Online Conversation | Finding God in the Garden with Andrew Peterson
In his lyrical and insightful new book, The God of the Garden, singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson reflects on the formational significance of place and symbolism of nature in the spiritual life. On Friday, December 10th we hosted an Online Conversation with Andrew on what it looks like to encounter God through the glory of creation and how deeper attentiveness to the beauty around us can awaken us to wisdom and wonder.
Online Conversation | Andrew Peterson | December 10, 2021
Cherie Harder: I’d just like to add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Andrew Peterson on The God of the Garden. We’re so pleased to get to collaborate once again with our friends from Rabbit Room in hosting today’s conversation. And I’d also like to just add my own thanks to our sponsors whose support has so generously made this program possible, Will and Alison Gaskins, as well as Ross and Heidi Little. Thanks so much for that.
If you are one of those nearly 350 people who are joining us for the very first time or are new to the Trinity Forum in general, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today, and we’re so excited to welcome our guest today, joining us in the midst of his concert tour—I think he’s joining us from somewhere in Nebraska—for a conversation that I expect will be both wide ranging and, perhaps unusually, framed by trees. Now what do I mean by that? His latest work, The God of the Garden, explicitly aims at not only evoking the wonder and pleasure of truly beholding the beauty around us, but also argues that the way we see and tend to the place in which we are planted is closely connected to our own interior landscape and a vital part of what it means to, in his words, “live in hope, dig deep, branch out, and bear fruit.” It’s an enticing invitation, as well as a provocative challenge, and it’s hard to imagine a writer and artist who could make it with more insight, wisdom, or artistry than our guest today, Andrew Petersen.
Andrew is a recording artist, songwriter, producer, and award-winning author, as well as a gardener and a beekeeper. He’s released more than 10 records over the past 20 years, received three Dove Award nominations and multiple Best Album of the Year nods, and is actually in the midst of his annual Christmas tour, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with an all-new recording of his best-selling album Behold the Lamb of God. Andrew is also the founder and the president of the Rabbit Room, our co-host today, an arts community which fosters spiritual formation through music, story, and art, and which has led to the launch of a film and TV production company and press, which to date has published more than 30 works. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, his creative memoir Adorning the Dark, released in 2019, and his new release, The God of the Garden, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Andrew Peterson: Thank you very much. It’s good to see you.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So in many ways The God of the Garden is sort of hard to categorize. It has elements of a memoir. It’s a reflection on the goodness and beauty of the natural world, a lamentation of our recklessness towards it, and even an analysis of the power of place where trees function as the structural framework of it. So I’m curious what led you to write this work and how did trees in particular come to play such a generative part of your own imagination?
Andrew Peterson: That’s a great question. The book was born because I was stuck at home during 2020. I was on tour over in the UK in March of 2020 when I got word from my manager that if we didn’t get home, like, in the next 48 hours, I might be stuck there indefinitely, which was tempting. I called my wife, I was like, “Hey, I might just stick around.” Kidding. But I found myself at home with this long runway of no shows, and I’ve toured pretty heavily for 25 years or so. So it was the very first time in my life that I’ve gotten to experience all of the seasons from my own place. And around that time, my editor at B&H, who published Adorning the Dark, they reached out and they said, “Hey, do you think you would be interested in writing a book, another nonfiction book?” And I said yes, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about because I’d rather just kind of like work on the book on my own and then come to you. And when I realized that COVID wasn’t going away, I suddenly was like, “I guess I better write a book.”
And so thanks to a writing group that we would get together during 2020 every so often and just, mainly hang out, but kind of kick around what we were working on, and I kept coming back to this idea of trees. And I’d been reading a lot of books about trees and fascinated by place, and I just saw them as kind of representing, in some ways, the journey that God had kind of led me to up to this point, because they represent rootedness and this idea of place, and they also, it turns out, became keepers of memories, you know, for me, that the more I thought about them, the more I began to remember about my own life. And I think the thing that really unlocked the book to me, which is ironic because the book ended up not being about this, but I was listening to the Bible Project podcast and they have a series on trees in the Bible. And I was just so fascinated by the fact that trees play this really strong role in the whole narrative of scripture. And Tim Mackey at one point actually said something like “there is no better candidate for a biblical theme than trees in the Bible.” And I was so interested in that, that you can trace what God is doing through trees and the way they show up in scripture. And so this book is kind of like, not that; it’s more like me tracing what God is doing in my own life through trees. Does that make sense? So I took the same theme and applied it to my own story, and the book is about what I discovered.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating, and I want to come back to your point about memory in just a second. But you know, in some ways, this is sort of your second memoir, and the first one kind of focused more on community and the role that community has played in your own life. This focuses more on place, and, historically at least, community, place, and memory have been in many ways part of the foundation of identity. But we are increasingly at a time when our relationships are thinner, we’re less likely to be enmeshed in community, we’re less likely to be rooted in a place, and we’re increasingly distracted into amnesia. It’s hard to remember kind of what’s going on. And having essentially written two memoirs of your own life about your own sense of identity through place and community, I’m curious about what you think is happening to our sense of identity writ large as our communities fray, we’re increasingly uprooted, and we’re increasingly distracted.
Andrew Peterson: Oh man. Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It’s tricky because I— Ok, let me go back. I got to go to visit Wendell Berry one time at his place in Kentucky.
Cherie Harder: We are all jealous.
Andrew Peterson: Ha. It was with a few friends of mine who were older and wiser than me, so I just decided to just sit in the back and listen, and at one point during the conversation, Wendell looked at me and said, “Well, Andrew, you know, tell us about yourself. What are you doing here?” Or whatever. And I just— It was my chance to thank him for writing his books, Jayber Crow, in particular. And I said something like, “You know, I just wanted you to know, like, my whole life is different because of your books. It awoke in me this longing for place, and so my wife and I sold our little subdivision house. We moved into the country and started, you know, I started beekeeping and doing this thing.” And about that time, Tanya, his wife, rolls her eyes and she goes, “You’re not one of those, are you?” And I was like, “Wait, what do you mean ‘one of those’?” And she was like, “We get these letters from people that say that like, ‘we sold everything and we started a farm.'” And Wendell goes, “That’s not what I mean.” He was like, “Everybody’s not supposed to— What I mean is to stay put.” Right? Like the answer, it’s just another version of the thing that he’s always talking about, which is this cultural lie that the only way to be happy is to be somewhere else. And so I kind of told him, I was like, “Well, we only moved like four miles. It wasn’t like we we abandoned our community.” But we did realize that we needed to be in a place where we could envision ourselves living until we died. Whether or not that’s what happens, we wanted to give ourselves a chance, a fighting chance, to live that kind of life and begin the process of really sinking into place and seeing what happens if we, you know, dedicate some portion of our lives to the real stewardship of the land.
And so, you know, the irony is I grew up in Illinois and Florida, but Nashville has been— I’ve lived there longer than anywhere else. So you’ve got to kind of start somewhere. And I think that, ultimately, I think what Wendell Berry is getting at, and what I hope to hint at in this book, is that even if it’s just a little change in thinking, like you don’t have to uproot everything and learn how to milk a cow. You know? But I think if we just learn to pay attention, like cultivate a life where you really fight to see where you are and remember where you are, it changes things. I was just thinking about this, that we have some friends who used to live in England and are back in the States now, and they said that they were trying to hold on to this idea of community, even though they lived in a city. And the idea that they came up with—and with varied success—was what if they and their group of friends committed to always going to the same coffeehouse and always going to the same grocery store and put patterns in their lives that gave them a chance to bump into each other from time to time so that they could actually feel like they lived in a community instead of this disconnected thing. So I think little things like that are a great way to just push back at the frantic culture that keeps disembodying us.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You mentioned trees as a memory device a little bit earlier. And you wrote some fascinating things along that regard, and I want to read one of them and ask you to comment about it a little bit. You said this: “Trees bear witness. Most of our memories up and vanish and the timeline of what we do remember is sure to get discombobulated as we age. But trees give us a place to hang our hats. Think hard about the trees you remember, and if you’re anything like me, they’ll turn out to be sage and gentle keepers of our days, unlocking memories long since forgotten.” So I’m curious how trees have kept memories for you, and when you say “think hard about the trees you remember” how do you think about trees?
Andrew Peterson: Yeah, well, it was fun. When I was working on this book, I started asking people, and I’m tempted to ask you this—can I? Can I ask you this question: are there any trees you remember from when you were young?
Cherie Harder: Yes, there are.
Andrew Peterson: Any specific trees? Can you give us one?
Cherie Harder: Yes. Yeah. Growing up in Illinois, there were two trees close to each other, big trees in our backyard, and I had a tree house.
Andrew Peterson: Oh, nice. So I also grew up in Illinois, and I remember two maple trees. I wrote about that in the book. And the more I thought about the trees of my childhood, the more I could picture where I was and when, you know what I mean? Like, it just ended up— And so it went from there to, “OK, what happens if I write chapter one about the trees in Monticello, Illinois, where I grew up?” And then by the time I finished that chapter, I remembered other trees, and I started thinking about trees in Florida. One thing led to another, and it turned out that there were these little, you know, treasures hidden in a field, things that I’m certain I wouldn’t have remembered otherwise. And so, you know, if you, like I said earlier, if you couple that with this idea that in scripture trees end up being places where people meet God, and it turns out that that was true for me.
Cherie Harder: That’s wonderful. You mentioned a little bit earlier, seeing. And of course, how we see is a big question. And one of the things I thought was interesting is you linked in your book seeing well with poetry, which is actually, of course, something that we hear, you know, or read. And you wrote about walking through the English countryside with a guide who quoted, I think it was Wordsworth, as you walked, and you talked about how the combination of poetry and all that was in front of you helped you better see the realities of things. And I’d love to hear from you kind of what you saw more clearly and how poetry and art helps us better see reality.
Andrew Peterson: Yeah. So I don’t know if this is going to make any sense, but I’m going to try it. One of the things that I keep thinking about that writing this book taught me is to have a better relationship to time. One of the wonderful things that happened when I was in England and we were up in the Lake District, which is where Wordsworth lived a lot of his life, and this tour guide would stop in a certain place where Wordsworth, in his poem, said, “This is where I’m standing, when I’m writing this poem,” you know. And we can also stand there and we can see the same pond and the same island in the middle of the pond. And there’s something— Time compresses in that moment and you feel less alone because, you know, there’s this guy that lived, you know, a few hundred years ago that suddenly you feel intimately connected to. And it changed the way that I saw the trees all around me in my place. And so then it also changed the way that I saw the work that I’m doing because suddenly I see that sometimes the work that we do outlasts us for generations, you know, in a really quiet, beautiful way. So that’s one part of it is that poetry can compress time, can help us to see kind of from a bird’s-eye view our own story in relation to someone else’s story.
But also, you know, I feel— I said “frantic” earlier. I feel like a lot of us in the West at least are living these fairly frantic lives. And I was talking to my counselor the other day about how 2021 feels like it’s making up for lost time. You know, we all had this weird kind of peaceful, you know, sad—and there was a lot of suffering that happened; I don’t want to discount that—but for many of us, there was something really healthy about being still for so much of 2020. And I want to hold on to that. But I was thinking about how I usually think of time in terms of opposition. You know, I think of time as this thing that is always running out and my life is ordered by it and pushed around by time, but 2020 gave me a chance to see time as a friend and not an enemy, because suddenly I was able to work the land at a proper pace and think about putting things in the ground and knowing that it would be months, if not years, before they became what I intended them to become. Changed the way that I thought about my songwriting or the books that I was writing. I was like— all of a sudden when there was time to really stop and see and pay attention, I got a little glimpse of the new creation when, you know, we’ll have these bodies that won’t be running against the clock, bodies that will be flourishing for millions of years. And I want to do work that looks like that. You know, I want to think of my time here as something that is tied to that eternity and not something that I’m just trying to, you know, I don’t want to live like I’m a hamster on a wheel. So I think poetry and learning to see are ways of pushing back against that franticness.
Cherie Harder: So, you know, throughout your work, there’s intimations of the way that our tending to the physical world has implications for our own interior landscape and, relatedly, that a failure to connect with or care for the place that we find ourselves often has something to do with our failure to care for and connect with each other. And I’m curious as to what you see as the link between care for creation and care for community with our fellow creatures.
Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Well, one of the things that I talk about quite a bit in the book is not just care for creation as in ecology, but the way we build communities, physical spaces that we inhabit, and that the way we build says something about what we believe theologically, about what the Earth is for, about what life is for, in the Wendell Berry sense, what people are for. And so there is a—we live in this corner of Davidson County, which is where Nashville is. It’s one of the last corners of town where you can still see cows. And it’s part of why we moved there was because there were cows. But now on the Cane Ridge Community Board, there’s just all of this, everybody’s in a kerfuffle about the fact that developers are just— Every square foot of this place is just getting bought up. And I’m, you know, there’s a part of me that’s like, I love the city. I think a city can be a really good and beautiful thing, and the country can be a good and beautiful thing, too. And I don’t think you have to have one or the other, that there can be an overlap of the two in a really healthy, beautiful way. And so I kind of hold up, probably in a romanticized sense, the way that they do it in England, you know, where there are footpaths and there are villages that seem like they don’t live in opposition to the countryside around them. They’re better at integration over there in some ways. And so, whereas in the States, because of zoning and subdivisions and the fact that many of the subdivisions that get built are built by people who have never set foot on the land there, you know. Or they’re owned, you know, the guys that buy the property, they see it on a map and they snatch it up. And so they don’t have any real care for the community that’s there, right? They don’t really care about the people. And people need homes. I totally get it. But with a few tweaks, we could change the way that we live our lives and make them less dependent on automobiles. If I could, I would add a cafe and a bookstore to every subdivision in America. And the thing is, it’s possible. Like you actually could just dedicate the houses at the front of every subdivision to having a little general store and a farmer’s market and a coffee house. And I guarantee you that it would create ways for humans to live together the way that they were meant to. So I guess that’s what I’m getting at, is the way we build things has a ripple effect that changes the way we experience other people.
Andrew Peterson: So there’s a great book—last thing I’ll say—there’s a great book by Jane Jacobs called The Life and Death of Great American Cities, and man, she really digs into this stuff in there. But one of the things she points out is this idea that in a city, strangers are expected. And so you get used to living around people who look different than you and think different from you and you go to the same, you know, grocery store and you shop at the same place and they’re not cause for fear. But in a subdivision, they usually have no trespassing signs in the front. And if anybody that looks different than the people who live there, you know, the Next Door app just lights up. You know, “Saw a suspicious person walking through the neighborhood.” And I just think that it ends up, downstream, creating fear and suspicion in us for people who aren’t in our socioeconomic window or they look different from us, whatever it may be. And so that’s just an example of [how] the way that we take care of the place, the literal place that we live, changes the way we see each other and obscures the image of God.
Cherie Harder: Well, of course, I have to ask you about more of those tweaks, and I’m curious about what you think, you know, the current design of our subdivision says about what we believe to be true about human flourishing, and what some of those tweaks would be that you would suggest.
Andrew Peterson: Yeah, man, that’s a great question. Well, I mean, for starters, we could start growing things in our lawns. I think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if everybody learned how to take care of something. Most of us, at least in our subdivision, there are people who, you know, they have really pretty entrances, but you know, there’s this little postage stamp of green grass in the front lawn. Everybody is like trying to make it greener than their neighbors. But nobody ever really uses it for anything, you know? You could actually grow things there. But Howard Kunstler talks a lot about this in The Geography of Nowhere, this idea that the streets are so wide and the lawns are so big that you don’t have any sense of place. I was just in a town a couple of days ago. Where was I? We’re on tour, so we’re bouncing from city to city. And there are, like, some old parts of town where, you know, big lanes of traffic weren’t the idea. It was like, there’s a sense of closeness. And all of a sudden you feel like you’re in a Place with a capital P because you can see the store windows and the apartments above it in the park. And, you know, line of sight stuff. This idea that the land ought to be a civic good and not just private property. I think that if we added footpaths and ways to walk from place to place [it] would change things in a huge way.
Those are just a few ideas that I have. I just know that this idea of the American dream that everybody has their house and their yard and their bonus room. Those aren’t bad things. You know, those are like— I want people to have these. I have those things, you know. I’m really thankful for them. But there’s some kind of change in mindset that needs to— There needs to be a way for us to naturally get to know each other. You know?
One of the things about subdivisions that Jane Jacobs points out is this myth of togetherness, this pressure that we feel that we’re meant to be best friends with our neighbors. And so what happens is we end up feeling kind of awkward around each other. And so then we never hang out because it’s like, “Well, I feel guilty because we were supposed to be in each other’s lives, but we weren’t, and now I’m just going to stay in and watch Netflix.” But if there was like a cafe in town where you naturally bumped into them, you wouldn’t feel that same pressure. It’s like we all have this little bit of buffer and privacy and it’s like we were meant to engage that way.
So anyway, the reason I’m kind of stumbling over my words is because the more I read about this stuff when I was working on my book, the more I realized how deep you can go and how I’m just skimming the surface of the thinking about this stuff. I would commend to you Eric Jacobson’s book Sidewalks in the Kingdom. He got his PhD in theology and space or place or something like that. And I think that there are a lot of people who have done a lot of great thinking about this, that I kind of I’m hoping to send people to those folks in this book, just to kind of pique this idea that there is a way to live differently than we have been doing it in America.
Cherie Harder: I want to ask you a little bit about grief, place, and healing, in that, you know, in this work, you’re quite forthright about your own struggles with what you’ve called melancholia in the past. And you also talk about the healing you found not just in relationship, but also even in gardening. I think you even use the term that “God turned your grief into a garden.” And I’d love to hear your thoughts about how connection to a place not just roots us and grows us, but heals us in a sense.
Andrew Peterson: So, I think I have seasonal affective disorder. They call it SAD. I don’t know for sure; it’s not been diagnosed. But I just know that by the end of winter in Nashville, I feel like if I don’t see the color green, I’m just going to keel over, you know. I feel like my whole body is yearning for spring and that brings with it, you know, some depression. And I actually went through a long season of depression around the time I turned 40, and it happened to coincide with this garden plan that a friend of ours gave us, Julie Witmer. And I realized that there was something— that I needed to embody what I believed to be true. It’s one of the reasons that we ended up in a liturgical church is because I felt like I was in a place where there was a ton of theology and a ton of singing, but we didn’t receive communion but once a month, you know, and if I was gone on the road a lot of Sundays, then I ended up not receiving communion for months on end. And so, you know, communion, the Eucharist, is this tangible experience that reminds us of the love of Jesus and the presence of Christ, you know? And so it is a lot more things, too, arguably. But I was like, I found my body was actually craving some connection with what I believe to be true here [points to head] and here [points to heart], you know? And so I could talk to myself, like when I was working on a book or writing songs, I could talk about the hope of the gospel, and I could talk about the resurrection and I could talk about God’s abiding presence. But I didn’t really feel it very much, you know. I could assent to these things and say, “Yes, I know these things to be true.”
But something else entirely happened when I went out into the garden and started pulling weeds out of the ground. And, you know, one cool thing about it is a lot of times when you’re gardening, you’re literally in a kneeling posture. You’re in a a position of worship. And so I found myself kneeling, working the ground. It’s pretty solitary a lot of the time. So you end up talking. I end up praying a lot and talking to God a lot while I’m doing it. And there was something about the embodiment of this practice of putting something dead-looking in the ground and then expecting by the great mystery of creation that we plant the seed and God makes it grow, that I’m going to come out one day and I’m going to see that new life has come from this dead-looking thing. And so it taught me something in a way that I was able to experience in my body that I could not have learned any other way. Does that make sense? So the practice of gardening, it’s a more holistic way of living out what we believe, I think. And it doesn’t have to be gardening, you know. I don’t think everybody has to go out like I said and learn how to milk a cow or plant a big flower bed. But I really do firmly believe that anyone that is engaged in any kind of cerebral work, like staring at a screen for hours on end, working on a poem or an essay or an article or a book, or whatever it may be, or any kind of computer work, you have to balance that out with some engagement with creation, with the given world, right? Or we’re cutting ourselves off from one of the clearest voices of God in our lives.
Cherie Harder: That makes all kinds of sense. You know, I may be wrong about this, I’ll be interested in your thought, but I, in reading your book, I sort of sensed a tinge of wistfulness, maybe even a little bit of melancholia in some of the chapters in the stories of, you know, ancient majestic trees casually destroyed by a reckless meth user or the pansies planted in memory of a daughter who died too soon, later pulled out by a new owner who bought the house, or, you know, even your own apprehensions about developers’ designs on your own neighborhood of Cane Ridge. And, you know, in many ways, of course, this is metaphorical not just, you know, agricultural, but what do you see as the enduring worth of toiling and tending to something so fragile and fleeting as a garden?
Andrew Peterson: Well, I actually believe that, in some mysterious way, the good and the beautiful things that we give ourselves to here carry over into the new creation. And I don’t know exactly how that works, but in the same sense that Jesus’s resurrected body, he still bore the scars; like he didn’t resurrect in this— it was a glorified body, but that glorified body also included marks of the story that he had lived before. Right? And in some sense, I think that that’s what we’re headed for. I don’t know if there will be a new Nashville. I hope there will be, like there is a new Jerusalem. But I do think that, like, there’s a part of me that wonders sometimes if this whole thing is—when we finally see, when the lights are turned on and we see the new creation—we’re going to see that there was a lot more— we’re going to recognize a lot more than we think sometimes, you know. And so I have to believe that, like in the chapter I wrote about my mom and dad working their little piece of property in Florida, knowing that none of us kids are in a position to take over that property. None of us grew up there. And it’s not in a place where we can take care of it. It grieves me to think that my mom is doing all this incredible work, you know, and my dad too, like planting these beautiful gardens that are probably going to— there’s no way anybody is going to love them as much as my parents did. But I do believe that in some mysterious way, because my mom will be resurrected and her story will be resurrected, her memory of this garden will also be resurrected, I think, and that the new creation will bear some kind of scars of what it is that we’ve done here. And so, yeah, it gives an eternal picture to what it is that we’re doing.
In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, she talks about how in the new creation, we’re going to tell the epic, kind of like Homer, the epic of the old creation of about how God redeemed it and how he moved among us and conquered death and did all of this, and that there is going to be this epic that we’re going to tell and retell in the new creation. And so I think that if it’s true, what C.S. Lewis suggests, that the sorrow now is part of the joy later, that everything that we do, the shaping of our properties, the way that we love each other, the way that we die to ourselves, carries over in some beautiful, mysterious way. And so, yeah, I don’t know. Because when you’re gardening, it’s not just the garden that’s flourishing, it’s you that’s flourishing too. You know? It’s like you are a byproduct of the work that you are pouring into.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to go to our questions from our viewers in just a second, but beforehand, you touched on this briefly, but I’d love to kind of dig more deeply into it. Many of us watching, we live in high rises in urban centers, or others are just so busy tending to children, aging parents, a demanding job, that caring for anything other than a cactus sounds really exhausting. And I would just be interested in your thoughts on those who are watching who are really enticed by what you’re talking about. How can they better see clearly and care for the place in which they find themselves planted?
Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Well, getting to know your neighbors is a great way to do it. Rich Mullins one time said you ought to learn the names of all the trees on your street. I think that’s a great way to do it. There are apps that do it for you. You know, you point the app at the tree and it tells you what kind of is. And even if you live in a high rise, there are going to be trees around. There’s a park somewhere nearby and learning the names of the trees—but I wouldn’t stop there. Learning the names of the birds and of your neighbors too, you know. It changes the way that you see. I love that, at the beginning of lockdown last year, one of the top Google searches was “why are the birds so loud?” I don’t know if you noticed that, but it was so funny to me that people genuinely thought the birds had for some reason gotten louder. And it was like, No, there just wasn’t as much noise, and we were able to hear this really beautiful thing that was always there. And I think that’s what I’m getting at is, like, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And so he is speaking to us through his creation, and I think there’s a whole lot of noise we’ve got to fight through to see it. So, yeah, grow a tomato plant, man. It’s so easy. You can go to Home Depot and buy a little pot and learn how to grow something. I think that it’s easier than you may think.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and just as a reminder, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question, and that helps give us a better idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Cindy White and Cindy asks, “Do you see creation as sacramental? And how might gardening teach us to care more and talk less, which our polarized world needs so much?”
Andrew Peterson: Oh man, that’s good. I’m curious where the person is from. In the UK, they have these allotments, you know, where people who don’t have property, they can go and have a little plot that they can take care of. I was just in Boston a couple of weeks ago and there’s this—I think it’s called a “freedom garden” or something. It was like on VE Day or something like that, they commemorated this community garden in downtown Boston, and it’s the oldest community garden in the United States. Yeah. And there are all these people on like 10-year waiting lists to have a little 10 or 20 foot piece of property. And so I guess I’m not really getting at the question, but I love the fact that that’s a way to get to know each other. It’s a way to, like, truly understand your neighbors a little better because you’re both trying to do the same thing. You’re just both trying to grow something beautiful in the world.
And I do think, you know, the word “sacramental” is a debatable word. I’m not a, you know, hardcore theologian or anything, but I do think there is something sacramental about all of creation, and there’s a lot more going on under the surface and a lot more to learn than we sometimes give it credit for. So for example, I understood a lot more of Jesus’s teachings once I started trying to grow vines and plant seeds in the ground. I remember pruning our grapevine—which I think they died this year [laughs]—but I was pruning my grapevine like the third year in and trying to figure out how to grow grapes. And I went out to do it and I looked it up on YouTube: “How do you prune grape vines?” And I was doing it, and I was just astonished at how violent it was. Like, I had no idea how severely you were supposed to prune grape vines in order to get good grapes. And around that time, I was reading, I think in John—is it 14?—where Jesus talks about, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and he talks about how he’s going to prune away the things that grow bad fruit so that other things can grow good fruit. And I at the same time [I] was in a season in my life where I felt like God was being particularly unfair to me. You know, I was like, “Why does it feel like you’re cutting me down right now?” And then you read the scripture, and I literally am engaged in doing the thing Jesus is talking about. And all of a sudden, there’s this smash up of an eternal truth with the embodied world that I’m living in. And I understood who Jesus was and how much he loved me a little better. So yes, I think that, like I said earlier, we’re cutting ourselves off from real encounters with who God is by cutting ourselves off from that world. So in that sense, yes, I really believe it’s sacramental.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So I want to actually combine two questions that both ask about some aspect of your life as both an artist and a writer. Tim Griffy asks, “I’m fascinated by artists who express themselves in multiple media. How does Andrew know when an idea or concept should be expressed musically or through his writings?” And somewhat relatedly, Gina Gallagher asks, “Since you are on tour now that things have opened up, you must long for your place when you’re away from it. How does that longing help or hinder the life you must live as an artist and a writer?”
Andrew Peterson: Wow. Well, my wife Jamie is, she has a gift for hospitality and making cozy places. And man, when we left the other day for tour, it was really hard. Like, our house is just the most— it’s the safest, most beautiful place in the world to me. And having to get on a tour bus and sleep in a bunk for the next however many weeks, it was really difficult. But honestly, that’s kind of how it’s always been. When the kids were little, we were very careful to make sure they knew that Papa going on the road was not an escape. Like, I’m not— Yeah, I would rather be home. I made sure that they knew at all points that if I could choose between being home or doing a concert, I’d rather be home every time. And so it gives you the sense of purpose, like, I’m not here just to have a party. Like, we’re out here because we have a story to tell and we really believe that. We believe in the one the story is about and that he has called us into this battle. So for me, touring and playing music has often felt more like I’m at the front lines of a war than I’m, you know, in the middle of a party. Home is where I feel like the real life is being led, and here is where I’m going to try to do the work that I’m trying to do, which isn’t to say that we don’t have a great time. It’s really fun to be on the road. But there’s got to be more to it than just, “wow, music is neat,” you know. I’ve just never loved music that much. I like what it’s pointing to.
And so as far as knowing whether it’s a book or a song or whatever, they’re just very different things, entirely different. Some people think that if you’re a good poet, then you’ll be a good songwriter and vice versa, and it’s just not true. Like, I think Paul Simon is one of the greatest songwriters that’s ever been. And if you buy a book of his lyrics, they don’t work as poems, you know? There’s something else going on in a poem than is going on in the lyrics to a song. And so each medium calls out certain things and requires its own kind of discipline. And so, yeah, I don’t have an idea and then think, “I wonder if this should be best expressed as a book or a song.” It just doesn’t work like that. You get to the bottom of the idea through the outworking of the thing that you’re making. A lot of times the idea is a spark that gets you going, and then the finished thing is completely different from what got you started. So it’s always mysterious.
Cherie Harder: Part of your answer is actually a perfect segue to a next question from an anonymous viewer who asked, “Our modern political economy isn’t always conducive to staying put. What advice would Andrew give to people whose livelihoods require them to move periodically?”
Andrew Peterson: When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, God told them to plant gardens and take care of the city where they were. Do you remember that? I think it’s in— Is it in Jeremiah? Anyway, I think that there’s a beautiful biblical precedent for like, wherever you find yourself, live there in a way that is going to leave it better than how it was when you got there. Like, if you think of it eternally and you see your neighbors as image bearers, then I think you have more time to dig in than you may think that you will, you know. Live there as if you’re going to be there for a long time and if you’re not, uproot. But yeah, I mean, I’m kind of the same way, you know. We travel so much, and I love to be in England and in Sweden, and I love to be in Nashville, and I just kind of have to be where I am. Find a way to really keep your eyes open wherever you are. That sounds kind of trite, but I just think it’s true.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Preston Eastwood, and Preston asks, “What disciplines or practices do you have in place to build relationships within your immediate community?” And he says, “I’m especially curious what that looks like while on tour.”
Andrew Peterson: Well, the tour is our immediate community, and so we’re working together. We’re engaged. We’re kind of, like, we’re all hoeing the same row or in the same field right now. And I think that’s my answer to the other question, too. Sometimes people ask about finding a creative community and how that works if you don’t live in a city like Nashville that’s full of poets and writers. I think that the answer is work. I think that people are drawn to activity and that if you feel like you’re alone and you’re aching for community, you want to work side by side with someone, then pick a project that is harder than you can— something that you cannot do alone. Put it on the calendar. Advertise it. And then force yourself to get busy working. And I guarantee you, by the time you finish the thing that you’re working on—whether it’s an art gallery or a play that you’re putting on, or a concert—that you’ll turn around at the end of it and you’ll realize that you knew 20 people you didn’t know before. And so I think that working side by side is one of the best ways to be in community.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Hannah Dineke—and, Hannah, apologies if I just mangled your name—actually about Sabbath. Hannah writes, “I love what you mentioned about those of us who do cerebral or creative work needing to engage with creation intentionally. I think about this regarding Sabbath sometimes. Do you practice Sabbath? And if so, how do you balance Sabbath practices with work?”
Andrew Peterson: I wish I practiced Sabbath. Man, I wish I did. I think because of my job, I work on the weekends. And one of the crazy things about 2020 when I was home was Saturdays. I’ve never known a life where Saturdays felt like a Saturday, like you wake up and you mow, you know, and you grill out with your neighbors, you do these things. I was like, “Wow, so this is what it’s like.” I had no idea. And so, yeah, we go through pockets of time where we’re on the road a lot and pockets when we’re home. So what we’ve had to do in in lieu of having a weekly pattern, we have a yearly pattern. So January, for 20 years or so, I have zero shows in January, my manager knows to book nothing in January. It’s a time of recovery and Sabbath at the beginning of the year in some ways, at the end of the year in others. And then so we typically hit it really hard and then plan long chunks of time. So as a family, we’ll go do something like that that’s very, very intentional and restful. That said, I’m not very good at resting. I’m trying to get better at it. I think I learned a lot about what rest is supposed to look like in 2020 and now begins the task for us all of learning to recover or to hold on to the good parts of that break that we experienced.
Cherie Harder: And what did you learn about rest in 2020?
Andrew Peterson: I learned that… You ask such good questions. I learned that, well, I learned that I’m not good at it, and I learned that my body needs it. I remember the first probably two weeks into lockdown, I realized I had slept more consecutive nights in my own bed than I had in 20-some odd years, and that I could not stop sleeping. I started taking naps in the middle of the day. And I still have learned, I’ve begun— That’s I guess one thing that I’ve learned in a practical way is that I take naps now whenever I can. And I feel like naps are a great way of telling the day that it’s not the boss of you, that you you can say, “You know what? There is something more important than me getting a thousand things done,” and it’s like a little bit of self-care. Anyway, I’ll have to think about that. What did I…? I’ll get back to you next year.
Cherie Harder: Ok, awesome. We have, gosh, we have so many questions asking you what you think about this book or that book or Ents and everything else. So we’ll get there if we have time. But we’ll take a question from Heidi Metcalf-Little. And Heidi asks, “You created a whole place in the Wingfeathers Saga, of which we’re big fans. How do you see places intimate to that epic? And how has your view of Aerwiar evolved through writing your most recent book?”
Andrew Peterson: “Aerwiar” is the name of the world. Yes, so place is crucial to the thing. Like I remember when I was working on the Wingfeathers saga early on, I kept running into hurdles and then walls because I didn’t know the world that the characters were inhabiting yet. So I stopped trying to write the story until I went back and drew the map and I decided where the rivers were and the towns were and all of that business. And then after I kind of had a sense of the actual geography of the place, I started populating it with creatures and monsters and then I had to decide, you know, things like— I remember in the first chapter, the main character was going to buy something and I didn’t know what kind of money he used. I was like, “Oh, is it a coin? Is it a jewel? How does this work here?” Which then, you know, demands answers about the technology. Do they have a mint? Is it steam technology? Do they have gunpowder? Have they figured that out? So the building of the physicality of the world of Aerwiar was a necessary first step in then knowing what the story was going to be.
And as is usually the case, any time I have some great revelation, I realized that God got there first. In which, that’s how the Bible is. God started with a map and decided where the rivers were going to be, and then he populated it with creatures and then he put the story. And so in order for there to be a story, there has to be a place. And so, yeah, it forced me to think long and hard about that. And I think, you know, again, story and place—what were the three things you said? Memory, place, and community. If you’re writing a novel, those are three of the same ingredients that you have to have. Like, I had to figure out what were the memories of the characters. What was the surrounding story that they found themselves in? And what was the setting, what was the technology, the whole thing? So then the story grows out of that. I’m repeating myself. You know what I mean.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Dan Smith and Dan asked, “Do you think that viewing scripture more like a story and embracing embodied practices like gardening will produce better fruit than church communities that use scripture in a more literal, systematic way?”
Andrew Peterson: Hmm. I mean, it’s all kind of got to be in there together. You know? I think that the pendulum can swing too far in one direction. I do think that I didn’t— I wish that I had grown up with this idea that scripture is perhaps best understood through the lens of story. That was a revelation to me. Like Sally Lloyd-Jones’s Jesus Storybook Bible, things like that, you hear people talk about it a lot nowadays, but when I was a kid, the Bible was a list of rules and it was there to make me feel guilty. And so to realize that there was this love story at the heart of it was a game changer for me.
But I wouldn’t want to lean so hard into that that it implied that robust theology was necessarily a bad thing. I think that those could be really good things; they could go hand in hand.
Cherie Harder: Great. A question from Bethany Scott who asks, “Any suggestions you’d give to someone who is happily in a large nonliturgical church for implementing liturgical practices in day-to day-life?”
Andrew Peterson: Well, you start by buying Every Moment Holy by Doug McKelvey. It’s a great book that is a bunch of liturgies for everyday moments. I was just telling somebody the other day that I’m a very private person. So when it comes to worship, I cannot imagine putting my hands in the air. Like, I just I would be, I would start sweating, you know, and be like, “Everybody is looking at me.” I can’t do it. I’m not that guy. And I used to kind of think it was whatever. Like, “Why are they putting their hands in the air?” Now I’m starting to get it. You know, I go to a church where sometimes we’ll kneel in certain prayers and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a good thing for me to embody.” So in a very small way—I don’t remember where I got this from—but I’ve started opening my hands when I pray. Nobody can see me do it, that’s the reason I like it. [Laughs.] I can be sneaky about it, you know, but I’ll actually hold my hands open and it reminds me that I’m always in a receiving posture with the Lord, like every good thing is from him. And it isn’t about how good my prayer is. It’s about what he has to say to me. And I don’t know, there’s something very simple about that liturgy of when I pray, I put my body in a certain position to remind myself of these truths. And you know, there are some people who think that’s weird or, you know, some people will actually genuflect like this. [Crosses himself.] And I used to think, “Oh, yeah, that’s so Catholic,” whatever. But also, you know, if I didn’t take my hat off when I prayed, my mom would have just smacked me in the back of the head. In the deep south anybody who takes their hat off when they pray is doing the same thing. They are showing an outward sign of respect. And so I think little things like that actually are a great way to start.
Buy a book of common prayer too. There’s a great app called—what’s it called?—Daily Prayer, that kind of goes through the daily office and has the prayers that go through the day. So, you know, even if you don’t go to a liturgical church, I think it’s a really good practice. And the church calendar is another thing. Pay attention to the church calendar. I love the fact that the church rehearses the story of redemption over the course of a year. And if you’re a person who says, “Oh yeah, church calendar, I don’t agree with that.” Well, then you better not be celebrating Christmas because guess what? That’s a church calendar thing. But Easter, Christmas, Epiphany, all these things, it’s just super, super helpful. And I don’t think you have to be full-on Anglican to to appreciate those things.
Cherie Harder: We have so many more questions to go, we’ll try to get in one more. And this one is from Tom Okie and Tom ask about—he read your book—and asked about the role of art and drawing in the book and what led you to do the sketches and how that affected your getting to know the trees?
Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Well, I will say Tom Okie is in the acknowledgments of the book. He is a wonderful writer and gave me one of the first feedback on the first draft of the book. So thank you, Tom, out there. I haven’t gotten to talk to you since you did that. But Tom is a tree guy and is brilliant. Anyway, if you’re going to draw a tree, it means that you’re going to be staring at it for two hours. I notice that I go through phases when I’m writing and when I’m not. Usually in the winter when I’m not touring, I spend hours of my evenings out in the Chapter House with my sketchbook, drawing. And I notice in a very real way every time I walk outside and go for a walk in the woods around our property, I pay more attention to the shape of the trunks and the way the trunk comes into contact with the ground and the kinds of vines and ferns that grow at the base of the thing. You just notice it all because you’re drawing it, you’re paying attention. So anyway, in the same way that songwriting teaches you to pay attention to your days, I think staring at a tree for two hours can’t not change the way that you look at trees, you know. You just understand it better. So, yeah, and I really wanted to put the sketches in the book as a way of showing that the trees in the book all remind me of places. They’re all from actual places that I’ve actually been and spent time in. And so they are keepers of memories for me, even if they aren’t for you. And so, yeah, anyway.
Cherie Harder: You know, actually, we will take one more question because this is such a good one, although it comes to us from an anonymous viewer. And they ask, “Do you have any Advent practices that you would suggest to help put the ideas in your book into practice?”
Andrew Peterson: I would suggest writing an Advent album and touring it every year for 22 years. [Laughs.] It’s a good question. I do not have any Advent practices other than this because this has been almost my entire adult life. Advent is about kind of living in the tension between what’s to come and where you are now. And I think that this tour has been it for me because I want to be home. You know? I want to like cozy up and have hot chocolate with my wife. But this is the season where we’ve— My kids have never known a Christmas other than 2020 when I was not gone. And so that comes built in a lot of tension. You know, we go on the road and we’re longing to be home, but we’re engaged in this work right now. And I don’t want to make it sound like we’re martyrs or something. It’s just not— There’s an intentionality to it that is crucial. So having said all that, I was not there for all of the nights when my wife would light the Advent candle and go through the readings with the kids. So I wish she was here. She could answer that question. But no. There’s some good books. Watch for the Light is probably my favorite Advent book that I try to read.
Cherie Harder: Andrew, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. And finally, as we close out our time together, I’d like to give Andrew the last word.
Andrew Peterson: Thank you, Cherie, so much. It’s been so good to talk to you. We love what you guys are doing here and very, very thankful to be a part of this. I hope I’ve made sense in light of the fact that I’m tour-bedraggled. If there was one thing that I would say in closing, you know, it’s hard to talk about some of this stuff, which is why you end up having to write a whole book about it—is to get to the bottom of it because there’s a lot of talk about grief and theology and a lot of opinions that I’ve had that I’m trying to understand why I have them and all this kind of stuff. What it really comes down to, like you’ve said, is learning to pay attention. Remind yourself of the abiding presence of God. It’s not that God is more present when you’re standing in a forest than when you’re in your house or you’re in an office cubicle. But for me, at least, standing in a forest reminds me that he’s present everywhere, you know, like going out to places where it’s a little easier to hear the birds. Are the birds louder? No, the birds aren’t louder. They’re just— it’s easier to hear them because other things have gone quiet.
So in closing, somebody shared this quote with me from Clyde Kilby, who is a C.S. Lewis scholar. And I love this; it was in his ten resolutions for mental health. He said one of his ten resolutions was this: “I shall open my eyes and ears once every day. I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are, but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic existence.”
Cherie Harder: Andrew, thank you. And thank you to all of you for joining us. Merry Christmas.
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