“But people are always speculating — why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.”
- Malcolm X.
I believe I’ve published that quote before, but it’s so relevant here I felt I had to add it again. I spent most of my life carrying a heavy weight of shame about where I come from and I think I tried subconsciously to hide the fact of it for most of the years I’ve been writing here. This became especially true when people started asking me about my relationship to gardening as a child and I did not know how to answer (I still get this question all the time). I started to resent the feeling that people didn’t want to hear the truth. But I wonder, is that really true, or is it that I was just too afraid to tell it?
I wrote about my childhood experiences elsewhere, but kept it away from here. I think in my mind that was my dark side and this is my light side. I am a public figure of sorts, and I came to believe (in a way) that I was supposed to be sanitized. Funny how we see gardening, an act that very literally involves getting dirty, to be so squeaky clean.
Over the last few years I’ve been pushing myself to bring the dark over here, too. It’s all me. Just different parts of me. Sometime ago I started writing little stories off the top of my head about the places I lived throughout my childhood. I never intended to post them here, but these stories say a lot about my adult relationship to nature, my perspective on gardening, and the kind of gardener I’ve become.
This first story begins with a house we lived in for a very short time just before I turned six years old and then goes off into a tangent about what I have previously described as the “…middling working class townhouse complex” I lived in for most of my childhood.
The very first thing I remember about the house was the springtime garden. This makes very little sense since we moved in late fall, Halloween night to be exact. And yet I don’t remember a single thing about the house (or my life during that time) until that first spring. I clearly recall stepping into the yard. There was a birch tree with peeling white bark and a bigger tree, possibly a maple, big enough for a swing. My parents installed one soon after; the seat was blue plastic with a yellow nylon rope that wrapped around a strong vertical branch. Later, it would hang from ceiling beams in the basement of a townhouse with a postage stamp-sized yard, in an ugly, lifeless subdivision where the trees were too small and weak to support a swing.
In the yard, there were red and yellow tulips growing alongside the fence. I remember that. And I knew what they were too, although I don’t know how—I was only five then and had never had one pointed out to me as far as I can remember. Where did this knowledge come from? I still wonder, but by my best guess: library books and Sesame Street. [Thank you Sesame Street for showing me young that learning was fun.]
The earth smelled fresh in that springtime yard, and there were other plants as well, but I didn’t know what they were at the time and I don’t remember them now. Daffodils perhaps? Yellow comes to mind. I liked to dig. A wooden sandbox was constructed and later filled up with sand stolen from the big pile at the canal dry docks. The sandbox reminds me a lot of my first raised bed garden, come to think of it. There was no bottom so we could dig straight down into the earth below. And we often did until the sand was a muddied mess. That sandbox made its way to the townhouse too, again without a bottom and we kids spent countless hours mining below the sand for clay and ant nests. I envied other kids’ clean sandboxes until I realized they’d never get the chance to dig up clay or try to make an escape hatch to China.
That was about the closest we came to nature living in the subdivision.
Another fun thing we liked to do was pick potato bugs from underneath the front stoop and then race them. This is no easy task since too much prodding of a racer could make it curl up into a protective ball. Race over. It was a grand day when we found a toad or a snake underneath there. They lived in the fallow field behind the Towers/Food City plaza nearby, but would sometimes find their way into our lifeless world. That field was my personal Valhalla. I longed to go there and play, but wasn’t allowed. My childhood geography extended from the front door to the sidewalk, left to the parking lot, up to a small hill in the middle of the subdivision (as long as I stayed out of the parking lot) and the tiny backyard. But the fallow field was full of mysteries and it is no doubt that this is where my love for scrubby, fallow lots, weedy meadows, and muddy wetlands comes from. The expanse behind the Towers had all of that and more. There was a pond that appeared in the early spring when the snow melted and rains filled up the crater. I regularly begged to go there and see thousands of tiny toad tadpoles squirming along the shallow edges.
Another favorite thing to do was visit the young scientist section of the public library searching for books to spark my imagination. I spent almost the whole of our visit down on the floor flipping through picture books of frog lifecycles, unusual pets, or beekeeping, carefully choosing the next books to come home with me. The best were presented like stories, with smiling, inquisitive families who indulged in the learning process together. I longed to be one of those kids and imagined myself slopping around in a big pond searching out leopard frog eggs and scooping the gelatinous mass into a net to take home and watch as they hatched into tadpoles. Eventually, through the magic of metamorphosis, the tadpoles would form legs, arms, lose their tails, and turn into real frogs. On the final page, the family always carefully returned the frogs to the pond, because it was the right thing to do.
We keep tadpoles once, too. Toads though; not frogs. And they did form legs, then arms. Eventually their tails shrunk and we let them out in the yard. The same happy ending did not happen for the big, slimy dew worms I collected off the lawn one night. They dried to a crisp inside a yellow margarine container on the back patio.