Up To The Garden

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My “Gahden”

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Inch by inch, row by row,

Going to make this garden grow.

—David Mallett, ‘The Garden Song’

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our Compost Piles

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11 thoughts on “Up To The Garden

  1. Oh, Rick! You are speaking (in your writing) so authentically and honestly, You really draw me into your world. A wonderful way to start this rainy day!!!! Blessings to you and on your “gahden”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rick,
    Although you said you were having trouble writing this blog, the results don’t show it. ( Of course, as your longtime and long ago car pooling mate, I have the additional advantage of having heard your enthusiasm about your Downeast garden.)
    Great details and solid insights—I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this post, Rick. It tickles me that I now know you have a plot in the community garden past which Digby (my dog) and I walk frequently. And, like Ann, I find your open honesty refreshing. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love all that information about dirt! Here’s a bit of Victorian doggerel about gardens, that I love in spite of the sentimental:

    A GARDEN is a lovesome thing, God wot!

    Rose plot,

    Fringed pool,

    Fern’d grot—

    The veriest school

    Of peace; and yet the fool

    Contends that God is not—

    Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?

    Nay, but I have a sign;

    ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful reflection. My father also found health in the garden. Is the Lee Hayes that you mention, Thomas Lee Hayes a wonderful priest in this diocese? I knew him as Tom, but your description fits. He was a very special person.

    Elizabeth

    Elizabeth Barker Ring South Freeport, Maine

    On Mon, Jun 29, 2020 at 9:36 AM The Geriatric Pilgrim: Traveling the Landscape of Faith and Grief wrote:

    > geriatric pilgrim posted: ” # 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,” >

    Like

  6. As an addicted gardener, I’d call you a real “gahd-nah”! Judging by the size of your gardens and the number of your compost piles! But for me it’s flowers and shrubs; I just couldn’t compete with the woodchucks for veggies. In this time of pandemic, I agree, the garden is an escape, and something in the soil, sun, water, and plants elevates my mood dramatically, as you note. When the garden grows, I feel “still normal.”

    Liked by 1 person

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