From Durham Herald-Sun, Durham, North Carolina

Review: Tending garden, explicitly, implicitly

BY SUSAN BROILI : Special to The Herald-Sun

Sep 14, 2008

"Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World"
By Wendy Johnson (Bantam, paperback, $25)

"The World Without Us"
By Alan Weisman (Picador, paperback, $13.50)

Journalist Alan Weisman in "The World Without Us," and Buddhist meditation teacher and gardener Wendy Johnson in "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World," cover many varied topics. Yet, their books share common ground. Each calls for paying close attention to the Earth in order to take care of it.

Weisman's far-ranging, fact-gathering journey began with a single question posed by an editor at Discover magazine: "What would happen if humans disappeared everywhere?" The author's quest to answer that question takes him to scientists and naturalists across the globe and yields information that spans millions of years to present time.

While the current state of this planet points to a bleak future, the bulk of what he gleans adds up to a cautionary tale that, if heeded, could make a difference. One example concerns the disappearance of the Mayan civilization over the course of a mere 100 years in 8th century AD. From archaeologist Arthur Demarest, whom he accompanies to the site of Dos Pelas in Guatemala, Weisman learns that the Mayans' demise boils down to "an unleashed lust for wealth and power" that turned such Mayan city states as Dos Pilas into aggressors against each other. Fortified behind walls, the Mayans farmed only adjacent areas "inviting ecological disaster" because they did not cultivate "long-term crops that maintain diversity," Demarest says.

"When you examine societies just as self-confident as ours that unraveled and were eventually swallowed by the jungle, you see that the balance between ecology and society is exquisitely delicate. If something throws that off, it all can end," the archaeologist adds.

But he also finds promising signs in the presence of the rare, red-crowned cranes in the Korean DMZ area where no humans tread due to land mines and in the large numbers of juvenile sharks in the South Pacific's Line Islands. He saw these sharks when he joined the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2005 expedition. Scientists viewed these young sharks as hope for the revival of a population reduced at a rate of 100 million a year to satisfy demands for shark fin soup.

In Johnson's book, in addition to offering an invaluable guide for organic, sustainable gardening, she conveys some life lessons on being grounded, in mind and body, in whatever place you call home. She comes by her wisdom as a result of over three decades of Zen Buddhist practice in which she became a master gardener at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center's Farm and Garden Program she helped found. The center is located in Marin County 17 miles north of San Francisco.

She sees paying attention to the ecological health of the earth, on a local level, as crucial. "The human race is 5 million years old … and it is time to act our age and fulfill our inheritance as human beings by responding to the cries of a world in trouble," she says.

Knowing a place deeply puts things in perspective. "When you go down deeply enough into your ground, you find your true place in that valley of ancestors that inhabits every backyard," she says. Those ancestors leave signs such as the obsidian knife, used by the Miwok people 200 years ago, that plowing turned up at Green Gulch Farm, she adds.

For her, gardening is also a form of meditation. "My body and mind drop away then, far below wild radish and bull thistle, and I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work," she says.

A garden offers respite and a place to take action that counts. "Every garden worth its salt becomes paradise by being both a safe refuge from the madness of the world and a field of action within the cacophony of this very world," she says.

She takes a poetic approach in her three reasons for gardening – "for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind."