Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the working class rebellion against the American political establishment. I don’t pay much attention to political news, so the uprising kind of snuck up on me and I’ve been trying to make some sense of it.

Coincidentally, I’ve read a few books lately that have been real gut punches–reminders of the shame, humiliation and frustrations that come with growing up poor and ignorant. Memories I had put away with no intention to return to them.

I used to spend a lot of time alone in hotel rooms or on airplanes, brooding and plotting. A long time ago, it seems. But a few weeks ago I was there again. In a hotel room reflecting on what it all means, feeling drawn to my roots and culture, but feeling repelled and alienated by it at the same time. That’s when I wrote a list of “what I’m going to do.”

As I pondered my personal optimism, my culture’s pessimism, my peasant roots, and whether the future is as bright as I believe it to be, I was feeling discouraged. Then this came to me: “Let us cultivate our garden.”

I thought of Voltaire’s Candide. At the end of the book, the character Candide comes to a conclusion that seems to me to be good sense for our times too.

During this conversation, the news was spread that two Viziers and the
Mufti had been strangled at Constantinople, and that several of their
friends had been impaled. This catastrophe made a great noise for some
hours. Pangloss, Candide, and Martin, returning to the little farm, saw
a good old man taking the fresh air at his door under an orange bower.
Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old
man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name
of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you
mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the
administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they
deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at
Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits
of the garden which I cultivate.”

Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his
two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet,
which they made themselves, with Kaimak enriched with the candied-peel
of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha
coffee unadulterated with the bad coffee of Batavia or the American
islands. After which the two daughters of the honest Mussulman perfumed
the strangers’ beards.

“You must have a vast and magnificent estate,” said Candide to the Turk.

“I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children
cultivate them; our labour preserves us from three great
evils–weariness, vice, and want.”

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s
conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a
situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the
honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the
testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was
assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with
three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King
Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings
Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how
perished Croesus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus,
Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Caesar, Pompey, Nero, Otho,
Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II of England, Edward II, Henry VI,
Richard III, Mary Stuart, Charles I, the three Henrys of France, the
Emperor Henry I.! You know—-“

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the
Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might
cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to
render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to
their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful
crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent
pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after
the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflee, of some service
or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds:
for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of
Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had
not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had
not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would
not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

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34 comments on “Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

  1. DM says:

    Our minds are traveling similar paths of late…. I have more joy in my heart weeding my new potato patch, turning the compost pile and thinning out the winter onion bed today than you can imagine..although I’m guessing you probably can 🙂

    Like

  2. And yet… “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Is it possible to be both a good man, and one who does nothing? Regardless, I have no interest in doing nothing. I have a lifetime of good work ahead of me I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And behind you, Bill, which I certainly recognize. In fact you are one of the most activist oriented people I know… and I know lots. The present political situation is frustrating to say the least. I get people’s concern. I just don’t comprehend the option lots of them seem to be supporting. Curt

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  3. bobraxton says:

    When I read “Candide” in French in college I lacked the maturity and life experience to understand and appreciate. Haven’t changed much, even in my early 70’s

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  4. shoreacres says:

    Those three great evils — weariness, vice, and want — reminded me of a different triad I proclaimed myself opposed to earlier this year. As I told a friend, this year I’m determined to avoid the inane, the irrelevant, and the boring. That pretty much eliminates obsessive interest in political theater, and leaves me free to work, create, and explore in peace.

    Cultivating our gardens hardly is doing nothing.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m with you. Why waste precious and beautiful time obsessing over foolishness, when there is so much good work to do and so much beauty and grace to enjoy?

      Like

  5. avwalters says:

    Though I’m up to my eyeballs following politics of late, the flip side is that Rick and I are hard at work putting in trees, and berries and plants for the bees. Rick is finishing up the rough plumbing, and I’ve been digging for two weeks to plant 200 trees. At the end of the day, we reflect on how nice it will be, in a couple of years, when the trees in the orchard begin to bear fruit. We’re excited about the berries–now just started and all the new things that will bloom for the bees. Soon, we’ll move into our little house. There’s little idle time for trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bobraxton says:

      When the timber was cut in 1963, I was in my first or second year of college (begin sophomore) and oblivious. This land belonged to my paternal great-grandfather and his own ancestors back to William (1771 and 1772) purchased from a family named Pyle. The forty acres is covered with standing timber now. The acreage has no road frontage at all. To reach it is, for me / us, a drive of at least five hours.

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      • bobraxton says:

        Not related, either to your Post or to my comment: remembering your family connection with Huguenot – today through Family Tree Y-DNA 111 – I found a “match” / “related” cousin who may connect through the Daniel Boone (descendants) don’t know yet. She and I have a Quaker connection but apparently there are others (in her case): https://www.pinterest.com/traceygoebel/huguenot-heritage/

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      • Bill says:

        Cherie and I went to an event in town a couple of weeks ago sponsored by the local history organization and we entered a contest for free Ancestry.com DNA tests. Amazingly, we both won. So we’ve shipped off our spit and are waiting to find out precisely what kind of mutts we are.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That is truly exciting news AV. I’m very happy for you and Rick and deeply impressed with your effort and commitment. Bravo! May you long enjoy the fruits of your labor.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Such discernment and wise thoughts here. Made me think.

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  7. Laurie Graves says:

    What would we do without sweet Candide? In response to the political part of your post…it seems to me that over the past 30 years, great effort has been made to bring our country where it is today—loss of jobs, lack of services, crumbling infrastructure, soaring educational costs, unaffordable housing, and the cherry on the sundae, a great big fat financial crisis. These things are not inevitable or the results of a natural disaster. They are choices that people have made, and indeed some wealthy countries are doing much better than we are. (Germany and Scandinavia come to mind.) While demagogues are frightening, I can easily understand why some people are so angry. We have this anger in Maine, too. It is not just a Southern phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Yes, I have seen the anger and frustration coming from Maine. It’s not isolated to any part of the country. We have some troubling waters to navigate.

      Have you read Merry Men by Carolyn Chute? It’s been a long time since I read it but I remember that it was moving and seemed to me to well-capture the struggles of the working poor in Maine. The epigram of the book is one of my all-time favorites:

      Let me honor here all the farmers who still work the land themselves, who are not agribusinessmen or agribusinesswomen, but farmers, who know family and community interdependence…America’s last vestiges of freedom. And honor to all those millions who were born to be farmers, as they have been for thousands of years, but because of modern “education”, Big Business and Mechanization, they cannot be and will never know their true gift but are instead herded into welfare lines, prisons, or the slavery of Big Business…May they find it–the gift–in another life, another world.

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  8. Scott says:

    I’ve been focusing my thoughts similarly, Bill. Thanks for sharing the passage. I’ve never read that book before (I’m the first to admit I’m not well read).
    It’s spooky how similarly this blog post lines up with an exchange I had with a co-worker yesterday. He likes to keep up with crime stories, politics, and stories that show the ineptitude of our local school district. He had just finished filling me in on the news of the day, and I was shaking my head at all the miserable facts. And I sighed and looked up at him and said, “You know what I am going to do with this information? Keep rollin’ on.”

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I struggle not to be judgmental, but it does frustrate me to see people who live in anger and fear, allowing cable news shows to lead them around by the nose. Meanwhile, they are (in the words of Wendell Berry) dependent upon someone else for everything from potatoes to opinions.

      I’m with you brother. Keep rollin’ on.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It is so interesting how differently I see the world since getting out of the rat race. The good old man had it right – “our labour preserves us from three great evils–weariness, vice, and want.”
    The things I want now are not found in a shopping mall, on a car lot or in a “nice neighborhood”.

    We only watch shows on Netflix – mainly when we are just too tired to think. On the rare occasion we [try to] watch regular TV programming I am taken aback at the constant barrage of ads selling crap food, clothes, and drugs and just turn it off. I have ZERO interest in anything they are trying to force feed you and then I think about all of the people that are sucked into this and think that is what “life” is all about. If they could literally step outside of their box and connect to something real, I think their perspective could change too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • DM says:

      Our viewing is pretty much period classics on Amazon Prime and Netflix currently. I am on Facebook, and if something is brewing, I usually catch wind of it via the newsfeed, at which point, I will do a little more reading on line.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Well said. I confess that I do have a lot of Professor Pangloss in my personality. But I think the good old man had discovered something that should be obvious, but is easy to miss.

      I hate seeing people who are hurting and confused being manipulated and distracted.

      But at the same time there are an ever-growing number of people who have stepped out of the box. Good seeds are being sown.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I suspect many of us are hankering to see that Voltaire-influenced list you composed.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: https://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/what-im-going-to-do/

      That night I was feeling a lot of sadness, thinking about the working poor and the crap they’ve endured (I don’t think I can honestly say “we” any more–but it’s where I came from). I can’t go along with some of things I see good people being attracted to, as much as I want to be on their side. So as I was thinking about what I should do, I thought of Candide, and I made a simple list. To be honest, it included quitting blogging, but I later decided to just scale way back instead.

      Like

  11. I try to avoid politics in the UK too.. My hubby does enough venting for both of us 🙂 So you will often find me cultivating my garden.. Literally 🙂
    Wishing you a pleasent weekend Bill
    Sue

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  12. Dearest Bill,
    Great philosophies from a bygone era, put into wording by some great writers.
    BUT, we for sure should not become a passive and silent majority.
    Nowadays we cannot hide and get away by ‘only’ cultivating our garden. That is impossible and with our little citizen journalism, through our blog or elsewhere. We do vent our views from our ‘garden’ or as I call it, ‘back to basics’, which is completely different from the mainstream media which is bought in order to influence the majority of people that lack the philosophy we have…
    Let’s hope and pray that the future generations will be able to know the life we treasure!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Joanna says:

    It seems the comments section epitomises the dilemmas of life too. On the one hand, what is will pass and what will be may need action today. Choosing our battles wisely is also good.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      I often read news and commentary from other parts of the world. I find it interesting that most of the time the things that are dominating their public discussion, and seemingly of immense importance, are almost entirely unknown here.

      I have great sympathy for the working class people of this country, and especially the part of it I know best. They are maddening lot, but at the same time, they’re my folks, warts and all. I completely understand their feeling that our political establishment doesn’t care about them. They’re mostly right about that I think. I want to be on their side, but they sometimes insist on going places I can’t go.

      My kind of optimism is not the kind of philosophical optimism that Voltaire was critiquing, but it is optimism nonetheless. And if we’re going to all enjoy the kind of world I’m hoping for and expecting, then we need to cultivate our gardens.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Nancy says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you! How I needed to read this today!!

    Like

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