Monday, August 3, 2009

Reaping what you Sow – My Garden has Taught me Fear

Reflections on a Vegetable Garden Part 2

The poor, poor seedlings. They were my first taste of true fear. My wife and I planted seeds indoors in plastic containers beginning in mid-March. I tended them with love for the next ten weeks, carrying them daily out to the kitchen to maximize exposure to sunlight. I spritzed them gently with water, a fine mist settling on their delicate new leaves and stems, moistening the rich soil. We used plastic covers and cellophane to precisely control the humidity in their miniature greenhouses. The vegetables thrived, growing strong and tall. Growing, and growing, and growing, taking over the library where they slept and grew at night, until I began to feel that they were surely plotting to take over my home and, if I was lucky, merely throw my family to the street instead of wrapping their leafy tendrils about us as we slept, wringing the life from our bodies and using our rotting corpses as a source of precious nutrients. Yeah, they got big. We’d apparently planted them way too soon, considering that you can’t plant most vegetables in Syracuse before the very end of May without fear of a killing frost.

By the time we finally did transfer the plants out to the garden, they were big and lush. The transplant did not go well, and several of the plants, which had already begun to grow frail as they struggled under their own weight in their tiny plastic compartments, quickly turned to mush. The strongest and healthiest plants, like the yellow and green squashes, disintegrated completely when we put them outside. I have no idea whatever happened to the watermelons – they simply disappeared. It was touch and go throughout the garden – the plot of land in which my wife and I had invested so much toil and sweat and 16, no 2 square yards of topsoil. Peas and lettuces, cabbages and onions, beets and carrots were all struggling in their new habitat.

At this point, I got to thinking how glad I was that my primary source of food was the nearby P&C supermarket, not my garden. I considered how terror would have taken hold of my heart if my carefully-tended vegetables had been my family’s primary source of food, instead of an occasional side-dish. Ok, granted, most subsistence farmers probably knew a fair bit more about growing food than I do – they wouldn’t have planted their seedlings inside way too soon like I did. They probably would have staggered the planting differently so that everything didn’t come up at the same time. Maybe they’d have been able to tell why the spinach and tomato plant we had in one set of identical pots flourished in a way that was scarcely believable, while plants of each type from the same stock, planted in different pots with different soil, withered. I mean, yeah, it’s the soil, but how do I tell for the future which soil to use? It isn’t as if we marked each pot with the brand of dirt we bought.

They might even have known to use different types of fertilizers on different plants, or just how deep to plant the seedlings. Even today, the beets keep poking up through the top of the soil, making me suspect we probably didn’t plant them deeply enough. I can’t find any literature to suggest that they burrow their way to the surface the way potatoes do. Most subsistence farmers would have known all this, but not all of them.

Throughout history, there have surely been many families who found themselves living off the land in less-than-ideal circumstances. Maybe they were relying on a new crop. Perhaps they were pioneers and settlers breaking ground where nobody had ever farmed before, and where the specifics of the seasons were not well-known. Maybe their knowledge pre-dated concepts like crop-rotation, and they were dependent on land that had been vigorously farmed for generations. Whatever the reason, there have been many fathers, like me, who tried to grow food to feed their families and for whom, unlike me, failure meant privation, even starvation.

Sure, I’m given to thinking too much sometimes, but standing by my garden fence, looking at the barren soil where I’d expected to have full, thick, healthy vegetables, it was all too easy to imagine the fear of a father praying for fresh, green shoots that would mean life instead of death for himself, his wife and his small children. A father certain that in his ignorance or misfortune he had failed them and would need to watch them suffer because he’d been inadequate to the task.

Gladly, we don’t rely on this food. Hell, we grew some championship green beans, of which my wife might eat two or three at a sitting if I bully her into it. And she likes green beans, comparatively-speaking. But if she didn’t have them, our lives would have been impacted not a bit. Sure, we save a couple of bucks a week not buying bagged lettuce, but you’d need a truckload of lettuce (16 cubic yards, perhaps) to come close to making back what we spent building this garden. My daughter and I devour the peas, the spinach was abundant and delicious, and our first tomato, which we ate last night, was juicy and ripe. Our entire garden, in fact, is at long last green and thick and bursting with nutritious vegetables. We don’t need it, at least in terms that a subsistence farmer would understand, but we’re enjoying a bountiful harvest that seems to make the effort worthwhile.

But for a time, just a brief moment, I think I understood. I tasted not the richness of the crops, but the fear and worry of the father who depended on his land and his skill to put food on his family’s table. No doubt some, probably all of my ancient ancestors lived so in the fields and groves of central Italy for generations beyond counting. For once in my technology-riddled, American middle-class life, I think I really appreciated how they lived and died. I wouldn’t want to walk a lifetime in their shoes, but, for a moment, it was all right to reach back through time by tending the seedlings in the soil and watching them grow.

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