Hands In the Dirt
Long ago in another place and time I began digging in the dirt. “Gardening” is such an imprecise term for something that has so many variations. Landing in a poor and very rural place meant there was lots of land, one car, and fifteen miles from where I might find employment. I could learn to grow food so I started reading.
About that same time, my Dad who lived one state away at a lower altitude and a two hours car ride over the big mountain had also begun gardening. He’d grown up doing so but in all my years living with my parents we had never lived anywhere that had land enough for a garden patch but they had moved and the new spot had a huge garden needing the right person to come along. I didn’t learn gardening from my Dad. It was more like I learned with him from a distance. We both grew flowers but we were each far more interested in vegetables: Big Boy tomatoes (which didn’t have a growing season long enough to turn them red in far Northern Vermont), cucumbers, corn, beans, tomatoes and just about everything else that could handle a northern latitude’s short summer weather. Boy, did we garden! May through October was the time when work never ended. I learned that both being both the gardener and the food processor (the wife) was nearly impossible but after I planted, tilled, weeded and hoed I headed inside to where I filled canning jars headed for the shelves in the dirt-floor, rock-ledge basement of the house. The potato bin and the two 23 cu ft. freezers filled as did the unused floor of a bedroom upstairs, the drier space needed to store the squashes, pumpkins, and onions.
Mainly, the climb down the rickety basement stairs was where you could find most of that we ate. The colors of the jam jars and the quarts of fruit sparkled in the hanging bulb light down there and so too, in their much quieter way, twinkled the green of beans and all the dozens of bright red tomato jars.
All that remains as evidence of those years is memory and two bad snapshots of the largest of the gardens. I was way too busy to ever dig out a camera and besides, I thought I would live that way forever.
When I made my way out into the larger world I tried in many locations to get my hands back into the dirt. It had become an instinct but eventually even flowers in pots seem almost too much. This summer I’ve given the dirt a last hurrah of sorts resulting in a screaming back and plants that first had to fight drought and later the deluge. No longer are there safe growing spots for vegetables as critters everywhere multiplied with a sense that vegetables were put there just for them. The balance of nature’s world shifted and only fierce and expensive fencing makes vegetable growing possible most everywhere.
My memory turns to gardeners I’ve known beginning with those Vermont years. Carolyn and Kay growing beautiful flowers. Jeannie’s huge market garden, with help coming from the crew and family that lived communally. She told a story of a heart-to-heart with a woodchuck that carried her promise of safety from the guys with rifles if the critter’s family left the vegetables alone. It seemed to have worked.
Most of us moved and the gardens and gardeners kept changing. Brianna, a young woman I knew from the college where I worked, started an early and very successful CSA, with monumental determination packed into her small frame. I still have photos of her garden and that love of plants became her life’s occupation as she and her husband founded a nursery that is still going strong.
Now there are gardening friends, older women who have made lifetimes of gardening elsewhere who garden where they themselves are now planted. The gardens are all vastly different in scope and character. Isn’t that the way of things?
I have come to rely on the growing talents and hard work of others as I’ve sought out roadside stands or farmer’s markets because once you’ve had your hands in the dirt and extracted jewels like cucumbers, eggplant, or tomatoes you never forget the extraordinary taste of fresh from the dirt and respect for all the hard worked it took to grow them..
Note: Photo was taken in 2004 and is of Brianna Davis’s CSA garden in the Hudson Valley of New York State.