Phew, that was fast. I put the finishing touches on an article late last night and it is already up on the Guardian website. This one, about the relationship between myself and my maternal grandmother is a bit more personal than usual and I am still getting used to having put it out there. However, it is also just the sort of thing I am pushing myself to write more of despite fears and reservations.
I’ve struggled over the years (more than I care to admit) with feeling like an outsider in the gardening industry. My personal history just doesn’t look like many of the stories I’ve heard from the overwhelming majority of garden writers. And so I have hidden who I am. That’s not to say that my writing is not honest or true, but that there is more, much, much more.
I have often felt that what I had to say about my own experiences was too much, too heavy, too messy, inappropriate for this venue (garden writing) …not quaint and cute enough. I’ve silenced myself in small ways as a result. As what I produce has increasingly become tied to my ability to make a decent living I’ve silenced myself still more.
I took the first steps away from that self-imposed choke hold a few years ago and then moved forward further still last year with the Recreating Eden documentary and a personal piece for Organic Gardening magazine. I saw these venues as opportunities to push myself and reveal more about past experiences that have lead me to where and who I am as a gardener. And as a person too. It’s difficult to separate the two and I suppose maybe the problem is that while my way of creating a palatable public presentation was personable, it withheld the complexity of my humanness. In the end neither the outcome of the documentary nor the article were nearly as dramatic as they felt at the time.
This new piece is another take on the Organic Gardening article, which will be evident within the first few sentences. I suppose the thing is there is no individual story that sums things up. I am often asked to talk about how I got started gardening and I have to admit that I have never been able to answer easily or succinctly. There are many stories, and a book’s worth of experiences that lead me to where I am. I know in my heart that complexity is the truth behind all of our lives and that if I want to see and feel that I am not an outsider (perhaps we all are) then I need to be willing to take a chance and step into my own fears a little bit. Or a lot.
I listened to this essay about the importance of physical labor by urban gardener Mary Seton Corboy yesterday morning on the This I Believe program and thought it was so brilliant I had to share.
Listening to her talk about digging ditches made me want to run outside and dig something… except that it is winter here and the ground is frozen. Day-to-day physical activity is something I miss sorely during the winter months. During the warm months there are average labors like planting seedlings, turning the compost pile, hauling buckets of water to the container plants out on the roof or getting on my bike to go anywhere I want. But in the winter exercise seems forced. I have to make a point to “get outside” on a long hike in the cold, or drag my reluctant ass to the gym where I then use a series of strange machines in a loud, obnoxious environment to achieve what comes so easy in the garden. I also find physical labor, especially in the garden, offers a chance to blow off steam or problem solve as my body goes through the motions of a task at hand. My body takes over on its own in a way that opens up space for my brain to go through its own motions and work through issues from a different perspective. Meditation in motion. The idea that I would be or should be striving to reach a point in my life where I can delegate those tasks to someone else… forget it! I would lose out on one of the places I find joy as a gardener. As a human being.
As a writer and speaker I am sometimes pressured to speak about gardening as easy work. In a way this is true. I try to put a positive and approachable spin on things because I whole-heartedly believe that gardening is something all of us can do. Gardening is for everyone. No one should be intimidated out of giving it a shot. But that’s not to say that it is easy. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is as easy as breathing. Unfortunately, what comes easy to one person can be utter hardship to another. Factors like personal strengths and weaknesses along with climate, conditions, location, resources, etc can dictate all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle differences from one gardener to the next. Sometimes it is brutally hard. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
I find real joy in hard work and labor. Sometimes I hate it and want to kick at the ground screaming. Never mind the things I can’t control: the groundhog that ate every bean and broccoli seedling; the summer a fluke weather pattern brought a plague of aphids in on the wind. Aphids literally rained down from the sky! Imagine how much hand squishing it took to get that under control.
Sometimes I love it and hate it all at once. I might complain about lifting bags of soil up five flights of stairs and hauling endless buckets of sloshing water through the apartment to the containers out on the roof, but all of that only serves to instill a heightened sense of pride in everything that comes out at the other end of the work: homegrown food and beautiful outdoor spaces to relax in. There are some good stories in there too. I often wonder if I would feel as much pride if the seeds just grew on their own with no help from me at all. Would I treasure each tomato in the way I do? Would I demand to be photographed with every zucchini plucked from the plant? Probably not.
So on top of the body, mind and spirit benefits that come from the hard work we do in the garden there is also the joy, pride, and sense of accomplishment that comes from something that is not handed over on a plate. The sense of something meaningful that is hard won. The taste of small victories.
Is this thing on?
I’m experiencing a bit of stage fright, sitting here staring at the screen. It’s been so long since I’ve been here. Not here as in sitting at this computer staring at the screen. I’ve been to that “here” TOO much over the last few months. No I mean here, here. To this site, here. It’s been so long since I’ve pulled my head out of the cave I’ve been living in. Pulled my nose up from against the grindstone, so to speak. Reintegration is going to take some time and patience. When I thought I might write here today my first thought was, What will I say?
So much has happened and yet nothing has happened. I haven’t done any gardening so there are no recent experiences to draw from. And yet I just finished writing roughly 75, 000 words on the act of gardening. And I just spent hours upon hours looking through the thousands of photos of gardens and gardening that I took over the last year. I am immersed in gardening to the point of collapse and yet I have nothing to say.
The brain is tapped. I need a refill.
And so first some pictures. A little Dazzle Camouflage (aka Dazzle Ships), if you will. Because when I can’t speak with words, I can often find a way to say something with a picture. Although I’ll admit I don’t know what these say. Squash is pretty?
And also, wow America. It took a while for it to sink in today. I think I was afraid to believe it was real. But it is real. My excitement is swelling. I have been thinking about the Nina Simone song “Blackbird.” (Sorry I couldn’t find a version online) The first line goes, “Why you wanna fly blackbird, you ain’t ever gonna fly.” I’m a big Nina Simone fan and have long turned to that song in moments of hopeless despair. She expresses so fully that sense of deep longing and wishing for the impossible. The fear that to wish and then to turn that wish into an action (hope) will lead to more despair and pain. It’s always amazing to see a concrete example of what can happen when people take a chance — even if just a small one — to put hope into action. And so I’m then reminded of this Nina Simone song.
I’m so happy for you, America. Happy for all of us.
p.s. I have zillions of unanswered emails in my inbox. I promise to get back to you soon.
Over the weekend I stuck my head out of my hermit den long enough to notice that winter is coming. All of the signs are there, I’ve just been pretending not to see them. The first and most obvious being that it is cold. We haven’t turned on the heat yet but it’s getting there. The days are getting shorter, the trees are turning colour, squashes are showing up at all the corner shops, and the plants are dying back. And so, because I can’t go on putting it off and pretending that the world has stood still around me while I race towards the finish line with a big project, I spent some time over the weekend doing something about it. The biggest job I tackled was to empty out all of the terra cotta and ceramic pots, scrub them clean and then put them all away. Except for the pile that are still sitting on the kitchen floor. I don’t know where to put those yet. Seems that I acquired a few too many new containers this year and have reached beyond maximum capacity.
I had managed to take in the sensitive plants before the frost hit, however, this portion of garden cleanup is just as critical and had to be done sooner rather than later. Last year I put it off until it was too late and ended up rushing everything indoors at the last possible second, setting several pots of frozen soil in my “living room” to thaw. I must have the most patient partner in the world. I don’t think he complained about it even once. But letting it happen again would be taking advantage of his tolerance and patience. And kind of ridiculous if not impossible since we managed to squeeze a small couch into the living room this year leaving no space for frozen pots of soil.
The roof garden, August 4, 2008.
Yesterday evening, while doing some photo work, I came upon pictures I took of the roof garden during the summer months. Looking at the pictures hurt, causing an ache and longing for the garden even though it isn’t even done yet. I just hate this time of year. While I have come to appreciate the look of the garden as it decays and goes dormant I just dread knowing that I am about to enter a period of dormancy myself. That for the next 4 months or so I will only have the indoor plants to keep me going. I miss being outside in the garden. I miss the warm air and the smells. I miss touching the plants. I miss waiting for the tomatoes to ripen. I miss my dirty fingernails. I miss all of it. I even miss the difficult work.
Anyways, I think it’s about time I announced that I probably won’t be posting here for the next few weeks. I’m in the final throws of finishing the first big stage of this project and the schedule has been so demanding over the last few months that it’s been impossible to keep up. I think it’s been fairly evident for some time now considering how little I have posted here in the last while. I’ve put off saying anything about it because I keep telling myself that maybe I will have a moment but I have been kidding no one but myself. When I have a moment I want to spend it resting. The brain and the body are weary. So very weary. I might duck in to post a Daily Botanical. I’m going through a lot of photos and taking stock and often run into something that I had forgotten about. I’ll be fully back eventually, once I’m done this leg of things and my mind and body has had a chance to come down from the mania of it.
In the meantime, happy gardening.
I am standing in front of a community garden taking photos when a youngish dude (I am not good at guesstimating age) holding a guitar and a large, open bottle of vodka approaches me.
Him: What are you doing?
Me: I’m taking pictures of these beans and bean flowers.
Me: Because I think they are beautiful and I am impressed by this garden.
Him: Why are you wearing a bike helmet.
Me: I was riding by on my bike and stopped to take a few photos.
Him: [Laughing] Are you afraid you’ll fall off?
Me: I’m afraid I’ll get hit by a car. I value my life.
Him: [Takes a swig of vodka] What are you doing after this?
Me: I’m working. I’m working right now. This is my work. I take pictures. I write about gardening.
Him: Do you like your work?
Me: Very much.
Him: So I don’t get it. Why do you do this?
Me: Because I love gardening and I love good food. And I want to share what I know. Because people need good food but they can’t always access it either because it’s just not available or they can’t afford it. And because gardening makes people feel good and it makes them feel good about themselves.
Him: So you don’t make porn with that camera?