Garden Cosmology

My thoughts grow in the garden. Every time I garden, it is as if I have been transplanted to a different psychic realm. Here my thoughts take a cosmic turn. Big Questions seem to flourish among the tomatoes, zucchini and corn. The static of the day’s practical concerns is replaced by tangible forms of Life, Freedom, Eternity, Faith.

Standing in the garden the other day, pondering the effects of the insistent spring rains on the vegetables and flowers, I drifted from the damp earth to the vastnesses of space and time.
I had read about the Hubbell telescope and the new cosmic realms that it was uncovering. I found myself pondering how, as science progresses, time and space grow ever larger, while our world and tenure of existence are ever shrinking.

In a radio interview, a paleohistorian was expressing how relatively brief our time on earth has been. Putting it in terms I might understand, he compared the age of the planet to a football field. By his reckoning, the entire history of mankind would occupy the place of a single blade of grass at the very end of the final yard.
Since hearing that remarkable statistic, I have imagined the entire history of mankind holding on to a single blade of freshly mowed grass. I was skeptical of the assertion, as my gut feeling told me we were at least around the 8-yard line.

I did the math.  Deep breath. Okay. The first creatures identified as men appeared 50,000 years ago. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 50,000 is one nine-hundred-thousandth of 4.5 billion. So you could look at it like we haven’t been here very long. Or you might look on the bright side: in 50,00 years, we are that close to making a touchdown—that is, if we have possession. We are .004 inches from the goal line! With luck we’ll get there by 52009.  Interestingly, I feel comforted by this thought, rocking in the bosom of Abraham, so to speak.

If we compare human existence with the age of the universe, the universe has us beat hollow. Our 50,000 years is soundly trounced by the universe’s 14.2 billion years of existence.  So if we go back on the football field, chronologically speaking this time, we squeak in for the last eighth of a second of play.  Such traffic! And on a Sunday.

To think that just a millionth of a second ago, in the 1500s, we thought the heavens revolved around the earth. It does seem our calculations were a bit off, doesn’t it?

My friends, the earth is ridiculously tiny. I know, as you’re driving on the freeway, walking or riding a bike, it seems like the earth is pretty big. Say you decide to drive around the Earth. Let’s reckon you go at commuter traffic speed—25 m.p.h. or so (the tie-ups around Istanbul are legendary). As the earth’s circumference is 24,859.82 miles—it will take you about 994 hours, or 41-and-a-half days of 24-hour driving, and that doesn’t take into account getting gas, food and bathroom breaks.

Conservatively, you’re looking at a 2-month drive, and you don’t get a chance to see the sites. If you ask me, the drive you’re planning is ill-advised. My point is, though, that the earth’s circumference—let’s round it off at 25,000 miles—is TINY. The earth is a blue dot in the galaxy. The human race is a tiny race of tiny creatures on a tiny planet that’s been around for only a tiny time.

Indeed, Mother Earth is extraordinarily diminutive. Neptune is 3.8 times larger, Uranus four times larger, Saturn is 9.4 times larger and Jupiter 11 times larger than Earth, while the radius of the Sun is 109 times larger than Earth’s.

Before the sun gets a big head, it should remember it is just a medium-sized star among the 100 thousand million of stars in the Milky Way alone. And the Milky Way is just one of millions of galaxies.

The superstar of all stars, VY Canis Majoris, a class M red supergiant, is 10,000 times more luminous than our Sun, with a diameter 2,100 times larger.  It would take light 8 hours to travel around it; light can travel around the Sun in 4.5 seconds. Now get this, it would take 7 quadrillion (7,000,000,000,000,000) earths to fill VY Canis Majoris.  Makes you wonder about the size of its solar system.

My tiny brothers and sisters of this miniscule orb, let us embrace our tinyness: tiny is beautiful.  If small is the new big, then tiny is the new huge.  Our palpable insignificance in time and space reminds me of the line from the 40s movie classic “Sunset Boulevard.” Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), a silent screen star whose luster has dimmed, declares, “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

We’re still big. Rather than bemoan our insignificance, we should embrace it.  It is as if all of us who live here on earth—man, plant, insect, animal and microbe—have won the celestial lottery. Theologically, even if we’re wrong, we’re right.  The odds against us being alive are close to infinite: making us all infinitely fortunate.

As I yank weeds, I remember we’ve landed in a planet like no other yet observed, a planet that is a garden. This planetary garden is what sustains us. With that thought, I look in on the cherry tomatoes. I pluck one—red, ripe, fragrant—and pop it in my mouth. It magically answers all of life’s questions—at least for today.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 at 7:50 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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28 Responses to “Garden Cosmology”

  1. Bob Davis said:

    You’re right! It’s nice to put things in perspective.
    B. D.

  2. Jan Keser said:

    George — How beautifully you expressed your appreciation of our garden planet, tiny though it may be. I, too, when working in or looking at my garden am so grateful we exist on this planet, so insignificantly small in the universe, or in the multiverses, but so full of life of all kinds. Thank you for your voice! Jan Keser

  3. Linda said:

    Best one yet – keep up the good work, keeping us “grounded”!

  4. Deborah Kudner said:

    Thank you, George, for putting it all in perspective! Now, I’m going to go out and whistle a happy tune while I tidy up my beautiful little garden.

    By the way, I’m still remembering a most enjoyable day with you during the Helleborus lectures and plant sale in the early spring. My Kingston Cardinal, Phoenix and Snow Bunting plants are all doing well. I’m really looking forward to this coming winter and their showy arrival.

    Hope to see you again soon for another interesting and educational day!

    Debbie Kudner

  5. Siddhartha Banerjee said:

    Beautiful and original musings on our little blue dot and ourselves. I would put this piece next to the best of Wendell Berry or Thoreau.

  6. TC said:

    It is during these fits of waxing philosophically that you are at your best Sir. Not to take anything away from your weed pulling skills.

    And one more retort regarding those odds against us being alive being close to infinite: And I quote that most famous of First Officers who served with great honor aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise – Spock, who said so much at times using only one word. “Fascinating.”

  7. Kyddyl said:

    Ah ha! I’m not the nut job my kids say I am! I too, when out in the garden tend to ponder on The Big Things, allowing my virtual farm on Facebook to wither. There’s just nothing like moving from one spot of shade to another in the real garden, grooming as I go, allowing the garden to become my canvas. I’m extra fortunate as I live in the mountains of the West and my view of the Wasatch Front is remarkable as I can see at least fifty miles of uplifted mountains marching into the northern distance looking rather like a freight train waiting in the yard. Those same mountains speak of incredible power in the forces that uplifted them over millenia and once in awhile a tiny jolt will rivet the attention and put me very much in my place. I also like to think about what it must have been like around here when Lake Bonneville covered a vast area now comprising several states and calving glaciers dropped gravel and rocks in cirques in various places. Then the climate warmed and Lake Bonneville drained and evaporated leaving the salty puddle of the Great Salt Lake. Then the oak brush moved slowly up from Mexico to as far a Brigham City but very little north of there, even though it’s tough and hardy. This oak, quercus gambelii, is a gift beyond measure here. As it grows in clones, when fire sweeps a mountain the oak may be burned, charred through and dead looking, but very certainly next spring there will be new growth coming up from the roots, preserving the thin soil and reassuring in it’s greenness. By the time the oak arrived at it’s furthest reaches north perhaps the mysterious Anasazi may have been here, followed by other tribes. This can be a harsh place but it’s very harshness has preserved the land until very recently, and the oak cannot compete with bulldozers. However I do not dispair for the oak, as it grows tenaciously where even the mountain sheep barely dare go. One day the bulldozers may be silent and perhaps the scrub jays will wing forth with acorns to hide. They are rather forgetful and as the acorns sprout, the ravages on the land will be hidden and the cycle will continue what seems to us to be very slow and measured pace.

  8. Bill Skinner said:

    George, you have a very expanding mind, something like the universe itself. Maybe there is a similarity there in each of us.

    When I am pulling weeds it does me good to think about words other than spurge, nutgrass and other hangers on.

    Thanks for your expansive thoughts.

  9. Nancy said:

    This piece of writing is a joy! It was sent to me from a dear gardening buddy and I have sent to others who also enjoy gardening. Thank you for the dear ‘smile’ for today.

  10. Jane latter said:

    I really enjoy your reflections and perspective. The whole idea of the size of the planet Earth and the universe is quite stunning. However, small is beautiful, whether it is the wild scent of a flower or the pleasure in seeing something grow. Everyone needs to protect the planet Earth – it is all we have. Cheers.

  11. Jane latter said:

    I really enjoy your reflections and perspective. The whole idea of the size of the planet Earth and the universe is quite stunning. However, small is beautiful, whether it is the wild scent of a flower or the pleasure in seeing something grow. Everyone needs to protect the planet Earth – it is all we have. Cheers.

  12. shannon clement said:

    When I go home from work(I am a RN) ,and I’ve had a bad day my garden brightens my attitude. I can take out my agresstion on stomping on snales and crashing bad bugs. In the end I can go into my house with a peaceful feeling.

  13. suzanne rankin said:

    What a wonderful commentary. oddly enough, I feel very peaceful after reading it. Thin I’ll go check my own tomatoes.

  14. Fran Passik said:

    Since I am a Sci Fi devotee, I loved this post! Living among the planets can be exciting! Thank you Mr. Ball!

  15. Susan Wallace said:

    Comment: Evidently you have not been watching PBS’ Nova series or reading any palaeo-human history lately, which puts us homo saps at a much earlier date:
    We emerged from Africa about at least 40,000 BP, and have been colonizing our species around the globe ever since. The first true gardeners, however, have been identfied in the Indus, Nile and Fertile Crescent river valleys since approximately the 10th-9th c. BP, accordiing to Colin Renfrew’s Archaeology text, 3rd ed.

  16. Susan said:

    How lovely is our amazing little blue planet. However we happened
    to be here on this tiny speck in this tiny moment in time, we should be filled with wonder and a keen sense of stewardship to keep the earth and ourselves wholesome and clean.

  17. Marshall Smyth said:

    George Ball, you are one cool guy! I’m enjoying your writings more each time. And, thank you for taking care of Burpee seeds, as well as Heronswood. Can I make a humble suggestion or idea? How about offering, at least in limited quantities, the old original Burpee heirlooms, all of them, including the original hybrids, with the original parentages? That could be taken many steps further to do the same with Livingston’s originals, Burbank’s originals, or even best effort recreations of those lost. His orange fleshed strawberry comes to mind. It might be something to think about, or what your better mind can evolve from this idea. It might even be an excellent project for college student interns to collect, and or recreate these kinds of things. Remember not so long ago when Golden Hubbard was a hybrid with extreme vigor? Now it’s a good stabilized variety but doesn’t have that extreme vigor. I write this letter to you with the suggestion because it would take a George Ball to do it right. Also, I really enjoy looking at your Heronswood collection of plants. Stay healthy, live very long! Our small planet needs you… Just a gardener who spreads some pollen and saves the seeds to plant, Marshall Smyth

  18. ben lewis said:

    your thoughts are always refreshing and really cause me to remember so many things i thought i had forgotten. i worked with agriculture for 25 years and somehow i saw my weed pulling as amazingly different than the weeding done by growers. thank you for letting me indulge my thoughts about gardens, space and time.

  19. Sandy Rosner said:

    I like my newly planted fruit trees and grape vines and other stuff in the orchard I’m starting. And the one strawberry plant that lived when I initially doused the rectangular plot with round-up and set in the twenty-four plants too soon, named Jewel. And i think you are right in away. The bosom of Abraham is a safe place to be in the folds. Yet, I’ll be with Jesus beside him.

  20. Julia Horman said:

    Wonderful; first of your blogs that I’ve taken the time to read. Great blending of two of my favorite subjects: cosmology and gardens.
    Obviously, I’ve been missing something here – looking forward to reading more. Thanks.

  21. Cindy said:

    Have you ever read Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss? I’m sorry, but that’s what came up for me.

    Today, I was wondering what I have to do to prepare my soils for the Fall garlic crop. I want bigger bulbs of garlic at harvest next year. One man said I needed to lime my soils. His garlic is twice the size of mine. At least, from each clove I planted last Fall, I got bulbs of a number of cloves. That’s cool!

  22. Janet Brink said:

    Gloriously wonderful essay. I love your essays but this one was really moving. Thank you so much. And I’m going out to taste my cherry tomatoes.

  23. Dot Lenhart said:

    Sounds like you’ve been reading the Dalai Lama! I couldn’t agree more with your commentary. And you’re not alone in drifting to cosmic thoughts in the garden-it is also my favorite place to philosophize. Sometimes I see the solutions to my own and even the world’s problems in my little garden.

  24. John said:

    Mr. Ball, my wife, the gardener of my life forwards your commentary to me, as she knows I appreciate the art in all things. I can relate to your existentialist views and am grateful for those with the ability to frame such thoughts with eloquence. I look forward to my next installment, like the seeds planted in my wife’s gardens.

  25. Joey Daytona said:

    Great post. I got to see Fordhook Farm for the Open Day over the weekend, great weather, great people, great gardens and another high-water mark for Burpee & Co.

  26. ET said:

    Thank you for describing so well the big picture in a way that a gardener can understand.

  27. My wife and I travel from Detroit to Manitoulin Island each summer for a camping trip. We go to the first so named commercial dark sky sanctuary in W.Ontario (Gordon’s Park) so we can see the Milky Way only 300 miles from home! While we were there this year..we visited the most stunning zone 4 garden..Pepper Point Garden…lovingly created on two acres over 30 years by Jean Narozanski (former Ringette coach) were able to enjoy so many of the aspects of our earthly existence that you so adeptly described in your blog post. We particularly enjoyed the fact that you related some (probably NPR or CBC) radio commentary into your blog. Thank you for preparing such a well crafted piece of writing for us to enjoy on a rainy summer night in Detroit!

  28. Leslie Beck said:

    I’m so glad to have found this website, so intersting. Please keep in touch. Love it all, history, tips, etc.

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