The Gardener or the Greenskeeper

“Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”  -Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury

I’ve found myself lingering on this passage of late. Running it over and over in my mind. Poking at it to see how it moves as I hold it in the hands of who I am. And I wonder at what I’ve found. Both with the passage and with myself. Because I wonder what it is that I am. The gardener or the greenskeeper.

Most of us put our foot forth into the ring of education to make a difference. We want to spend the time we must away from our houses, our spouses, our children, doing something that will have meaning. We want to shape the world around us. To leave something others will see well after our hands have left the clay we are fashioning. And yet, I wonder, if I do enough to be the gardener. Or if I’ve risked becoming the greenskeeper.

We enter the profession full of spark and want and parched with a thirst that we believe will never be quenched. We step through the door on that birth of our career with thoughts that we will change the world. Or many tiny worlds. That we will be the gifted gardener who plants brilliance that blooms forth with shocking, stunning beauty that the world can’t help but marvel over. I certainly did.

But then the years mount. And difficulty and challenge sow the seeds of weeds that threaten to choke down that which we pour ourselves into day after day. And we begin to wonder if we’re planting anything at all. Or we stop planting entirely. We start cutting. And trimming. And instead of gardening, we only prune. True, we still find satisfaction in keeping the garden manicured, but still, we only maintain. We stop our starting. And risk becoming the lawn-cutter who “might just as well not have been there at all.”

I don’t assume this is your story. And it’s far too early to declare it’s mine. But it’s the right time to ask which you’re becoming. Which I’m becoming. And to resolve.

To be the gardener.

Thanks to Stuck in Customs for the use of the Flickr image.
13 Responses to The Gardener or the Greenskeeper
  1. Mark Flynn Reply

    Wow! Thanks for touching my heart and renewing the re-awakening I am experiencing in my 31st year in education, 23rd as a Supt..

  2. Steve Ransom Reply

    Ben, those are real stark realities. I think you are correct in that if one is not intentional (almost) every day about being “a gardener”, before one knows it, one is a greenskeeper. I think passion is much harder to sustain than it is to find… and it withers oftentimes so slowly that one doesn’t notice until it is all but gone. Pruning is important, but so is grafting, planting new growth, and fertilizing.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. JenWagner Reply


  4. Tim Lauer Reply

    As I read this am sitting in seat 24D on a flight to Boston and doing a lot of thinking about the coming year. Your post is just what I needed to get my mind in the right frame…

  5. Judith Epcke Reply

    Through my journey I have learned that I am not the one changing all these tiny worlds, they are the ones who have changed mine. Every day I learn something new from a child. I learn from many adults on a daily basis too.

    I do my best to be a gardener, but even a gardener has to pull weeds and prune now and then. When your knees become too stiff to take the bending, you either get a stool or decide it is time for someone else to do the gardening. It’s also important to keep renewing your garden, planting new plants, giving the soil a rest from the same plants all the time.

    It’s important to remember, too, that all gardens don’t have to look the same. There are English gardens, wildflower gardens, and Zen gardens, All are beautiful in their own way, but everyone has their own idea about what is beautiful for them. Not all gardens grow under the same conditions.

  6. Ben Grey Reply

    Mark- Thank you very much for the kind words. And I hope your coming awake again is as filled with enthusiasm and vigor as was your first.

    Steve- Beautifully put. And entirely true.

    Jen- Thank you. All caps and multiple exclamation points. Higher praise I could not have earned from you. It is appreciated. Truly.

  7. Ben Grey Reply

    Tim- I’m glad to have helped. And I’m glad Bradbury sowed the seeds.

    Judy- Yes, indeed. A gardener’s work is not all planting and sowing and rejoicing and marveling at what he has done. HIs knees get dirty and his back gets tired and his hands ache from the effort. I’ve no doubt there are many who are grateful that you’ve done the same. For them.

  8. [...] The Gardener or the Greenskeeper ( [...]...
  9. Brendan Murpy Reply

    I will have to re-read this one a few times.

    I think sometimes what one calls a garden, such as the yard designated as a wildlife preserve in my neighborhood, is sometimes thought of as an overgrown mess. if you look closely you will see evidence of cultivation, such as the burning of the scrub to allow growth, in front yard turned wildlife preserve.
    A loud classroom is not always an indication of an out-of-control teacher, just as neat classroom is not an indication of real learning.

  10. [...] Recently I read Ben Grey‘s post on “maintaining” instead of “planting brill...
  11. Nancy Scott Reply

    May I copy this to my facebook page? I will credit you and your site.
    This post captures my feelings so well.

    • Ben Grey Reply

      Nancy- Thanks for asking. Feel free to post it.

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