Closer to God in a garden

Sir Ghillean Prance

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance was until recently Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is Scientific Director of the Eden Project in Cornwell and Visiting Professor at Reading University. Here he considers how we can both feed the world and be true to the Bible's injunctions.

Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
Matthew 6:28-29

It is no coincidence that the Bible begins and ends in a garden. In the biblical story we are taken from the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis to a garden with a river and fruit trees in the book of Revelation. ‘On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (Rev 22:2). Jesus chose a garden in Gethsemane to prepare himself for the greatest task of his mission on earth, to face the crucifixion. He was quite obviously familiar with nature as he used such examples as the glory of the lilies of the field to illustrate his point. The lilies are probably those beautiful anemones that are such a striking feature of spring in the Middle East. In one of his parables Jesus showed that he was familiar with the various possible fates of the seeds scattered by a sower.


A favourite Bible verse of mine is Genesis 2:9 that says: ‘Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to sight and good for food.’ Here the priorities in regard to nature and to a garden are in the right order. First is ‘pleasant to sight’, that is the aesthetic side, and only in second place is ‘good for food’, the utilitarian side. If humankind had listened to this wise instruction then the world would not be in such an environmental mess as it is today. Gardens are meant to be places of peace and beauty to enjoy and in which to relax. They are places where it is possible to be quiet enough to seek God. On the other hand, there is nothing like a good vegetable garden to produce nutritious and healthy food.

Peaceful gardens

During my time as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, my wife and I became increasingly aware of the important role that a public garden has in today’s stressful life. For example, one day my wife spoke to a visitor who was sitting on one of the many benches in the gardens and she turned out to be an air stewardess of a foreign airline. The stewardess said that she was only able to withstand the tensions of her hectic schedule by coming and walking and sitting in Kew Gardens each time she visited London. This and other similar experiences made us realise the importance of creating quiet places in a busy public garden. This is just as important a role as is fulfilled by many of the other more conspicuous new buildings, exhibitions and other activities in the life of Kew. With all the innovations, scientific research and other activities at Kew, we were always careful to make sure that the peaceful atmosphere and seats in quiet places were maintained. Quite often the people who are using such places are seeking to be closer to God, surrounded by some beautiful examples of his creation, the trees that are ‘pleasant to sight’. The more stressful life becomes, the more important gardens become.

As I have studied the Bible I am impressed with how much it addresses the care for creation, but this teaching has largely been ignored by the Church. In this age of destruction of the land it is good to remind ourselves of some of these teachings. For example, Exodus 23:10-11: ‘six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your olive orchard.’

Loss of topsoil One of the most serious and often understated environmental problems of today is the loss of topsoil in many parts of the world. It is estimated that the world is losing twenty-five billion tonnes of topsoil and India alone loses six billion tonnes or almost twenty-five per cent of the world total. The erosion rate in Indiana in the Corn Belt of the United States is the same as that of India, and the USA loses three billion tonnes a year. This is certainly not sustainable in the long term. We would be wise to ask why there was a need for the land to lie fallow to replenish itself in biblical times.

However, the biblical command was not just for the good of the land, but also so that the poor and the wild animals could eat. This was a system of justice that was designed to care for much more than the soil. Today there is a most welcome movement towards organic agriculture and gardening, and also for the conservation of biological species, but the conflict continues and we are still losing so much of God’s garden or creation, including the myriad of organisms that live in soil. Care for the soil, whether by fallow or by the use of more perennial crops, is essential if we are to feed the increasing world population. Many gardeners are much more aware of the value of soil than are industrialised farmers.

A garden is only possible because of the many species of plants that are available, all of which were ultimately derived from wild species. As a biologist one of the environmental problems that most concerns me is the loss of biological species. There are somewhere between ten and fifty million biological species on our planet, but only about 1.7 million of them have so far been classified and given a scientific name. All species interact with others in a delicate network of predator-prey relationships, the pollination of flowers and the dispersal of seeds by animals; the competition for a niche; the attack of and resistance to diseases; and in many other ways. Species are not autonomous, they are linked together by a vast web of interactions and together they form the various ecosystems of the world, such as tropical rainforests, tundra, heathland, and even deserts. Each ecosystem is held together by these interrelationships and the whole system can break down if a vital or keystone species is removed. We have already lost half of the tropical rainforests of the world, which occupy only seven per cent of the land surface yet harbour perhaps sixty per cent of the terrestrial species. Therefore we have little time left to save the species that remain. If there is to be a future for the human species, it is essential to preserve the other species with which we share this planet.

Biological diversity

We need to maintain the biological diversity of our planet for many different reasons. The living organisms maintain our atmosphere and our climate. Without forests and the organisms in the oceans the life-support system will break down. Yet we continue to cut down tropical rainforest at a rate of fifty-four acres a minute, to pollute our atmosphere, oceans and rivers with many toxic substances and kill off other species through overexploitation. The loss of forest cover adds to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and contributes to global warming and climate change. We are certainly not taking care of God’s garden.

I am also worried about what is being done with plant species in the area of genetic modification. To change plants is nothing new. All the marvellous varieties of roses and many other garden plants have come through the gradual process of plant breeding. Broccoli, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi all originated from one botanical species by selecting for different modifications of the leaf, stem or root systems. Today, through the process of genetic engineering, individual genes can be isolated and transferred from one species to another unrelated one. An animal or a bacterial gene can be put into a plant. Many people should be grateful to this process for the medicines such as insulin that can be produced better through genetically modified organisms. Companies producing GM food are trying to proceed with the introduction of their products as rapidly as possible without adequate field trials and research. It would be much better to concentrate on applications of this technology, which confer strong ecological or sociological benefits. However, the commercial profits are not there. As a result such traits as herbicide resistance are being introduced. There is a real danger of such genetic traits escaping into wild plants and even into our gardens. Also when the herbicides are used they destroy all other plants upon which many animals depend and so are reducing biological diversity. It is unlikely that the current genetic modifications to food products are harmful to the consumer, despite what we read in the press about Frankenstein foods. What we really should be concerned about is the greedy motivation of much of the genetic modification that is being carried out by the large companies. It can only be a good thing to cure sickness or to feed the poor and needy through the use of these techniques, but this is the opposite of what is happening today. Instead of helping to produce crops that will grow on marginal lands such as arid regions and salty soil, crops for the farmers of the developed world are the emphasis of most current work in genetic engineering.

Benefits to the poor

The current grass-roots pressure against GMOs is good in many ways since it is challenging the way in which this technique is being used. However we would be most unwise to stop its use altogether since it has much potential to help feed the poor of this world. What Christians should be trying to do is to see that it benefits the poor and not just the shareholders of multinational corporations. In the words of Proverbs (29:7): ‘The righteous consider the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.’

Christians, who are the people that have a special relationship to God, must not be complacent about the environmental crisis because our faith calls us to be stewards of creation. The psalmists understood this and expressed it in many psalms of creation such as Psalms 8 and 104.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal,
the wild asses quench their thirst,
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart.
Oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted,
in them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees,
the high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
Psalm 104:10-18

Glory to the Creator

I quote from this psalm as an example of many other songs of creation. In it we see the same lesson as in Genesis, that nature is to be used, but with thanks and recognition to God. This acknowledgment of God will lead to respect and care for his creation. It is important to note that the psalmists used the wonder of creation to bring glory to the Creator. They make it quite plain that they are worshipping God and not creation. One of the heresies of today’s New Age Movement is to worship the creation rather than the Creator. As we seek God in a garden or in a natural habitat it is important to avoid the mistakes of some environmentalists who worship the trees or the sun or the moon, rather than their creator. This is easy to avoid if we read and follow the example of the psalmists or of the prophet Isaiah who put the use of plants in the wild or in a garden into a good perspective.

I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine tree together,
so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the holy one of Israel has created it.
Isaiah 41:19-20

We are poor stewards of God’s creation because of our selfish nature. May we create gardens that do not abuse the creation, that do not use excessive chemicals and artificial fertilisers, but that use compost and organic processes. There we will be much more in harmony with nature and also with God.

Why not try meditating on the rest of Psalm 104 in a garden?

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