My garden dies early. At 8,000 feet, though there may be a long, luxurious Indian summer following the first frost, the tomato plants and bean vines hang, blackened and stiff on their stakes, like a memento mori. They are such an affront, aesthetically and cosmically, that as soon as the weather warms again I rip roots from the damp, clinging soil and make great heaps of tomato, bean, squash, and cucumber carcasses, with a strange, purging sense of vengeance. No matter how abundantly they have borne, I feel somehow they have betrayed me. I have never been one to romanticize the barren fig tree. I lie in bed on that first cold night, grinding my teeth while I imagine I can hear the cells splitting their sides as their liquid life freezes and swells.
Of course, the underground tribe go on smugly sleeping and fattening through it all. I don’t even bother to dig up my carrots and onions until late October, after which they are not likely to be discoverable beneath the snow. Perhaps because of their patient perseverance, roots are always the lowliest, most humble of our foods. Potatoes, turnips, beets. Poor folks’ fare.
So, after the first frost and before the heavy snows, I go out to prepare the garden for winter. I heap up the dead vines, layer them with damp dirt to speed the decaying process, loosen the soil around the root tribe so they can be easily pulled and stored, and finally turn the whole plot over, shovelful by shovelful, so that the winter will fill the ground with moisture and tenderize the tough earth by its repeated freezing and thawing. It is the end of the cycle, my last duty in this patch of the world I have labored in all summer. All I will be able to do from now on is to lift the curtain aside and stare at the raw wound through the frozen months, enduring the process that is the dark underside of fertility.
As I perform this last duty, every time I sink the shovel in I feel that I am performing a primordial ritual to which we still have access only by a now almost indistinguishable path. If the Messiah came today and to our country, it would be impossible for him to wander about the countryside, to go off to the hills to pray, to sit on a slope and teach from the realities of seed and field and harvest. Oh, maybe in our little village, which numbers fewer than two hundred souls, he could gather a small crowd in Leland Counze’s field on the other side of the creek. But not one of five thousand. Farmers have learned to be wary of anything remotely resembling a rock concert, as no doubt the Gadarene swineherd learned to suspect the cost of exorcism.
But by and large our society no longer learns from organic metaphors. Our images are machines that do not grow but only accrete. (Nor, unfortunately, when they die do they fall into the ground and disintegrate.) I turn over another black lump of dirt and watch a mauve and terra cotta earthworm wriggle away, confused by the disruption of his home. “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Is there some correlation lacking here, I wonder, as I pick out the stones my shovel has struck against and cast them further down the hillside. Can we know what the kingdom of heaven is like when we no longer experience the metaphors that manifested it? If we’ve never harvested a crop, or fished, do we miss something essential about the great ingathering of souls? Do bureaucratic “models for ministry” really supplant the whole truth of sheep-feeding and reaping?
A heady scent rises from the earth in autumn. White strips of beneficent bacteria irradiate the soil with potent decay. Buried treasure. Aureomycin, I speculate. Indians used to pack wounds with a certain kind of rich, pungent earth. What I wouldn’t give for several cubic yards of leaf mold from the deciduous south on this rigid Colorado ground. I yank up a fistful of bean vines and find on the roots, true to the promise of botany classes, the little nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, regular underground factories of nutrition. In fact, my vengeance against the bean vines slips away and I can forgive them their lack of hardiness. This is like a whole new crop, this network of knots that means richness for next year.
I set my shovel to the ground again, feel the sun slant across my shoulder, and suddenly am transported back further than the Galilean hillside and the agrarian parables. All at once I feel the root of my father Adam, dark and hidden in the earth and piled up eons of time. What he was I am: a tiller of the soil. Bite by bite my shovel eats it, faster than the earthworm but with the same intent. “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” We could stand side by side, Adam and I, he in his skin shirt and I in my grubby jeans, hoeing, stopping to tear out an upstart cocklebur, pausing to lean on the hoe handle while we stare out at the horizon, wondering what weather this night will bring. We inhabit the same spiritual space. Not one moment separates us in our understanding of our place in the universe. Adam and Adam’s child, cursed and blessed from the same ground.
Perhaps that is what is at the root of the widely touted therapy of gardening: the recognition of one’s human contingency. In a culture where that fact is disguised or ignored as often as possible, where climate is controlled, livings made inside buildings, foods processed almost beyond recognition, there is very little evidence of our ancestral link to Adam. We build machines to do our planting and harvesting or, where that is not yet feasible, hire others to produce the “sweat of the face” whereby we shall eat our bread. For there is really no reason for gardening other than keeping this cord alive to our past, our origin. Economically it makes no sense at all. One can buy, bug-free and cellophane wrapped, all the garden produce one needs at the supermarket and at a much lower price, if one considers time as money. Why then do we feel that surge of joy when we see the saffron treasure of carrots laid out on the black dirt like coins on velvet? Is it because the economy of the contemporary marketplace is not the economy of the kingdom of heaven or even of our human ancestry? Time is more than currency.
The garden is the place where we can, if only at infrequent intervals, escape from the land of Nod—the land of Wandering, as some translate it—the land of rootlessness where we are cut off from our patrimony and where the ground “shall no longer yield to you its strength.” In the garden we are at home as humans. Not as in that first home, the first garden that lies forever closed to us, but at least close enough to feel our great progenitor beside us, and with him the whole of humanity—all those legions who have bent their backs over a hoe, all those millions whom we currently insulate ourselves from, whose eyes still search the sky for signs of rain. The garden is perhaps the place of our most efficacious spiritual therapy. Or, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, who can be neurotic in front of a carrot?
The rattling cornstalks on the west edge of my garden come down last. They die with a little more dignity; instead of simply going slack and bruised, they gradually turn a pale umber, their tassels the color of ripe wheat. The dry rattle of the wind moving through their lance-like leaves keeps me company while I bury the bodies of their less sturdy companions in compost heaps. But finally they too must come down or the snow will turn them black and moldy and their disgraceful standing death will reproach me all winter. Because of their tough, fibrous nature, the cornstalks’ end is a funeral pyre rather than a grave.
All around me the wasps and bees collide clumsily with the moist mounds of rotting vegetation and earth. In the fall all insects die either drunk or senile. Their slow, sluggish bumbling is somehow more irritating than their sting; all their kamikaze spirit wanes with the hours of sunlight. Box elder bugs swarm all over unlikely places. Only the indomitable earthworm, immune to the light, burrows deeper, just as he has done since he thawed out this spring. In what curious crook will the freeze find him this time? Perhaps he is unaware of time at all, the long months between freezing and thawing only a moment’s interruption to his intraterrestrial travel.
I look around me. There it is. All is safely gathered inand the rest, from the blighted squash to the bolted lettuce, leveled. I stand in the middle of my digging, surrounded by death. The breathtakingly beautiful gold-leaved cottonwoods glittering against the autumnal blue sky headed toward the winter solstice—they are only the ornaments of the death ship we sail on every year, like the jeweled treasures of Sutton Hoo. They console but do not distract from the fact of death. All about me the earth is dying, and I smile on it benignly. A decent decay settles over the earth. It is congruous; it fits all I know to be true about the world. It is not the obscene incongruity of a machine-gun suddenly spitting through the midst of a flowering plum thicket, not Cain rising up against his brother Abel in sudden violence. That kind of death causes blood to cry out from the ground. This is rather the death of Abraham, ending his life an old man.
My garden gets me ready for death. For if I, with that shadowy Adam at my elbow, live under the same curse he did, I have leisure to contemplate the death that will come to me. I see that it can come after a span of productivity, that it can occur with dignity. I shall not be ashamed to sift my molecules of matter into the succulent soil with the beans and corn as companions. God’s curse always modulates into blessing.
But more than that. I shall become a voice in that great chorus of creation groaning in travail, in birth pangs, waiting through the long dark winter to be set free from decay, for “the redemption of our bodies” and the springing forth of the children of God. Then Adam shall be no longer a shadow.
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