If there is one plant that deserves to represent the ultimate truth, one plant whose physical properties and historical connections put it in a class apart from the rest, it would have to be the myrtle (Myrtus communis).
The myrtle is clearly rooted in the here and now. Its roots grow deep in the rocky earth of maquis and chaparral. Yet the myrtle appears, at times, to exist on a level that is beyond mundane reality and higher than mere nature.
Esther, the Biblical heroine, was also known by the name Hadassah, which comes from the Hebrew word for myrtle. When Esther-Hadassah entered a pageant to become queen of Persia, she was the only contestant who chose not to adorn herself in any special way, relying on her essential grace and beauty. She not only became queen but later saved her people from annihilation.
While working at the Peter Pitchess Honor Ranch -- a jail farm just north of Los Angeles in Saugus -- a number of years ago, I made acquaintance with the myrtle. Just off one of the many dusty roads that twist their way around the ranch, at the base of a rather steep slope, I noticed a brilliant, glossy leaved plant that offered a sharp contrast to the dull and dry flora that surrounded it. It was a summer of burdensome heat, yet that myrtle seemed to look fresher with each passing day. Its diamond shaped leaves, thought by the ancients to represent the all-seeing eyes of wisdom, never sagged or faded despite the absence of a watering system in that corner of the ranch. As if its foliage was not enough of a gift, it also bestowed gold- stamened pure white flowers, which were succeeded by succulent blue-black fruits.
You cannot imagine how uplifting it is to see a fresh, glistening evergreeen, the embodiment of constancy and resiliency, growing in such an environment. Each day you sandwich fifty inmates into the bed of a dump truck and take them to their work detail. If they work with you for more than a few days, you end up asking them what they're in for. It transpires that none of the inmates -- to hear them talk -- has ever committed a crime. Each and every one is innocent of all wrong doing; each and every one is in jail because he was "set up" or "snitched off." You drive your inmates around the jail compound and see the myrtle, a green gem glowing in the sun. You point to it and shout: "Learn from this plant, gentlemen, learn from it!
The world around you may be dry and dead, but you can make a difference, you can stay fresh and hopeful and alive. But first you must admit to who you are. Just don't give in to cynicism or despair, and keep the faith!" In response, the inmates all laugh and swear in their usual high-spirited manner, enjoying their stay on the farm -- every day, three hots and a cot at no charge, and a funny boss to boot.
After spending time in jail, whether as inmate or guard, you may wish to escape from the lock and key world and find refuge in a garden. It may be quite tempting to turn your back on mankind behind hedges of bougainvillea, oleander, or myrtle. With myrtle, though, you will have half a lifetime to wait, since the plant is rather slow growing. In addition, it grows in direct response to soil conditions and water availability, not exceeding four feet in height under adverse circumstances, while reaching twenty to thirty feet when conditions for growth are optimal.
Around the year 130, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was sentenced to death by the Roman government for publicly mocking the achievements of Rome as one big hedonistic enterprise. To save his life, the rabbi withdrew with his son to a cave in Galilee where, miraculously, a carob tree grew and a water well appeared, so that he never lacked for food or water. For many years, he studied Torah and prayed with his son. Eventually, the emperor's decree was rescinded, and the rabbi left the cave.
In their years of isolation and study, Shimon Bar Yochai and his son had learned the meaning of eternal life. They had also become disgusted with the temporal, humdrum world which, they thought, only existed as a barrier to holiness and eternity. So intense was their emotion and belief that, upon emerging from the cave, fire literally came out of their eyes when they saw people engaged in the mundane acts of plowing and sowing a field. Upon seeing this, the Almighty was angered and, realizing that His world would soon be consumed in a blaze, ordered the two saints to return to their cave.
Twelve months passed and a voice from heaven ordered the men to leave the cave again, their punishment over. It was the Sabbath eve and the first sight that greeted their eyes was an old man carrying sheaves of myrtle, a fragrance redolent of Eden coming from the freshly cut branches.
Serenity and joy filled the hearts of Shimon Bar Yochai and his son. They understood that the six days of plowing, sowing, and harvesting were created solely for the sake of the Sabbath. They realized that the splendor of the Sabbath, represented by the myrtle's otherworldly aroma, could only be appreciated by those fully engaged in the mundane world.