The other day I found myself ‘weeding’ a flowerbed, and I got to thinking. What is it about certain humble activities that help us connect to reality in such a simple and profound way? In a world where we’re often so disconnected from the earth (and by extension, all living things!) a simple act of touching and handling plants can go a long way. We begin to feel their vitality running through our hands and fingers. As we trim their dead and decaying branches, we can almost sense their sensing us. We can feel our power of domination over their passive existence, a power to heal or to destroy. And so we are reminded of our special place at the center (middle) of this earth. Indeed, I believe this botanic experience goes a long way in bringing us [back] to reality itself. Somehow it (literally) grounds us at the very depths of our being, and forces us to come to terms with our vital similarities to the plants themselves, and our comparable dependence upon a higher power.
Nevertheless, this appreciation for plants and ‘all things green and growing’ was very dear to J.R.R. Tolkien, and featured prominently in his stories. We see this particularly with the hobbits, as Bilbo comments (in the movies) that, “where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow.” And indeed, Tolkien identified with this humble (earthy) approach to life personally.
“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, pp. 288-89).
But there is more than humility here. There is also honor. Indeed, for Tolkien there was a vital connection between gardening and nobility. But only the very wise are able to pick up on this. Captain Faramir puts it in words when he confesses: “The Shire must truly be a great realm, Master Gamgee, where gardeners are held in high honor.”
Tolkien further comments:
“There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the `noble’ and the `simple’ (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving. I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals” (Letters, p. 220).
From all this we can see that it is especially Sam who embodies Tolkien’s vision of the noble gardener most of all. For it is Sam who first recognizes this noble quality in Captain Faramir—of “the very highest.” It is especially Sam (the Gardener) who is able to reflect most philosophically about the big questions in life. And it is Sam who grows into this understanding, existentially throughout the story. “I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now.” It is Sam the servant (of Master Frodo) who learns what it means to be lordly, eventually governing the Shire as its Mayor). And it is Sam the simple bodyguard who philosophizes about the reason for war. And it is precisely Sam’s humble hobbit husbandry of this ‘good tilled earth’ that Tolkien presents as key to his eventual understanding of the greatest existential questions facing humanity.
Of course, Aragorn is depicted as the ‘healer king’, who understands the vital properties of plants, in healing both Frodo and Éowyn. And all three, Faramir, Sam, and Aragorn end up marrying fair maidens and thus picturing true husbandry in its various forms, humble and lordly. And yet Sam’s bride is named Rosie Cotton no less, showing the convergence of the noble (rose) and humble (cotton) at the heart of homemaking. And so it is Sam’s voice that has the last word in the story, after drawing a deep breath: “Well, I’m back.”
This picture of the [eternal] return to the simple things in life; growing things; green plants; good tilled earth; rose beds; and cultivating simple family life is what Tolkien leaves his audience with as they face the terrors of modernity. For it is precisely Samwise the gardener who understands the stories that really ‘meant something’. “I know now,” he says. “They were holding on to something… That there is some good in this world… And it is worth fighting for.” Such, indeed, may be the perspective of anyone who has ever spent time ‘trimming the verge.’
I believe, nevertheless, such a lesson in existence was surely not far from God’s mind in forming man out of the dust of the earth, or placing him in a garden from the beginning. And somewhere in this life we are supposed to realize that we are all, each one of us, gardens of God, and that it is no less than the Divine Gardener who tends and cultivates the supple ground of our own hearts, removing the weeds, and hedging our wilder proclivities. There is some good in this world, and in us. And it is worth fighting for. At least, that’s what God seems to think.