Wednesday, June 17, 2015

where did all the good stones go?

Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. And it seemed to me sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest before it.

--East of Eden, John Steinbeck

When I was asked to take over the high school's community garden, the kind woman stood in front of my desk, with an eager and pleading smile on her face, and I sat in my chair, processing.

In my head:
'Oh, I'll check my schedule'. Just as we rehearsed now, Renee: 'I'll let you know.' 'I'll get back to you.' 'I'll check my schedule'. Here we go, 1,2,3:

And then out of my mouth came:

"Why, yes, I'd love that!"

So many painstaking years of progress negated in one enthusiastic and impulsive 'yes'. Old habits die hard.

Thankfully, it was the middle of February, and gardens didn't need any immediate attention or thought. So "The Garden" was a vague responsibility, looming off in the unimaginably sunny and warm future.

Then, all of a sudden, it was March and memories of planting seedlings in the basement with my father, in preparation for the breaking of the frost and the thawing of the earth rebuked me. I was not nurturing any seedlings, there was not a seedling in sight.

Then it was April, and the memory of warm sunlight and tilling the earth and planting seeds in neat rows while wearing kid gardening gloves prodded at my to-do list, and rebuked me each time I walked past the barren seed beds sitting out in the courtyard.

Then it was May, and a flood of despair prompted me to call my father.

My father has always been captain of our backyard garden, which is more like a miniature produce farm. From time immemorial, our backyard has been filled with lettuce, tomatoes, pole beans, raspberries, strawberries. There are blackberry brambles lining the tall fence that holds the basil and the squash. When summer turns to autumn, a riotous, uncontrollable tangle of pumpkin vines, encroaches on the territory of all her herbaceous neighbors.

Picking basil, weeding the lettuce beds, and killing squash bugs were all common summer Saturday activities. Under the eye of my father, who would be mowing or weeding, or setting up stakes for the tomatoes, or doing one of those particular, mysterious tasks that are required of a man caring for his earth, we would learn a bit about how to bring living things out of the rich Minnesota soil.

So, I called my father, and learned that I had not, in fact, doomed our modest little soil-boxes to an accidental Sabbath year of lying fallow. After coaching me through the preliminary steps, he sent me his own seeds. Thick, black beans from the hallowed pole beans that my great-grandfather gave him; brittle pumpkin seeds from the ferociously fertile family pumpkin patch; and sticky tomato seeds, stuck to paper towels, because there was never a tomato sweeter than one from my father's garden.

Then it was June, and I finally began to plant.
I took the seeds out between sun-showers, and stuck them in the soil, aided by my father on the phone and scribbled instructions via a quick Google search. I felt all the joy of getting black lines of dirt under your homemade manicure, and the smell of sweat mixing with the smell of fertilizer. I felt the joy of creating something: a garden, even though the fruits of the garden were yet to be seen. I felt robust and healthy, and fully alive, as I laid claim to a little bit of nature on an island that is not at all mine.
As I patted the last heap of dirt over my last seed, I felt a wave of success wash over me: the sort of success you feel after typing "Blackout" at the end of a play, or when you finally reach closing night, or you hit "Publish" on a blogpost. The success, however, was quickly succeeded by a pang of anxiety. Getting the seeds in the ground is really such a small step (despite the painstakingly long time it took me to accomplish it), and I realized the enormity of the task ahead, and how little of the outcome I could control.

What if greedy city rats chewed on my little seedlings? What if I drowned the plants with too much watering? What if I neglected them, and the sun dried them up into shriveled, parched little runts, panting, struggling to free themselves from the soil that swallowed them up. What if a flash flood came and destroyed my little vegetable charges? What if lighting struck, or a hurricane, or a choking, desperate drought?

I watered them carefully, trying to imagine the tiny little seeds sprouting underneath the quiet and undisturbed carpet of speckled brown. Each watering was accompanied with a prayer of encouragement, and invocation for my father's green thumb to rub off on me. I felt a thrill of hope when I saw a worm near some of my plants. All I know is that worms=good for gardens, and it really wouldn't do to press my knowledge beyond that.

Finally, I saw my first seedlings: the little beans, hearty and robust, were sprouting by the makeshift bamboo fence I had created for them, with rickety gardening stakes and duct tape.
And there, over in their corner, triumphantly sticking out from their small hills of earth, were the shining pumpkin vines. It was strange to see them as small little shoots, so tender and vulnerable, when I am so used to seeing them in their vigorous, unstoppable hey-day.

I am still afraid to weed, since I assume that every small green object might be the belated zinnias and the tomatoes (who are taking their sweet time), which I patiently and eagerly await each day. Being designated the guardian of a living thing is an activity of constant anxiousness.

As I plod through the little herbaceous plots, I feel a small thrill of being who I have always wanted to be, and doing something that is simple, rich, and Good. (Steinbeck's mystic prose running through my head lends a touch of grandeur to my gardening, that my pink flip-flops and slipshod way of planting do not warrant.) I distinctly feel that there is something necessary for my soul in owning a small bit of land, and coaxing something growing out of it.

Perhaps it is the need to feel a part of the earth in a deeper way than just consuming it; to know that I have given it a bit of my heart and time and elbow grease, and it will give me pumpkins to make pie of when the leaves turn crimson. Perhaps it is the need to feel a part of nature's cycle of growth and death. Perhaps it is the need to feel like not a passive afterthought on the face of the earth, but an agent of nature, a force of life, whispering kind words to small portions of the earth's crust, and encouraging small saplings into oakhood.
Perhaps it is that "itching land greed" Steinbeck writes of.
Perhaps it is the catharsis of creation.
Perhaps it is that something my father has felt, too.

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