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Love in the Garden
by Sam Torode
I’m a beginning husband and a beginning gardener, which is to say about the same thing.
Last May, I partitioned off a sunlit patch of grass outside our bedroom window, turned over the moist, black earth, and sowed carrots, corn, beans, and tomatoes. After a few weeks of watering, I knelt down one morning to find the first tender carrot plumes nudging up through the soil. A year earlier, I had knelt close to feel the first faint tappings of my unborn son’s legs against his mother’s rounded belly, like a goldfish bumping its nose on the walls of its tank. The seed was planted in the moist darkness, and life sprang forth. Where there was nothing, a new life had come into being.
What sustains the seed in the ground, the child in the womb? Pharaoh Amenhotep IV sang of this mystery in a hymn to Aton:
All the beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing. . . .
Creator of the seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother. . . .
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
My first year of gardening, however, would not have given Amenhotep much to sing about. The corn became infested with earwigs. Rabbits devoured the beans and carrots before I had sense to put in a fence. At summer’s end, only the tomatoes thrived.
I have a lot to learn about husbanding a garden—and a wife. But I’ve found that the two roles complement each other in surprising ways.
The task of the husbandman—and of every man and woman—is to guard, nurture, and steward fertility with reverence, both our own fertility and the fertility of the earth. According to ancient wisdom, fertility is a gift—a blessing—to be received with joy.
This way of thinking runs contrary to just about everything our industrialized society tells us about fertility. A young couple today, establishing a sexual bond, will most likely view their own fertility as a disaster waiting to happen. They haven’t been taught to guard and tend to their fertility like a garden. Instead, they’ve been instructed to “control” their bodies like machines, suppressing their fertility with a regimen of drugs and devices.
“For the care or control of fertility,” writes farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, “we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace entirely the cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.” It was through these cultural, or ecological, means that our ancestors harnessed and preserved sexual energy. These include the upholding of marriage as the ideal context for sex and the discipline of periodic abstinence for the spacing of children.
In the ancient view, a human being is not a machine but a person—a unity of soul and body. The wisdom of the past would caution us against artificially suppressing any part of the person—including their fertility.
Health is wholeness. It involves being connected, living in harmony with our bodies, our environment, and our fellow human beings. Industrialism, however, tends toward division. Applied to sexuality, industrialism has fostered a separation between sex and fertility, which, in turn, has lead to a separation between sex and marriage.
“Until recently,” Berry continues, “there was no division between sexuality and fertility, because none was possible. This division was made possible by modern technology, which subjected human fertility, like the fertility of the earth, to a new kind of will: the technological will, which may not necessarily oppose the moral will, but which has not only tended to do so, but has tended to replace it.”
My wife, with her cycle of fertility, is not a forest to be cleared or a mountain to be strip-mined. Instead, she’s like a garden, yielding her fruits to the patience and care of the loving husbandman. Neither are our potential children pests to be warded off with chemicals. Instead, children are crowning gift of marriage, the visible fruits of a love too strong to be contained in just two bodies.
Even so, at times it is prudent to avoid the gift of children, by exercising stewardship over our fertility. Looking to the garden, we can see how to manage fertility in harmony with nature. If you want a field to lie fallow, you refrain from planting seeds during the fertile season. The same is true of our bodies—to avoid pregnancy, a couple can learn to follow the wife’s signs of fertility, and avoid intercourse during the fertile time.
Like vegetable gardening, I’ve found “fertility gardening” to be challenging—but the blessings that come from learning about our fertility far outweigh the difficulties. As Mercedes Wilson writes in her guide to natural family planning, Love and Fertility, “Discovering the beautifully created and delicately designed functions that govern a couple’s ability to conceive enhances the intimacy of marriage and deepens the love of husband and wife.”
By striving to attune myself more closely to the cycles and rhythms of my wife’s body, and to accept her fertility as a gift, I’m learning to become a better husband—and a better gardener.
Sam Torode is a freelance writer and artist who lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife, Bethany. Their young sons, Gideon and Rilian Alexander, were both born at home. Sam and Bethany are authors of Open Embrace (Eerdmans, 2002), an introduction to Natural Family Planning. The book’s website is www.openembrace.com.
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