Gardeners and GhostsWriting about country life naturally lent itself to making my "G" post about gardens. But something pulled me just to the left of a straight up gardening tale. Anyone can tell you how to garden. There are thousands of sites devoted to showing you what to plant, and when and where to plant it. But, I want you to know that there is more to gardening than that. There are ghosts.
I gardened alongside my grandma and siblings as a child. We lived out of the garden during the winter, from Mason jars packed full of vegetables, fruit, sunshine , laughter and warmer days. But I didn't like to garden. As a child, I found it to be more slave labor than joyous pursuit in harmony with nature.
Grandma was the overseer, and she did her job well. She dished out healthy doses of gardening instructions, tales about family--about our ancestors, and religion--oh, and she cussed at us in German. I don't know how she knew it all. There wasn't a single gardening book in the house, and her seeds were all saved from year to year in the notorious Mason Jars. There weren't even seeds packages with instructions on the back.
I'd watch her bending over, picking tomatoes or green beans, checking gooseberries and current-berries, and watching the bats when they came out in the evening. She'd tell me how good the bats were for us, how many bugs they ate. She'd watch the sky, and often she'd look down across the rhubarb and the Juneberry bush, at lower pasture fields toward Rough Run. I always thought she was looking for something--in retrospect, she was, but it wasn't anything I was wise enough to see. Then she'd hold my hand and we'd walk to the house, stopping along the way to pray--always the 90th Psalm, and finally the house. I wondered what drove her to garden. Was I missing something?
It all escaped me. And I swore I'd never garden as an adult. If my roots had begun to settle in the soil, I'd cut them off with a quick thought about pulling weeds, loading them in the old wheelbarrow, and hauling them to the pigpen.
Then, in adulthood, along came children. What followed was a bizarre urge to garden. I don't recall exactly the first time I heard the call, but once it started, it was strong. I might be crazy, but the voice in my head sounded suspiciously like my grandma's. Was it her ghost come visiting? I couldn't help but set some seeds to earth, with little hands helping me cover them.
The voice of the gardener was relentless. I tried to answer the call by growing a bigger garden every year, buying the Ball Bluebook and filling those Mason jars. I dreamed gardening. I read gardening. I went to classes. I shared gardening with every soul who expressed interest or asked a question. And all the while, that voice kept whispering to me. Okay, sometimes it shouted. Why wouldn't it stop? I was a textbook gardener.
And one evening, weary from hoeing and weeding, I was sitting beside my little garden shed looking down across the pastures and woods, toward Rough Run, listening to the sounds of the approaching night. It really hit home. I was my grandma, fifty years later and I wasn't looking for anything--but I was finally wise enough to see what she saw back then. That gardening is a gentle human gesture, shared between a man and the earth. It's a soul dancing amid sweat and dirt.
Humbling... Gardening is more than textbook. It's more than "as labeled", it's more than yield per plant...and most of all, it's more than any set of how-to instructions. It sunk in how much I craved the sunshine and the rain. I enjoyed the doing--there was joy in the act of gardening. There was a simple peace in the evenings, walking back to the house with as much dirt under my nails as was rubbed into the knees of my jeans.
My shoulders were damp with dew, and fireflies flashed in the meadow beyond rows of tomatoes and marigolds. Frogs croaked in the little pond down in the woods, and the dying wind rattled the leaves of the broom corn. This was it--this was gardening, and I was finally a gardener. I'd moved beyond words about gardening-- and allowed my roots to sink in, and to run deep and wide.
The compelling urgency to garden has since died, and the voice inside my head? Well, it's quiet now. I like to think that it was the ghost of grandma, and that she's content. She sees the garden that I tend these years, and I sense that she's comfortable with the "No Bitching" stepping stone at the garden entrance, and that it's right fine with her that we grow a lot more flowers than vegetables. It wasn't really ever about the yield--we never would have starved. It was about the lessons and the journey, though.
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