What do you look to when you yearn for solid ground?
Since my childhood, I have always taken a special interest in the practice of gardening. My understanding of this has, like most things, matured over time. When small, I recall the moving around of dirt by my father - a process known as tilling or as I like to call it, "waking up the earth." He would use two small pieces of wood and twine to carefully measure out straightened rows. I would hold one end, and he would slowly move the spade along one side of the cord. Seeds would be placed two inches a part. I remember the thought of wanting to put them in closer proximity to one another. As the season warmed, I was responsible for removing weeds, watering and harvesting. The garden lake beans were my least favorite. It meant a long afternoon on my knees, carefully removing hanging beans from the plant without disturbing the root. There would be many harvests into late August. Straight eight cucumbers, better boy tomatoes, sweet corn, and red leaf lettuce. Year after year, I would beg for him to plant peas, but he insisted that the birds would eat them. No amount of pestering would budge him.
When we bought our first home several years ago in Ohio, there were many "inside" tasks that needed my immediate attention during that first winter. Wallpaper removal, paint and renovating a laundry area. Spring came early that year, and I was eager to transform an overgrown berm area in the front yard into a large raised garden. It was a bigger job than I anticipated. The roots from the shrubs and flowering plants sunk deep into the ground, and I spent several days, wielding a pick axe and chopping down into the swollen clay. Sometimes, the neighbors would stop and admire the force of it all. After time, it was framed with long timbers that were sunk into the ground with ribbed metal rods that had to be pounded in, inch by inch, with a sledge. I added piping so that the ground could breathe and could have a way to purge the excess heavy spring rains. Too much of something is oftentimes just that, too much. Then, I filled the area with topsoil and bag after bag of manure and compost. I knew that the soil held the secret of a healthy garden. This "truth" made itself more and more apparent to me with the passing of each harvest.
Each year, a child or two would help, and we would make rows, more jagged and misshapen than those of my father's. The seeds would be planted closer together and in a less measured way by smaller hands and clumsy fingertips. Things would grow where they weren't supposed to, and in most cases, the yield was too much. I remember one season, I had to lift my youngest son into the middle of the tomato patch to harvest bushels of bright orange cherry tomatoes that could not be reached in any other way. Mindy would always remind me that I had "filled it too full." I agreed. She often compared the garden to my life. I nodded at that too. More silently though.
There was always a surplus, and neighbors and strangers would fill buckets and wheelbarrows. My children would eat rows and rows of snow peas until their little tummies were satiated. The birds never came even though they flew high above in the sky. My father's assumptions were flawed. The night I left Ohio to make the first of two trips to Idaho, I spent some time at my garden; placed my hands on the soil. My chest filled with gratitude. With loss. I knew there would be other gardens. I also knew that this one was special. It had provided a container to deal with my own uneasiness. It gave me solid ground.
Since arriving in Idaho, I have been preoccupied with the work of transition. My brother-in-law spent money building raised beds, filling them with topsoil and then planting various seeds. He had a sprinkler system built. But the output has never lived up to its billing. After time, I decided I would intervene. The soil needed to be conditioned; it needed to be broken up so that in the scorching July heat that blankets the whole "Treasure Valley," the water that sprays by hand from the garden hose could find the thirsty roots. My oldest son and I take turns pulling weeds and compensating for nutrition-deficient soil with organic matter and the equivalent of human steroids. After a month or two, I am finally hopeful that the plants in this garden might have a chance to thrive, producing a humble harvest. But I'm not sure.
It's a reminder to me that the things themselves are important. But more importantly is the time spent in the garden by the gardener; the proximity of the hands to earth. You can't just put things into insufficient conditions and walk away from them. It's just not enough. There's something to say about loving attention and the impact that has on both. What is being gardened; what is being tended to? The garden? The gardener? The people gathering its bounty? I'm not really sure.
There are certainly flaws to my thinking. But I imagine that the lessons of a lifetime can be learned in a garden.