flat footed; his early love of the soil, the sheep and the fullness of a simple life.

Perhaps, because he was such an uncomplicated man, as was the room itself, I sort of fell into a deep reverie, a kind of samadi state, like Alice in Wonderland. The talk, the light joy and contentment, crept over me; I was submerged not in what was said or done, but by the ambiance, the spaciousness, the subtle reality of fully surrendered being. When I emerged, there was a new reverence in every step as I wandered slowly home in the misty twilight. Indeed, I’d learned that living in silence is living in peace. In the immortal words of Lao Tzu:

Although the source for every need,
the Great Integrity is never demanding,
It does its work silently
and without pretending.

Things were never quite the same after that tea with Jack. Looking back, I see that it was not so much what he said as how he said it. For one thing, he was so simple with his wording – to the point where you might think he was overly simplistic. Or to use today-speak: “intellectually challenged”. Ah, but that would be forgiven with a muttered inner apology soon after your first teaing with Jack. That is if you were willing to listen.

And to listen to Jack required what we’ll call “unskillful listening” – a willingness to just hang out in a quiet space; to go about living in an anointed silence, punctuated occasionally – often whimsically – with a few simple words wrapped in surprise. Indeed, surprise followed surprise as we lingered now in the garden, now in the tool shed, now in the field, now by the fire, now in the pub. Indeed, with him, it was always now. But before we get into some of what was said that surprised me so much then, I’d like to try to convey something about how Jack spoke, to me and everybody in the village.

Jack’s voice was a delightful blend: in the morning, it was perky, like his English Breakfast tea: earnest, deep toned, pointed and vigorous on the duties at hand. By eventime, the voice was languid and low, gentle as his gestures as he sipped his Earl Grey. He rested in contemplation, or as he’d put it: “just wondering”. The sound of his words was as native as the westerly wind, shaped by the gracious forms of the Cotswolds, the blunt rocky outcrops, the elegant rock walls, the rich garden soil that stained his hands. His voice, like his well worn tweed coat, was of a man acquainted with decades of movement over an abraided surface, be it physical or natural.

The garden inside

Weeks before we met, whilst watching out my window on those chilly early mornings, surrounded by a stack of books and notes, sipping on Lao Tzu’s noteworthy quotes, I began to see how life presented itself plainly to Jack. In fact, you could say Lao Tzu introduced me to the man Jack with insightful phrases like this:

The Great Integrity is the
physician of the universe
who heals without harming,
who acts without contention.

Indeed, his every move was sure and elegant, intentional and tender as the new shoots he tended; he never seemed to grunt, to force, to contend with whatever he was doing. Mind you, sometimes, if my window was open, I’d hear him kind of lightly whistle when he was especially challenged by a heavy task he’d set himself. He’d pause every now and then, stand up strait, hands on his hips, and survey his work thus far. Often, as I’ve already noted – particularly when he was “just wondering”- he’d stand there gazing into the immense sky above, watching a lark, or perhaps, nothing in particular. And then he’d walk over to the edge of the garden, his gaze would again penetrate the deep shadowed green valley below, and he’d stand very still, eating it up like Lao Tzu:

The silent song of Tao
is the ultimate music
The infinite delicacy of Tao
is the consummate nourishment.

Eventually, he’d set his cap back a little (he always wore his cap and wool jumper in a naturally unstudied way) and turn from that reverie back to another reverie – the task at hand. Indeed, as I was to learn, Jack never left that reverie, and I was loathe to disturb him. On warm winter days, and more so in the spring, I’d sit where he could see me at the garden table reading and eventually, maybe, he’d meander my way, sometimes with a question.

“Good morning James” he might say, brushing dirt off his hairy arms, “do you know how to pray?”
“No, not really”
“I was just wondering” he’d say as he opened the bag lunch his wife had been packing him for 38 years or so.”Ah, what a dear, she made me my egg fried sandwich”.
“You go to church don’t you Jack?”
“Well, I would go maybe if someone needed to,” he’d say, “but I don’t pray…don’t know how, I guess…don’t know…”

Indeed, I was to learn over nearly two years – but only much later – to appreciate that he was self-taught. Or, more to the point, he listened carefully to what he heard and saw humbly, rarely made up his mind about much, and always left a light touch wherever he wandered. And he wandered not so much mentally or physically (he’d been away, to France once, to drive a lorry and help some locals move back to nearby Morton-On-Marsh, in 1954) as “emotionally” – although that’s not the right word for it, which you’ll see when report to you some few of his little verbal gems, gestures and germenations from my notes in my “1991-92 Green book.” (I’ve got a small stack of different colored note books I kept for over eight years in Europe.)

Now, as I may have already said somewhere, life presented itself plainly to Jack, and for all the time I knew him, we hardly ever talked; mostly we just hung out together in the mystery. We’d just sit for long periods and wonder – occasionally out loud. Usually, he’d do the wondering; I’d mostly just watch him in wonder, and then we’d drift off without ceremony to tiling our respective territories. Anyway, here’ a few things from my notes about Jack:

April 11, 1991. Just met Jack the gardener. He lived here in Rose cottage until he was twelve; he’s a likeable enough English chap, not big but his hands are. We didn’t talk much, I did not want to interrupt his work which I’ve been watching him do most days for a few weeks, but today, just after we met in the garden shed, he told me a little about his world:

“I like to play with all these plants…some more or less, depending on their mood”
“Some days I feel like one of those old cracked pots that won’t hold water anymore,..some day I might fix a few for worms.”

“I never know when I open that door what’s going to get born” he said with a toothy grin as he closed the shed door and again shook my hand,”It is a good day, have one too!”

April 13/91…Jack, about how much he likes to cook – especially rutabagas and yellow squash but not birds: “Hell would be this kitchen without that garden”
“Life just keeps on I guess, but you have to keep light..stuff weighs folks down…some people carry loads like this tractor”
About that life:“Yes sir, everything keeps growing, goes easier if you let it.”
“Guess I don’t know what I think, except it doesn’t matter, maybe?”

*** April 15/91 Asked Jack why he likes gardening:“I can taste the air.”he replied in his usual, matter of fact way. Asked him if it was “hard work?” “Oh no, work is just…just..” he puffed his cheeks a little, cast about for the right word: “work.”
Having tea with him today…“Maybe, perhaps.” as Jack often says.

April 16/91 Spring storm, foggy drippy dampy, all day. Jack out there somewhere! Finished reading Michele de Montaigne’s essays from the 1550’s wherein he talks about the need to “essay” our self nature, like we do with gold:

“I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.”

“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”

“I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself. I will be rich by myself, and not by borrowing.”

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”

“Even on the most exalted throne in the world we are only sitting on our own bottom.”

“Indeed, Montaigne was always cultivating his sense of wonder; his essays on human friendship are a deep dive into our self nature. M. says to be happy we should live our life inspired by the ancient Greeks. Edicts carved on the columns of the ancient 45O BC stone temple at Delphi: ” Know Yourself” (some translate it as: “To yourself be true”) and “Nothing too much” (some trans.”Moderate your conduct” or “Be Balanced”)”

…”Got in soaked after walking the triangle; saw my first lark, literally rising vertically over her nest in the tall grass. Jack had told me about how they can fly straight up and hover there.”

“April 23/91 Starting to see that J. is an artist unaware – not of life – but of his own artistry. He takes no credit for anything. His art is just living and breathing, watching and wondering. I wandered out to look in on J. Gave him the customary English greeting “You all right?” to which he’d often reply:”No complaints” or somedays “Reasonable”. Calls seeds his “babies” and treats all his plantings like friends to keep shaded and protected. Jack the Midwife!”

…”asked Jack at tea if he ever complained: “Sometimes I do, but it does not help, so mostly, I don’t. Know what I mean?” ” Yes, I guess I get it. Then I said, “but don’t you sometimes get angry Jack?”
“Sure I do, I get the feeling alright, but I don’t need to do it again, do I?” (Jack often tacks a “?” – some form of questioning directed not so much toward me as to himself) He’s like Montaigne – or was it Woody Allen? – who said:
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

Caught by the truth

I recall an occasion when Jack and I were at the pub for a rare and convivial lunch of “Bubble and Sqeak” cabbage and sausage paired with room temperature Old Peculiar beer. Make that beers. Somehow, in the curves and round-abouts of our conversation, we got to talking about what surprised us most so far in our lives. My notes say I mentioned “all of England, most of Italy and parts of Greece” when suddenly Jack turned to me, said: “Whatever you do, truth catches you doesn’t it?”

I told him about the wonderful American singer/songwriter John Denver, who lived his life intensely, and who ran out of gas at 10,000 feet in an single seated airplane he’d earlier rented to enjoy flying coastal California. He apparently said to an interviewer,“I don’t want to make mistakes, but I’m willing to make mistakes”

Jack said something about having never learned the truth; he “didn’t think the truth was something you could learn in school, but something “that just hits you…here.” He touched his chest, sipped a little, and added:“Maybe. Seems so to me, but I don’t know?”

Well, I told Jack that I was caught – I think I used the word “hooked” – by the truth back about five years earlier, around 1985, when suddenly, surprisingly, in the middle of a major melt down, I was gripped by a unrelenting need to know for myself the answer to one burning question which kept presenting itself day and night: “What is the truth?” That question – and the answers – were to get subtler and subtler, “curiouser and curiouser” as Alice in Wonderland put it, for the following thirty years. Until, one day, one day when the question itself was answered with the recognition that the Questioner himself had disappeared. But that’s another story for another place and time so let’s return to Jack.

“I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.”

The above, from Montaigne, speaks of the one thing that’s essential if we are to search out the truth of things: courage. Willingness to discover, to uncover, to recover our own, long lost fidelity to reality. Now, in the case of Jack, it became apparent over the months and seasons, that he was closer to his truth than I was to mine. For me, at the time, “truth” was a complicated set of Ideas and Ideals which I was then exploring in a novel called “The Last Ideal”. Hence my studies of ancient knowledge and Islamic and Christian mysticism. Studies which seemed to take me progressively deeper and deeper into the dark mystery of my personal existence, albeit using a borrowed shovel and another’s candle, and not yet my own tools and light, to mine those elusive golden veins for the meaning of words. which I thought would tell me the truth. It took two more decades of laboring in the mind to see how the mind distorts, dilutes, dismembers and finally, dismisses truth.

In hindsight, I see that Jack sharpened his own spade with his own questions, and followed his own light but not as far as I had. In truth, he never left home. He lived in a simple, directly perceived, only loosely conceived, world. A square foot of earth told him all he needed to know about life and the livingness of it. Indeed, he felt, touched, tasted and smelled life every day, without thinking about it, and that delight – that immediacy, that total engagement – never left him. Jack would have a deep agreement with his unknown North American Indian brothers:

It was good for the skin to touch the earth, and the old people
liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth.
Their tipis were made of earth and their altars were made of earth.
The birds that flew in the air came to rest upon the earth, and
it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew.
The old people came literally to love the soil, and they sat or reclined
on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power.

The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing”

Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux.

The back lanes of the heart.

Looking over my notes about Jack, I see he knew no lack; while I was searching diligently the world over, wandering the highways of the head, Jack explored the back lanes of the heart. He was one of the most contented men I have ever met. Nothing was missing in his garden:

” Do you read the Times of London Jack?”
” No sir,” he pondered, then lightly added:
” I do not need to read the times to read the weather; I watch it with my boots on!” Jack said today (May 9, 1991)

“May 17/91 Jack:”It’s quiet every day again” he said over tea, and later, when it started to rain: “Why, I don’t complain about the weather, unless it gets too dark and a man can’t see what he’s doing.” He poured us both a cuppa and noted: “My mother told me that theirs nothing good goes on after dark except dinner.”

“May 22/91 “I don’t tell myself stories about the world” Seems he’s living in an undiscribed world and that keeps things simple and real perhaps, like Rilke.”

“This bodies got old plumbing” J. said today (May 25) “so I watch what I put down it”

“(About his garden:)”I don’t know what most of these plants are called – I know what they each one needs…they’re all flowers, just different.”

“My father told me I shouldn’t ought to think too much, so I don’t,” said Jack today, “unless I do, which I usually don’t” (May 26/91)”

Flashes of lightning

In all our times together, Jack rarely talked about his past, nor did he ask me much about mine. In hindsight, I see now that all he was interested in was what is actually happening. The suddenness of now. The juice of the moment. He never called it that, or anything, or if he did I don’t remember; he’d just gently point me toward his current discovery and grin and maybe, ever so slightly, show his amusement with a whimsical,”Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” He spoke about the past in terms of the passage de jour – the subtle ripples of the fragrant air on his skin, the cry of a fox, the finding of a beetle in his salad – these instances alone constituted the best happenings of-the-day. And they touched and tickled him only in their passing, in nourishing a present delight and wonder. Yesterday and tomorrow didn’t occur to him.

“Truly, there is nothing at all.
There is no person; there is no Buddha.
Innumerable things of the universe
Are just bubbles on the sea.
Wise sages are all like flashes of lightning.”

~Yoka Genkaku (665-713 CE), Shodoka

So while there’s no such thing – in an absolute sense – as a true story, not even a true person, there remains ever and always, the enduring light of all being, sometimes called “the Tao”. Jack the gardener showed me something very important and about which I am today reminded, by a botanist friend who emailed me this:

“We did not come into the world, we came out of it”

To which I might add: “And that which we came out of is one and the same: universal spirit, source, love.” aka Truth. The Great Integrity.


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