Vegetables in Their Native Habitat

We went out into the garden on Sunday. I mean to say, we went into the garden properly on Sunday. Not as we do generally, with winter gloom all seeped into our pores, and a fog hovering on the horizon: rushing, in the last moments of daylight, to pour compost into the bin, to watch the finish of a brilliant sunset, to catch one more breath of fresh cold outside air before we retire inside, where it is warm, full of snuggles and food with the heater going and a glass of red wine in hand.

No—we actually went out into the garden for the sake of going out into the garden on Sunday.

There is a large part of both of us, I think, which wants desperately to be proficient in the wordless, yet timeless, language of gardening. Each of us would like to be able to coax things into being with nothing but soil and water and will; for there is a way, I suppose, in which gardening satisfies the ego, is a bit like playing God, whereby you can create, where once was merely dirt and emptiness, something that lives, and breathes; something which can get sick, can die, can reproduce, can flourish, and yet which can also satisfy basic human needs: the need for beauty, the need for sustenance. In this way we are merely arrogant in our desire to garden.

Also we are conscious of something: some pleasure felt when we know that the herbs we’ve used to spice our meal came not from some anonymous field thousands of miles and infinite worlds away, but from outside our very own back door, from a terrain we know (know well) and love. The only energy required to obtain these herbs, we can say, was the energy to take a few wavering steps into darkness with an electric torch, to bend and pluck from the earth itself a leaf; to straighten up, return inside, crush into food that sizzles with pleasure upon being seasoned.

When food loses its anonymity, it becomes something more than “food” in its most modern sense. MacDonald’s is food; Kentucky Fried Chicken is food. But what history have you with a Bic Mac? I know the world is a very large place; but there is a part of me which wants to say that we may not necessarily have the right to consume without contributing; at least, we certainly do not have the right to consume without understanding. There is a process to food: it is not born the way it is served.

So we went out into the garden. Neither of us properly knows what to do with a garden but we each know that we want to make one which will bear us vegetables, which will suck up time on the weekends and drink water when it rains and which will make our fingernails black with dirt and our knees sore from kneeling. And we figured we could start with the most basic sorts of things; it is only early February, after all, and we live in a northern climate, a cold place, a wet place, where winter means something beyond temperature and daylight hours.

So he plucked the weeds from the vegetable patch while I raked the leaves that had caked themselves onto the path. I swept along the sides of the wall and tidied the area that had been used until now as a catch-all: outside, but still part of the house, it had accrued all kinds of detritus--half of an old welcome mat, most of which had rotted away; banana peels and old sagging flowers, all dried out; old clothespins which had fallen from the line in summer, when all it took to dry the laundry was a bit of sun and a warm breeze. When he had wrestled all of the weeds from the patch, we switched jobs, and I raked over the mud searching for rogue roots while he darted from one corner of the garden to the other, mending things, moving things, bending close to things and examining them.

It reminded me of something we’d done in California close to Christmas, when my parents had wanted us to help them ready their own small vegetable patch for regrowth later in the year. So we spent a sunny afternoon removing dead tomato plants which had tied themselves to each other; plucking out old carrots which had become withered and shrunken in their abandonment; raking over the soil, smoothing it, soothing it, readying it for more, more, more growth. At the end of the day we wiped sweaty brows and went back up the house for a beer and some warm soup.

There is a curious kind of satisfaction in doing something like that: destruction for reconstruction’s sake, you could almost say. On Sunday we left the garden looking more barren than it has for months; yet infinitely more hopeful than it has since I can ever remember. Is that not utterly strange? We cleared things away; we put a human stamp on something that had begun to decay, to dishevel, to become a messy knot of inattention. The only sign, at the end of the day, of our interference, was that things looked even less likely to grow there: for what, you find yourself thinking, wants to grow where there are no sweaty piles of leaves on the path, no weeds sprouting, no clothespins lying like a broken promise of warmer weather?

And yet from the tidiness we created, we hope (we know)--green things will happen, in time, with care.