The Fable of the Hermit Gardener
There is an old man, living in a forest cabin.
His face is weathered and wrinkled, with folds and cracks and creases of skin that tell the story of his life, like the rings of a tree.
His hands are gnarled. His back is bent.
He walks slowly across the beaten planks of a wood floor, past a humble table with one chair.
In the cabin, just one window, with a battered shutter to keep out rain and cold. Its rusty hinges still function, with a groaning creak that complains of age and years of use.
The hinges and the cabin are older than the man. They were built here many years before he claimed it as his own.
This Hermit Gardener chose to move away from civilization. He packed up his belongings, took a few essential items, and left the world of roads, contraptions, stress, and people.
He wandered his way into the woods, searching for a spot where he could live his remaining years, alone.
He walked without a compass or a map, relinquishing control, trusting that the journey would provide for him a destination.
Patiently, he traveled terrain of many types; some forbidding, some forgiving.
He walked, with weariness and expectation, for countless days until he saw a clearing through the trees, and heard the punctuation of water bouncing upon rocks somewhere nearby.
Past the trees, a meadow.
Along the meadow, a shallow creek.
Beside the creek, a grassy slope.
And nestled there, a cabin, settled in position as comfortably as boulders in the creekbed.
He paused, leaning on his walking stick. Gazing at the structure, he breathed in, slowly.
The shack was unexpected in the landscape, but not unnatural. He could tell that it had long since earned its right to belong.
When the old man found the cabin, it was empty, but it did not feel abandoned.
It seemed to have been waiting for him, full of cobwebs and particles of dust that fluttered up into the air when he pulled the door open for the first time. Specks of reawakened dirt had almost danced in the light that rushed across the threshold as he entered.
The structure was startled, but not surprised. In the quiet, he could hear its welcome: a silent greeting of calm acceptance.
This would be his home now.
A Hermit Gardener needs very little for a contented life. The cabin’s mossy roof could protect him from rain. A fireplace built from stones would keep him warm in winter. The small creek running between forest and meadow offers him fresh water every day.
And of course, there is the garden…
A few steps from the cabin, the meadow has generously yielded some of her space for the Hermit Gardener to cultivate crops of his own.
From Spring to Fall, he spends his days there, in companionship with what he grows.
Strawberries, beans, peas, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, melons, peppers.
Each plant with its own personality. Each one with its own needs and preferences.
Each leaf and vine and flower, a part of the conversation every day between gardener and living thing responding to his care.
Embraced by the meadow, observed by the forest, the Hermit Gardener wakes his garden every morning with water from the creek, carried and poured carefully from an ancient metal bucket.
The plants respond with gratitude. Gently, he examines leaves and blossoms for signs of illness and signs of growth.
Malicious insects are removed. The Hermit Hardener needs these plants to remain healthy. The harvest will provide the food required for him to eat and live.
The plants must grow. They must ripen and bear fruit. They must fulfill their purpose for their own sake, and for the one who tends them.
This garden is essential for survival, but it is also sanctuary. In this space, the Hermit Gardener never feels stress or fear. Only peace and contemplation, fulfillment and delight.
The garden is a place of stillness and sensation. Waves of golden sunlight tumble through the meadow, to warm both gardener and garden.
The light breeze gently brushes stem and leaf and skin, as it drifts into the forest. It carries scents from earth and mountain, moss and grass. It gathers all the flavors of the garden, too; the fragrances and aromatic smells of every unique growing plant.
In a garden, it is natural to breathe deeply, to slow down, to savor the intangible.
Silence, or sound? In the garden, both.
Softly layered sounds of life create the quiet of the Hermit’s garden. Flutter of a butterfly’s wings, rustling of meadow grass, song of bird in forest tree. The whisper of a twirling vine, of roots stretching for nutrients, of leaves and blossoms turning towards the sun.
An orchestra of silence, the music in this garden. A melody of growth, of gratitude, of life.
The Hermit Gardener is content for many seasons, many years. But there is less permanence than change within the natural world. Our lives and our surroundings are not static; there is always progress or the process of adjustment in some way. Abrupt and sudden shifts we notice. When change is slow and subtle, we do not always recognize so soon. And so it was for him…
For years unmeasured, the Hermit Gardener lives his days in steady ritual.
Wake and rise, carry and pour. Nurture and harvest. Breathe, contemplate, rest.
The rhythm of the hours and the seasons and the years is peaceful to him. Satisfying. He needs nothing more.
Until one day, plucking an errant caterpillar from a leaf, he notices something unfamiliar. A faint sensation he did not expect. He pauses, observing the lumpy insect as it crawls from fingertip to palm.
What is this feeling?
It seems to echo softly in his body, pulsing on a path from heart to head to gut. Moving with his breath and with his blood, it is carrying a message of some kind.
The caterpillar wriggles on its journey from hand to arm now, searching territory it has not explored before, trusting this terrain of skin and hair is safe to travel. It sees no threat; no risk perceived on the living landscape of the Hermit Gardener.
He will carry it to a safe place in the forest, but not yet. This new sensation in his body has captured his attention. It is a puzzle asking to be solved.
The feeling. He can almost catch the word for it, but not quite. Somewhere in distant memory, there is an echo, pulsing on that circular path between belly, beating heart and brain.
It is … an ache.
Not hunger quite, but … yearning. An emptiness?
A wanting, a wishing, a need that is increasing in momentum now. It rises up within him, acknowledged. Aware of his attention, it moves more swiftly; not frantic, but with determined urgency.
More than just discomfort, he recognizes that this feeling contains pain. It pulses but it pierces, too. He can feel the hurting now; a long-forgotten feeling that will not be ignored. It is time.
He is lonely.
The Hermit Gardener winces as he thinks the word in protest.
He is content in the rhythm of this life! He has companions: meadow, forest, creek and garden. Birds in nest and sky. Butterflies and bumble bees. Caterpillar on his arm. Sunshine, mountains, breeze and rain.
He has companions!
But he is lonely.
When truth escapes, it cannot be contained. He carries caterpillar to the forest now, finds a juicy leaf for it to feast on, near a patch of berries and some mushrooms growing from a crumbling log.
The Hermit Gardener watches as the insect starts to eat. He turns, and gazes from the edge of forest towards his home.
Almost as he remembers when he found it: creek, forest, cabin, still the same. Meadow only altered in the space devoted to the garden.
How long has all this been sufficient? How many years?
He does not know.
But it is not sufficient any longer. A season, unexpectedly, has turned. This cannot be denied.
The Hermit Gardener crosses creekbed back to garden now. He steps from soggy edge to sequence of flat rocks, on to the shallow bed of pebbles on the other side.
The water in the creek is bouncing on its journey, swirling playfully with fish and frogs around all obstacles. The cheerful splashing has a brightness and a lightness to it that he’s always loved.
But now it also stands in contrast to the ache inside him, which has been noticed, and been named.
Yes, he is lonely.
What does this mean? What does he want?
He thinks back to the time before he chose to leave. What did he have then, in that other life?
The pictures in his mind’s eye have lost focus. They are faded, indistinct and grainy, but he can recognize the shape and meaning of them, still.
That other life. What did it have, that’s missing now?
The greeting of a shopkeeper as he walks into the store. The texture of the contact, as merchandise and coins are transferred between hands.
A glimpse of rough and tumble schoolboys, racing-chasing down a dusty lane, proving to themselves what they can do, testing capabilities with exuberance, reveling in competition.
The clink of silverware, mixed with scraps of conversation drifting from a cafe on the corner.
A sudden blush, observed on young girl’s cheek, as her beau reaches to her, offering his arm.
Music, shaped by instruments and voices, escaping from a parlor window.
Church bells, ringing invitation.
Clumping hooves as a salesman’s wagon departs for the next town.
The cooing of a mother as she lifts her child to hip, and kisses forehead.
Moments of human interaction, direct and indirect. Faded, but not forgotten. Remembered now, with urgency.
Thoughtfully, the Hermit Gardener climbs the slope from creek past cabin, returning to his garden. He chooses a few ripe vegetables; cradled in his arms, he walks back to the shack.
Blended in a dented pot, heated and stirred over a small fire, flavored with dried herbs hanging from the rafters, he savors the texture and the substance of his evening meal.
The soup warms him. He is nourished, but still needy. The ache of loneliness remains.
Night has descended, and it is time for him to rest…
When the Hermit Gardener wakes, he is obedient to the pattern long established. He carries water between creek and garden, but his mind is reaching for an answer from his dreams.
He feels he heard a promise while he slept, but he cannot quite recall it. He is perplexed; the ache of loneliness has not abandoned him, but there is a hint of something else. A glimmer of expectancy? Another puzzle, but this one is not demanding. Its message seems to be to wait.
When plants are watered, he brings the empty bucket to the forest, on a path remembered more by feet than eyes. He fills the bucket with an oak tree’s acorns. There is enough abundance to be shared. The squirrels have stored all that they need. The rest are his, to grind for flour in the winter months.
Returning to the cabin, he is lost in thought. There will be many trips for acorns. This first bucket’s worth is poured into a wooden bin. To fill it up will take all day; he’ll walk the same path many times before the task is done.
The door creaks as the Hermit Gardener opens it to step outside, but then he stops. Something is different. A noise? He hears it now, again.
Laughter, and a human voice.
At first he cannot locate it, but then he sees the source. Emerging from the woods, where he once stopped with walking stick to pause and breathe at first sight of this place, there are three figures. A woman, with two children. The youngest, barely five years old. Her older brother, perhaps eight?
The trio is surprised, just as he was, to suddenly discover edge-of-forest, meadow, cabin.
They cannot see him standing frozen in the doorway, motionless, protected by the shadow of the roof. He watches as the figures hesitate, the children waiting for instruction, the mother measuring the sum of what she sees, deciding.
The Hermit Gardener sees the posture of the young boy change. He’s caught sight of the creek now, and his eagerness can barely be contained. With upturned face, he asks permission, tugging on his mother’s skirt. She scans the landscape once again, then tilts her head and smiles. The boy dashes towards the water, as sister and mother follow.
Now, a new melody is heard, as laughter of the creek is merged with laughter of the children, boy chasing frogs and minnows, girl splashing water happily with open palm.
The Hermit Gardener shuts his eyes to listen. There is no artifice or malice in what he hears, just warmth and kindness, innocence and joy.
Still hidden in the doorway, he drinks it in.
The splashing stops. The Hermit Gardener feels his muscles tense, as he realizes the sun has shifted now. He is no longer hidden in the doorway. He has been seen. Eyes opened, he looks down at the creekbed and sees the trio startled into stillness once again.
The boy, so young, but still responding as a man, protective in his posture towards his mother. The girl, too young to feel alarm, smiling and then distracted as a dragonfly lands upon her hand. The woman, composed and thoughtful, considering the evidence she sees before her, standing in the entrance to the cabin.
He meets her gaze, and waits for her evaluation, with growing awkwardness aware of all the social niceties that have not mattered for so many years. His clothes so worn, his hands so rough, his voice untested for so long.
And slowly then, a smile spreads across his face; he knows what he can do. Almost a reflex, his hand raises in a gesture; his motion means to wait for just a moment. He sees the comprehension in her eyes, confirmed with a slight nod. She understands; she will grant his wish for time.
The Hermit Gardener leaves the threshold of the cabin now. He walks into the bounty that has been only for him for all these years. He finds tomatoes, peppers and a cucumber, a squash and radish, too, and walks with arms full from the garden.
At edge of creekbed then, he pauses, incapable of speaking, unnerved at how much has been altered in so little time.
The woman speaks a soft word to her son. He scrambles up the bank to fetch a basket. He brings it to his mother, and watches as she makes her way so gracefully across the chain of rocks to meet the Hermit Gardener on the other side.
He fills the basket silently, and ducks his head. She lifts the basket, curtsies, then turns and crosses to her children. He watches as they walk back toward the forest, boy running once again, his sister trailing behind.
Observing now, he understands something quite simple. This trio is not far from home. Their journey through the forest has not been as his was, long and arduous; a flight from all he knew. They have discovered this place far more casually, as part of an adventure; exploration for the joy of it. Their visit has been recreation, close to home.
He realizes that while his small portion of the world has stayed the same, others have not. A spark of curiosity flickers inside him for a moment; he treasures what he has, but knows he does not need to be in exile any longer.
The mother pauses at the treeline, turning back towards meadow, creek and cabin. Across the distance he can still see the compassion in her eyes. They are no longer strangers.
She knows that they are welcome here. He knows that they will visit him again.
He is no longer fearful, and he is not to be feared.
The Hermit Gardener realizes the landscape of the world has changed.
So, too, the landscape of his heart.
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