Gardening with Hildegard
World Building with a Medieval Nun
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"Worldbuilding lays the groundwork for your characters to develop, providing the stage for where your creations will perform. It’s okay if you can’t answer every question there is about your world, but setting down the basics will help you start writing and building."--How to Write a Believable World
"Like other artistic endeavors, garden making can be a response to loss. Creating a garden can be as much a re-creation as a creation." --Sue Stuart-Smith
In my first semester as a Library Science student, I encountered a hierarchy most students in the field will be familiar with. Sometimes structured as a pyramid, sometimes just a list, the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) framework is probably familiar to most of you who work in information spaces.
A quick and oversimplistic overview is that we start with data, or symbols, moving up the pyramid to information (ascribing meaning), to knowledge, or information that has been amassed or organized in some way but not necessarily contextualized or integrated (this definition depends a lot on who you ask!).
Above knowledge is understanding which is, well, understanding the information you've received and placing it in context of your other knowledge. And finally wisdom, while nebulous, is the integration of knowledge, the ability to use what we know to discern, connect, and perhaps create new knowledge.
I often find myself subconsciously evaluating writing I encounter in this way: is this thing purely informational, does it help me build my knowledge base, or inspire me to engage with and deepen my own wisdom? And by extension, what is the purpose of what I'm reading? In what ways am I supposed to be using what I learn?
The Wisdom of Hildegard Von Bingen
A year or so before encountering this hierarchy, I took a Medieval history course where I encountered the work of Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179). She was an abbess as well as a visionary, poet, and composer. And, she was an incredibly gifted gardener and healer, so talented that contemporary accounts claim she healed every single person who came to her for help.
At 38, Hildegard took over as Prioress of her abbey after the death of her mentor Jutta, and just a few years later began to record her prophetic visions as well as her vast knowledge of herbs and health. The library she amassed, especially at a time when so few women could read and write, is astounding. According to this overview:
"In her lifetime she wrote between 70 and 80 musical compositions, 72 songs, 70 poems, 100 letters and 9 books. Hildegard wrote 2 books on medicine, Physica and Causae et Curae. Physica, written in nine parts, describes the characteristics of elements, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, trees and plants, and precious stones and metals. It details the medicinal uses of more than 200 herbs and plants with some descriptions for identification.
Causae et Curae combines the mystical beliefs of the time with early German folklore and Hildegard’s own herbal experience. It lists more than 200 diseases with information on their causes, symptoms and treatments. In this same book Hildegard also lists 300 plants, with medical and physiological theory as well as herbal treatments. While both books list herbal treatments, the latter includes actual proportions for the ingredients in the recipe."
Hildegard's work hits every point of that theoretical DIKW pyramid for me: She balances mysticism and fiercely deep belief with practical information and deep medical knowledge. She is able to balance and connect the knowledge gleaned from an incredibly diverse educational background and turn those connections into something new and important.
And, she balances hopeful joy (see for example her cookies of joy) with a keen awareness of the reality of the world as it was, perhaps also with a recognition of her singular and important place within it.
Dr. Kathleen Kamerick, one of my very favorite professors, talked about the labyrinths on the floors of cathedrals, noting that to walk one was "to prepare to encounter the divine."
When you encounter Hildegard's work and worldview, it feels very much the same way.
I don't want to create false parallels between our experiences, but I also feel a kindship with her, which is part of why I turn to her again and again for inspiration. Hildegard was committed to learning and a contemplative life over raising a family. She was interested in teaching and sharing knowledge as well as amassing it.
I imagine that she, like me, would spend hours with her nose in a book or in some flowers, or stirring up a potion in her kitchen to feed her friends or to have on hand in case someone got sick.
And of course, she was an avid gardener with a deep love of plants.
Gardening with Hildegard
I like to imagine her garden often, imagining it as crafted with care, to encourage anyone within to move slowly through the space, grounding into their awareness. I imagine that it, like Hildegard, balances the practicality of medicine along with wonder, and magic, and a sense of the divine.
I imagine it as a place of refuge where she could greet plants like old friends, and where she would delight in the unfurling of a leaf, the opening of a blossom, or the many other wonders and learnings we can discover in even the smallest of garden plots.
I like to imagine her garden as a place not only of healing, but of hope. In other words, a place of caring for self and community in the present, while continuing to grow for the future.
Years ago, I began looking at the gardening wisdom found in a variety of old texts, balancing my desire to let whatever wants to grow in my yard do so with abandon with my desire to cultivate the plants I want for food and medicine.
Most of all, I wanted to create a garden of stewardship and collaboration, of plants-as-partners rather than as pure ornament or a resource to extract from the Earth.
I was drawn to Hildegard's work because I chose plants I want to be in relationship with: A sentiment I see reflected in how she talks about her friendly plant allies. Hildegard offers practical advice still relevant to modern gardeners, and her wisdom has guided not only what I plant but how I do so, as well as how I share the gifts that the Earth shares with me.
I'm not the only one, either: one of the joys of researching for this essay was finding other Hildegard-inspired gardens around the world. Hildegard Forum, which is a restaurant, hotel, and event space inspired by her work, has a Hildegard medicinal garden (the herbs planted within are listed on their website).
The Met Cloisters, which also houses a Medieval-inspired garden, mentions her frequently in blog posts about their plants, Kasia Howard's use of marginalia to connect with Hildegard as a gardener, the Hildegard Garten in Olching, Germany, as well as this guide to a Hildegard-inspired monastic garden. Perhaps most exciting to me, though, is the discovery of a Queer, feminist gardening society with roots in Hildegard's work, and who I'm looking forward to learning more about.
Clearly, there is a wide range of possibilities for connecting with Hildegard in your gardening work. It might involve certain structures and layouts, or the same plants she grew, but for me I find it comes down to the feeling of the space. My garden may not have the same species of mints that she grew, or be laid out in the same way, but I hope it can offer some of the same sense of calm and healing that hers did.
The community as garden
In this moment, as I reflect on gardens and the wisdom they can share with us, especially when the hope they offer might feel distant or abstract, Hildegard comes to mind again.
She was in community both with the plants and with the people who came to see her for remedies: Allowing both ways of connecting with community to feed into each other and nourish each other.
Hildegard and her gardens help us imagine community as expansive, and to envision ourselves as part of something important. In other words, Hildegard's wisdom asks us to be integrated within our multiple communities and to use the wisdom from each to inform the other, rather than envisioning ourselves as outside or above them, pulling strings like marionettes or just disconnecting ourselves from the unique role we play in making our communities stronger.
Many things in our lives will come and go but, as Hildegard was aware, our wisdom, our communities, and our gardens are all keys not only to resilience but to living joyfully and enthusiastically even in spite of feeling like things might be falling apart around us.
Hildegard is also a reminder that when we care for our communities and share our truth, it can have ripple effects beyond our wildest dreams. Did she think that people nearly a millennium later would still be inspired by her work? Perhaps not. She put what was in her heart on the page and out into the world in practical ways, and in so doing built a legacy. This is part of Hildegard's work and that of many other healers that deeply informs my gardening and my life:
A reminder that our legacy is simply what we build through our daily actions, inactions, and decisions.
Tapping back into traditions like mindful gardening, herbal remedies, and fermentation are not simply acts of resilience, they are acts of radical joy that place us as the focal point between the world of our ancestors and the world of the future. May the seeds we plant in our gardens today help us grow towards the world we want to see.
I encourage readers to find a place in their communities this week to send funds, or time, or food, or whatever other resources speak to the role you want to play in worldbuilding. If you do, please let me know in the comments! I would love to celebrate with you.
What a lovely thing to read today!
You are incredible, too! Thanks for the post. Really a good one.