While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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The Intolerance of Religious Belief

Until this week, I was a member of a Unitarian church.  Since 1988 – my entire adult life – this church has been an important source of religious, intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth for me.  During the past 29 years, its ministers have guided me through personal and family tragedies, the challenges of parenthood, and the annoyingly frequent questions of my evolving religious life.  In this church, I have made some very good friends; some remain and with some, grown apart.  I have been among the many proud teachers in its Sunday school to watch our students grow from toddler-hood to thoughtful, active young teens and on into adulthood.  I have been a member of many different groups and have attended countless classes – some very enlightening and some simply fun.  I have volunteered in different capacities, and from those activities, gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the wide variety of beliefs and practices within world religions – many of which are represented in the Unitarian denomination.  In short, this church was a primary force in my life and until a few days ago, I could not imagine ever wanting to leave.

But over the years, I noticed one uncomfortable factor which was the basis for my feeling of being slightly on the outside of the congregation.  I believe in God.  I am neither Christian nor Jew.  I am not Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim.  I am not Humanist or Atheist.  Simply stated, I am a person who believes in God.  I don’t proselytize or advertise this belief but I will answer honestly when asked.  And my ‘confession’ has resulted in some very surprising and sometimes judgmental responses.  “I thought you were more intelligent than that!”  “Belief in God is just magical thinking.”  “So why do you come to this church?”  “I outgrew God when I was a teenager.”  “You mean, the man with the white beard?”  “You should go back to school.”  “That’s an immature and simplistic belief system.”


Every congregation has some opinionated people.  In my personal life, I have strong opinions about some religious beliefs.  But a few of those opinionated people feel compelled to set others on the path they believe is ‘the right one’.  And in a large congregation such as in the church I just left, many of those individuals apparently feel very free to judge another’s beliefs if they are long-term members of the church.

With time, I became more withdrawn around many congregants at church.  I curtailed my social time at coffee hour, and eventually decreased my socializing to just a few people.  For the past 2 years, I taught Sunday school during the first hour and attended the service and sermon during the second hour.  During my free 30 minutes or so between services, I would rush into the social hall, gulp down a cup of coffee and have a snack, then rush into the chapel and wait until the service started, thereby avoiding socializing completely.  I wasn’t entirely aware that I had developed this practice until an episode occurred in a group I attended twice a month.  This group was created to be a safe, non-judgmental place where topics discussed are based on specific themes which change from month to month.  As a group, we covenant with each other to listen without judgement; to avoid arguing, analyzing, or correcting; and to be a safe place for the exchange and examination of thoughts and beliefs.  A few years ago, I joined one of these groups and the experience was outstanding.  However, it didn’t turn out that way for me this time.  During our discussion, a member turned to me in anger and said that what I was saying was “immature and simplistic, like a belief in Santa Claus.”  The member continued pointing out the flaws in my thinking until he ran out of steam.  I stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the meeting.

On the drive home, for the second time in two years and in two very different situations, I ‘heard’ the word Leave.  I don’t understand this phenomenon.  I don’t know its origin.  But, after 29 years of membership, leaving this church is difficult and painful.  I can’t imagine my life in any religion other than Unitarianism; it is an open-minded, thoughtful, and fulfilling religion.  But as with any religion, it can become intolerant.  And when that happens, when it pushes away those with differing beliefs and prevents sharing of those beliefs, it fails its adherents and leaves them homeless, and it becomes just one more failed belief system.


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The Tenacity of Life, Part VIII – In the deep midwinter.

A line from my favorite Christmas hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter, tells of a season when “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.”   Winter is a season of extremes: extreme beauty, extreme hardship, extreme joy or suffering.  We fill this season with festivals of brightly colored lights and decorations, solemn religious services, and gathering around those we love and who love us.   Humankind and most other animals survive the winter months by wit, force of will, and luck.  If you are lucky enough to have a warm, safe home and protective clothing you can make it through the coldest of days with ease and comfort.  Non-human animals fend for themselves; or if lucky, share a warm safe home with their human companions and observe the icy world outside through the safety of a window.

What of plants?  Many trees and some plants have the ability to withstand subzero temperatures, even for extended periods.  Woody plants can survive being coated in ice, even when losing limbs to breakage from the weight of ice or the strong winds of a winter storm.  Some of the ways trees and hardy plants survive winter is by flooding their cells with sugars to prevent the cells from freezing, and proteins to inhibit ice from forming within the cells.  Other plants allow all above-ground growth to die to ensure that the roots survive.  Deciduous plants drop their leaves in autumn (by a process called senescence) thereby completely avoiding the problem of having to protect foliage from freezing during winter months.  Many broadleaf evergreens will curl their leaves to help prevent water-loss via the stomata, to allow snow and ice to fall readily from the leaf, and to help prevent cells from freezing.  I think it may, also, help prevent sun damage on cold, clear, and sunny days.  Conifers coat their needles with a wax-like substance on the epidermis to help alleviate desiccation and protect the cells within, and to allow snow and ice to readily fall from the needles – less weight on the tree overall.  Of course, these protections can fail at extreme temperatures; during prolonged periods of deep cold; or from repeated freeze-thaw periods.   And, these self-protection methods occur in plants that have evolved to withstand such weather.  A plant adapted to warmer climates will not develop protection from temperatures much colder than those of their native habitat, which is why ‘tender’ plants need additional help from the gardener to survive winter weather.

Damage from freezing weather can be readily apparent, as seen in the pictures below, or it may not present until spring.  The gardener can help plants weather the season by a variety of methods: storing tender plants in a protected, enclosed area like a shed or garage (or even in the crawl-space under the house); covering the root zone with extra mulch; or wrapping the plant in protective covering such as landscape fabric, bubble wrap, or even blankets and plastic (to keep the covering dry).  If tender plants are grown in-ground rather than in containers, situating the plants close to a wall, hedge, or a house will provide extra protection.  Sometimes, this is all that’s necessary to ‘winter over’ a plant that otherwise would not survive the season.  If tender plants are grown in containers that can not be moved, make sure the plants’ water needs are met before winter arrives as the combination of desiccation and freezing temperatures will kill a plant that otherwise could have survived freezing weather.  Also, wrap the container and plant in protective covering, and remove the feet (if possible) from the container and set it directly upon the deck/patio surface.

The pictures below show leaf curl on Viburnum rhytidophyllum and a rhododendron; freeze-burn on a Asplenium scolopendrium, and leaf damage on a primrose and dusty miller.  These plants will recover if history repeats itself, and if an extended or deep freeze doesn’t occur in early spring.  I am always impressed and surprised by the tenacity of plants – no matter what deep midwinter brings or how climate changes.  Most plants will find a way to adapt.  Some plants will die, of course, but overall a majority of plants will survive.  I have deep faith in our green world – and great faith in its gardeners!

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