I found the gardener sitting quietly in the grass by a large shade tree. It had been a long day of trimming trees, cutting grass and pruning flowers and the day was coming to an end.
He stared out across his garden. It stretches far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I can tell his garden is his sacred space and he treats it as such.
He notices me and waves for me to come near.
After a few pleasantries i ask him how long he’s been tending the garden.
“Well,” he began as he wiped the sweat from his brow, “It wasn’t long after the great war that I started here.”
He picked up a fallen rose nearby and gently pulled away the bruised outer petals.
“I didn’t head off to war like many of my friends. It just felt wrong to me.”
He recounted how his friends and family began to distance themselves from him as he tried to make a stand against the violence.
“They called me a traitor and unpatriotic. They said I should stand up against the evil in the world. I argued that that’s exactly what I was doing — but they kept beating the war drums. The politicians, the celebrities, the talking heads — they all called for swift and dramatic vengeance against our enemies. They said it was a just and holy war. There was so much celebration and excitement as the men went off to war.”
“Everyone was proud of their boys and they were all certain the war would be quick and they’d return home in just a few short months,” he said.
But as the war waged on, his friends began returning home.
“Only they didn’t return to fanfare.” He paused. “But in somber ceremonies as the dead were carried to their final resting place in flag draped boxes.”
“We lost so many good boys,” he said as a tear started to form in the corner of his eye.
He stood and motioned for me to follow.
We walked towards a row of hedges and then he began pointing to small stones along the ground.
“James Patterson. We played soccer together at the Y. Phil Patterson, his brother was killed by a roadside bomb. Sam Vaughn was the quarterback of our high school football team. Folks said he had a shot of getting drafted after college. He was killed while trying to rescue a fellow soldier after a heavy firefight.”
The gardener led me down several rows of markers, pausing at each one recounting a memory of the fallen.
“Everyone thought the war was a good thing until we started losing so many of our own,” he said. “And then when the tide turned and the war came to our own land, people started to feel the true effects of war.”
He stopped to gather his thoughts.
“Once the war was over people wanted to move on. They wanted to forget the horrors of the war and move past the daily reminders of those who died in the name of vengeance and violence. No one wanted to face the reality of what had happened. This garden started to fall into disrepair and the owners hoped to find a caretaker. I stepped up and it’s been my life ever since.”
The gardener lead me down several more rows of markers and then bent over to pick up a vase of flowers that had been blown over by the wind.
I notice the tools he’s carrying and ask him about them. They look like crude tools he may have made at home in his workshop.
He holds them up for me to see. A shovel that appears to be welded from an old rifle barrel and perhaps the fin off an old bomb and pair of pruning sheers that may have once been used as medical sheers on the battlefield.
“Growing up, my father told me that the prophets once wrote of a time when our swords would be beaten into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” he explained. “My father always talked as if this beautiful Utopian society that was possible if we all worked together to achieve it. And I believed him. But after the war I began to wonder if maybe he was wrong. I began to wonder if maybe it was a warning we failed to recognize. After we lost our way and began demanding an eye for an eye, the war killed so many and took so much from us that there was nothing left to fight for — and no one left to fight. All that was left was to tend our gardens with the only tools that remained…”
His voice trailed off as he walked over and clipped a wilted flower from a nearby rose bush.
He turned to me and tipped his hat before heading back to work.