The Daoist Gardener Meets Sisyphus

Some people go to church, some people do yoga, some people sacrifice goats to Baal... My own most consistent spiritual practice is that every day, usually in the late afternoon, weather and work permitting, I head out to my backyard and spend an hour picking up redwood needles from the ground.

It's a question of garden survival. Redwoods are apex predators exquisitely shaped by evolution to not only flourish in the foggy Bay Area climate but to reengineer the entire landscape to further their relentless quest for arboreal domination. Left to their own devices, the three trees planted behind my house in 1980 by a guy who called himself Sequoia Lundy would drown my yard in a thick coat of highly acidic droppings. Without my ongoing daily intervention, my lime tree and scallion patch would be overwhelmed, posing a deadly threat to both my margarita and scallion pancake supply lines.

The thought of cutting down the redwoods has always felt a little too close to California blasphemy for comfort. I also choose not to rake the needles en masse because then I would run the risk of accidentally sweeping up all the nasturtium seeds that turn my yard into an orange fantasia every spring. So I get down on the ground and do it by hand. It is time-consuming drudgery but I have come to consider it a healthy meditative practice. Chop wood. Carry water. Pick up redwood needles. I imagine myself a Daoist gardener; I seek coexistence with the redwoods; to nurture my pleasures in harmony with their awesome context. I will always reach for the mulch-bucket before the chain saw.

And as I listen to the squirrels chatter at the crows, monitor the annual emergence of the calla lilies and let the day's anxieties and agitations sluice away, a process occasionally facilitated by a fine IPA, I am reminded of the fourth century poet Tao Qian in his garden, whose greatest joy was to sip wine while enjoying the flowers.

Color infusing autumn chrysanthemums

exquisite, I gather dew-drenched petals

float them on that forget your cares stuff.

Soon, even my passion for living apart

grows distant. I'm alone here, and still

the wine jar soon fills cups without me.

Everything at rest, dusk: a bird calls out,

returning to its forest home. Chanting,

I settle into my breath. Somehow, on this

east veranda, I've found my life again.

(Drinking Wine, translation by David Hinton)

This past week, my idyll was disturbed. As I gathered yet another handful of droppings, I felt a redwood needle hit my head. I looked up, and witnessed a swirl of brown snow wafting down. I listened, and heard a light patter of droppings landing all around me. And in the 98 degree heat, I felt a chill. Daoist gardener: let me introduce you to Sisyphus.

A more enlightened being would shrug off the erasure of my afternoon labor. After all, I've lived through several epic California droughts, and am well aware that the driest years produce excessive redwood droppings. That's just the way it is. Take another sip of that IPA and keep plugging away. Meditation is its own reward.  

But there was a different texture to this avalanche. After the hottest August and September in recorded California history, another unprecedented heat wave arrived in mid-October. My redwoods, I could sense, were abnormally parched. As I crouched in their shadow, a stiff late afternoon offshore breeze was jostling free an enormous quantity of newly desiccated needles. Climate change, made manifest in my sacred refuge.

What's a Daoist gardener to do?

While in exile from the Tang dynasty capital in the ninth century, Liu Zongyuan, an essayist, poet, and sometime official, wrote a fable about a Daoist gardener named Camel Kuo.

All of the influential and wealthy men of Changan who want to make landscape gardens, as well as fruit sellers too, vie to procure his services, for not one tree planted or transplanted by Kuo has ever died. Indeed, their foliage is luxuriant, and they bear fruit early and bountifully.

When someone asked him about this, Camel replied, "old Camel can't make trees live long, or make them produce, but he can conform with their innate tendencies so that they can develop their nature to the fullest limit. It is the nature of every growing tree that the roots must have room to spread, the banking must be even, the soil must be old and familiar, and it must be pounded down firmly. But after this is done, don't touch it or worry about it! Go away and don't even look at it again! When planting it, treat it like a child, but once it's in place, leave it alone! Then its innate tendencies will be preserved intact and it can live its life...."

"Other gardeners aren't like this. They cramp the roots and change the soil, and when they bank it up, if they don't use too much, they use too little. Those who succeed in avoiding these mistakes are too effusive in their fondness and too industrious in their anxiety. They check the tree every morning and fondle it every evening, glancing back at it when they leave. Some even go so far as to scratch the bark to see whether the tree is alive or withering, and to tug at the roots to see whether the earth is too loose or too packed. Life leaves the tree day by day. They may say they are fond of them, but in fact they harm them. They may say that they are anxious about them, but in fact they treat them like enemies. For this reason, their trees can't compare with mine. But again, what ability do I have?"

The inquirer asked, "Can this Way of yours be applied to governmental affairs?"

Camel answered, "Planting trees is all I understand. Government is not my business. Still, in my district I can see that the officials like to issue lots of orders, as though they were fond of the people, but wind up causing only trouble. Day and night clerks come shouting, 'His Honor orders you to hurry up with your plowing, get on with your planting, and push on with the harvest! Get your silk reeling done early! Get your cloth spun early! Raise your children properly! Take care of your chickens and hogs!' They sound the drum to gather the people and beat the rattle to summon us. Nobodies like us have to interrupt our meals to entertain these clerks, and still we're given no rest. How can we thrive and live our lives in peace? Hence we suffer so much we are exhausted. In this sense, isn't there some similarity with my own business?"

The inquirer was pleased and said, "Now isn't this just splendid! I asked about how to take care of trees and I found out about how to take care of men."

(Translation by J. Mason Gentzler)

Laozi famously wrote in the Dao De Jing that "governing a country is like cooking a small fish." In other words, best to keep a light hand on the spatula. This formulation has been popular with laissez-faire advocates throughout the ages, and it is quite clear that Liu is more interested in making a political point in his essay than passing on best arborist practices. But Liu was hardly a libertarian. As a young scholar-official he was a member of a faction that exerted power at the highest level, before a change of emperors resulted in his more-or-less permanent exile. He believed in good government even if he did oppose extreme imperial micromanagement.

The parable of the Daoist gardener neatly illustrates a paradox for those who might look to Daoist philosophy for guidance on environmental policy. (This includes both generations of Californian hippies and organic farmers, and the current General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who has explicitly framed his environmental and climate change agenda as "a return to China's roots as an 'ecological civilization.'")

Daoism emphasizes doing as little as possible that is in contradiction with the essence of existence, but every gardener, no matter how in tune they are with the innate tendencies of nature, actively exerts their will on the environment with every thrust of the trowel. Weeding, fertilizing, watering, planting -- aren't these all impositions on nature? And even if we accept that the true lesson of Camel Kuo's example is a matter of degree — that is, it's best to do less rather than more, to be weak, rather than strong — then how is that of any use when facing existential threats to civilization?

Cautionary notes abound. Even if is one is willing to entertain the notion that a Daoist appreciation for harmony with nature is a core part of Chinese culture, the Chinese historical record offers a harsh counter-argument.  

As Mark Elvin notes in his magisterial environmental history of China, The Retreat of the Elephants, "more than any pre-modern northwestern Europeans, the Chinese were driven by a desire for the rational mastery of the world."

Through more than three thousand years, the Chinese refashioned China. They cleared the forests and the original vegetation cover, terraced its hill-slopes, and partitioned its valley floors into fields. They diked, dammed, and diverted its rivers and lakes. They hunted or domesticated its animals and birds; or else destroyed their habitats as a by-product of the pursuit of economic improvements. By late-imperial times there was little that could be called 'natural' left untouched by this process of exploitation and adaptation.

All civilizations remake their environments, of course, but Elvin makes a convincing case that the Chinese have been more persistently successful in their efforts than other major contenders.

A second consideration is that, as Norman Girardot writes in his introduction to Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, the "Daoist alternative... emphasizes the view that processes of change are inherent in all things; thus, the way to flourish is to accept and go along with change -- to accord oneself with Dao (the Way)."

In other words, adapt to the inevitable. Climate change is the Dao. Go with the sea-level rising flow.

As I sit in my garden contemplating the long term soil nutrient depletion impact of my transfer of hundreds of bushels of redwood needles every year to Berkeley's municipal composting facility, the implications of accepting the adaptation mindset are troubling. Should I cut down the redwoods and replace them with orange trees? Give up on scallions and raise cacti?

But then I recall the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts.

Daoism as an organized religion in China got its start in Sichuan in the second century, when Zhang Daoling, the first of the Celestial Masters, received a mystical revelation from Laozi on a mountaintop not far from Chengdu. Zhang Daoling proceeded to establish an independent Daoist state that flourished for several generations during the last days of the Han dynasty. One of the more intriguing essays in Daoism and Ecology, by Michael LaFargue, explores how some of the teachings of the Way of Celestial Masters were codified in a set of commandments called the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts. These precepts included a strong dose of what we would consider today core environmentalist concepts.

A sampling:

18. You should not wantonly fell trees.

36. You should not throw poisonous substances into lakes, rivers, and seas.

47. You should not wantonly dig holes in the ground and thereby destroy the earth.

53. You should not dry up wet marshes.

116. You should not defecate or urinate on living plants or in water that people will drink.

132. You should not disturb birds and [other] animals.

Westerners seduced by the rhetoric of Daoism often feel the need to make a careful demarcation between classical "philosophical" Daoism and "religious" Daoism. It's easy to see why. The alchemical quest for elixirs that will bequeath immortality and the astonishing bureaucratic complexity of the Daoist pantheon don't appear to jibe well with the subtleties of the Way as articulated by Laozi and Zhuangzi.

But as an aspiring Daoist gardener, I find it fascinating that the first community we know of in the historical record that self-consciously attempted to live according to its understanding of the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi clearly saw environmental harmony as central to the question of how to live properly.

I will submit that it is a very short step from "you should not throw poisonous substances into lakes, rivers, and seas" to the necessity of Congressional passage of a carbon tax that internalizes the price of Co2 emissions in every sector of the economy. Here's my one hundred and eighty-first precept: You should not subsidize fossil fuels.

The Daoist gardener knows better than to grow a lawn in the desert and is a big fan of solar power. The Daoist gardener is an avid composter, but not of redwood needles, because they take far too long to break down and are highly acidic. The Daoist gardener votes for a green new deal, because there is a big difference between acceptance and adaptation and doing as little as possible and the active destruction of the environment. The Daoist gardener dreams, even as the redwood needles swirl down from the canopy above, of celestial harmony.

When I was a younger man, I did once seriously entertain the idea of cutting down at least one of my redwoods. I'd only been in the house ten years, but their rate of growth was eye-popping. They were not only squashing my dreams of a vast vegetable garden but prophesying ineluctable doom for the fences that separated me from my neighbors.

I mentioned this idle plan to my elementary school age daughter. A shadow crossed her face. She told me that every night, the sight of the last rays of the setting sun reflecting in the swaying branches of the redwood trees eased her into sleep.

This was a vision of celestial harmony I could not deny. One sentence from the child, and those redwoods were saved forever from the threat of my busy-body hands. To hear is to obey: You should not wantonly fell trees.

But removing their needles to let the nasturtiums and calla lilies play? That seems acceptable.