The Kingdom

February 13, 2005

“Because of all the war and terrorist activities and means of mass destruction, people think human nature at its core is warring. But there is a lot of evidence that human beings are really wonderfully put-together cosmic creatures.” So said a man named Karl Linn, who died earlier this month in Berkeley. His words capture a lovely truth: once you have attempted to fathom the mystery of human wickedness, turn around and do the same for its complement, the mystery posed by evidence of human goodness. There are human lives that, like tracks in a cloud chamber, leave traces behind them of some otherwise invisible benevolence. Linn's own life may itself constitute some of the evidence of which he spoke.

This is derived, in some parts verbatim, from Margalit Fox's obituary for Mr. Linn in today's New York Times. [cf

Back in 1910, on a fifteen-acre farm in Germany, some people got together to teach therapists how to help the mentally ill by growing things. That program was founded by Karl Linn's mother. He grew up amidst the fruit trees of that farm, where his parents lived, the only Jews in their village. In 1934 they fled to Palestine, where they started another farm. After a few years they fell ill, and Karl, then fourteen, left school to run the farm. It wasn't until he was twenty-three that he started his training to be a psychotherapist, which was his first career in the United States.

After working as a therapist for children for several years, Linn drew on his background in agriculture and became a landscape architect. For a while he made good money creating attractive scenes for the pleasure of the rich. However, what his clients wanted didn't always make ecological sense and amounted to violations of the natural order. Furthermore, from the beginning he had hoped his work as a landsape architect would extend his work as a therapist, that by bringing order to the landscape he would be able to overcome the disorder in people's lives.

Fox writes, “…in the late 1950s he turned to making community gardens in depressed neighborhoods around the country… In New York, Washington, Philadelphia, the Bay Area and elsewhere, he helped inner-city residents transform vacant lots into “neighborhood commons,” urban variations on the traditional village green that brought neighbors, and strangers, together.

“He was in the business, quite literally, of creating rootedness: where a garden flourished, Mr. Linn believed, so, too, would a community. His gardens are notes for their use of native plants, bubbling fountains, colorful mosaics, benches positioned to encourage face-to-face contact and, above all, their involvement of neighborhood residents.” This work was not done simply project by project, but through the creation of institutions meant to foster a variety of projects. In 1961, Linn founded the Neighborhood Renewal Corps, based in Philadelphia. In 1989, he co-founded the Urban Habitat Program, and he also co-founded Architects /Designers /Planners for Social Responsibility.

In a 2003 interview, Linn said: “The garden touches a core of humanness… When I see all this volunteerism, it gives me confidence that a peaceful society is possible.” He said this in connection with the idea, expressed above, that we are created in such a way that we are not completely detached from the cosmos, and that we therefore have the potential to escape war and destruction. I want to second that notion. It seems to me that my faith in God compels me to do so.

So let's reflect on these facts. For all I know, the organizations he founded now grind on, attenuated to greater or lesser degree over time. Of the gardens he helped build, we cannot doubt that some are now gone, undone by neighborhood apathy or pecuniary interests. For all I know, Karl Linn made his wives miserable, or exasperated his children and stepchildren, or had various other personal failings. I am not trying to say that everything this man touched turned to gold.

That doesn't change these facts. A family steeped in the complex work of healing broken people successfully evades destruction during WWII. It produces a son who sets aside a lucrative career catering to the whims of the affluent to work with people who have (superficially speaking) less to offer him. He ends up offering them a creative opportunity he is uniquely gifted and trained to facilitate for them. This all happens many years before the idea of a community garden was as widespread as it is today; indeed, there is no telling how instrumental Karl Linn was in popularizing that very idea. Now, to me, even the crudest community garden represents growth and beauty in the midst of an urban landscape that always needs the blesssing of growing things. The fact that Karl Linn brought to his gardens a sense of aesthetics, an understanding of their therapeutic value, and an ethos of community involvement that touched many people's lives in ways we could never trace… such things don't just happen. They are what Xians pray for every time they recite, “Your will be done, your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Let's praise God for making Karl Linn, continue praying for the coming of the kingdom, and do everything we can to nurture the Karl Linns in our midst.

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