Inch by inch, row by row,
Going to make this garden grow.
—David Mallett, ‘The Garden Song’
Once or twice a day, I walk up to our community garden (or as we say in Maine, “gahden”). At my little plot, which is about the size of our dining room table, I’ll examine my row of peas, one pole of beans and six tomato plants. I may pull a few weeds. It’s been dry so I water from the community hose system. Then I walk home, strangely refreshed, more at peace with the world.
I need to be honest here: I’m not a real “gahdnah.” I know many people—some of whom I’m hoping will read this blog—who have an abiding passion for gardening, while over the years, my interest in growing flowers and vegetables has waxed and waned.
Which makes me wonder why tending a few vegetables is so soothing to my soul this year. What do my on-and-off bouts of gardening tell me about the pilgrimage I’m on, the landscape through which I’m traveling?
From age 13 to 17, I worked in a local market garden. Willian Bryant Logan writes in his fascinating book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth: “Work, motion, life. All rise from the dirt and stand upon it as on a launching pad.” I certainly rose from that garden dirt. At 13, I was 5’ 9”; at 17, I was 6’2”. But that was only part of the growth. I worked with a bunch of other high school students, guys and gals. We guys spent our lunch hours and after work playing basketball; thus, the garden was my basketball summer camp. The sexes flirted and sometimes dated (and two of my former co-workers have now been married over fifty years), making the garden a school for sex education. I learned to drive a tractor, so the garden was my driver’s ed. Besides sports, we also talked about politics (we were all John Kennedy fans), and so the garden introduced me to a world outside of Maine.
And I sure as hell learned how to work. Workweeks were eight to ten hours a day seven days a week. I learned how to work with next to no sleep. I learned how to work hungover. Some of us from those years still remain in contact, and I’m interested that even though we’re all closing in on 80, we’re all still working at one kind of job or another.
For fifteen years, I had a big garden—as I recall, about nine acres—in Down East Maine. I raised enough vegetables to feed three families: mine, my in-laws, and my wife’s aunt and her son. From March to November, I spent every spare moment in that garden. I loved it. If you had asked me why, I’d have said it was because I was getting fresh air and exercise, I was helping us eat healthy, and because I could peer across the road at the ocean, or look up and see an occasional eagle, or gaze into the woods and often see deer or fox.
But the real reason I loved working in that garden is because it helped me live in a failing marriage. For sometimes eight hours a day I could escape the passive-aggressive bickering, and then plead exhaustion so I could avoid it further by going to bed. The garden was where I could fantasize about writing the Great American Novel, becoming famous, seducing beautiful women. But the garden was also a place of healing, where, before I understood the importance of meditation, I would lose myself in the moment. (My former father-in-law used to say that I spent five minutes working and two minutes staring off into space.) The garden was where I could be in control—planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and putting everything to bed—where I could measure success and failure by the baskets of potatoes or sacks of peas and beans I harvested.
After the divorce court pronounced the marriage legally dead, however, my thoughts about gardening were tied up with failure and anger. For the next twenty years, I was very content, thank you very much, to get my summer vegetables at the farmers’ market.
So what’s happened this year? Why am I once more playing in the dirt, even at such a small scale? And even more intriguing, why, despite the fact that cutworms have killed two tomato plants and five bean plants, rabbits are nibbling my peas, and the peas themselves have decided to climb into the tomato cages instead of up the trellis I made for them, am I enjoying it all?
I think because, as in those years of living in a lousy marriage, I’m in need of escape and healing. This is another lousy time. There’s Coronavirus in the air, protests in the streets and a fascist narcissist (narcissistic fascist?) in the White House. Besides once again helping me live in the moment, as I wrote in an earlier blog (“Mud Season”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/03/), dirt and mud are themselves natural anti-depressants because the bacteria found in them trigger the release of serotonin in our brains. What I’ve since learned is that dirt is the source of the greater part of our drugs against infectious diseases. Dirt actually neutralizes poisons, and I’m wondering if besides poisons in the ground, dirt doesn’t help neutralize the toxic atmosphere of today’s political climate.
Gardening teaches me that no matter how old or feeble I feel, I can still bring about new growth, still contribute, still learn, perhaps not as exuberantly as when I was sixteen, but more wisely, with the benefit of another sixty years of experience. My little garden is almost entirely compost, made of what I and my neighbors contribute year-round from what I used to think of as waste. But compost tells me that in nature, there’s no such thing as waste. I read somewhere that we ourselves are compost, comprised of dust from stars that have died. Compost, then, is a lot like resurrection: life’s dregs—death, if you will—transformed into the basis of new life.
And as long as I’m being quasi-religious, gardening is a lesson in grace. I can prepare the ground, I can water, I can put collars around my tomato plants to stop the cutworms, but without the help of sun and rain and the right temperatures—all of which are beyond my control—nothing will grow.
Above all, gardening is an act of hope, something I for one desperately need these days. It’s a bet on the future. Not only on this world’s or this country’s future, but on my own.
There was a popular singing group in the 1950s called the Weavers, whose music I still enjoy. (They popularized the song, “Good-night Irene.”) Lee Hayes, who, besides singing bass in the quartet was an avid gardener, stipulated in his will that his ashes be mixed into his compost pile.
I’m thinking about it.