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A Gardener's Tale

About 3 weeks ago we planted the last of the seed potatoes. We planted rows and rows, fuzzy eyes up, of All Reds, All Blues and Peruvian Purples--and if you have never seen such potatoes, nor tasted them, you haven't yet lived. They are robust, beautiful, and incredibly delicious.

As we planted, we worked some rich organic fertilizer and some compost into the soil near the seed spuds. Since these rows were out in the "back forty," a field of stone and sand, they would need this extra sustenance, the backbone of all gardening. Feed the soil, and it will feed you.

Planting, cultivating, fertilizing, this is work performed by squatting down low, bending over forward, and digging deep into the dirt. My thighs and back protested for days afterward, but there is nothing more satisfactory than the planting of seed and the weekly measurable growth of plants. Plants that willingly and exuberantly feed us so well for the care we give them.

Two weeks ago, the first leaves of the potato plants were pushing their way through the tough soil. If the soil is dry, as it was, it forms a light crust, through which the plants must struggle to erupt. This is a most amazing sight--the tiny, seemingly delicate, but tough as hell potato plants pushing their tiny selves up to the sun. This is the life force in action--and week by week, you watch it unfold. Week by week and even day by day, you can see God's own creation in full and righteous revel. A force to be reckoned with, let there be no doubt about that.

Last week, the rich, green plants were 4 inches high and thriving. About this time come the potato beetles, emerging from the soil where they have lain dormant all winter. They struggle up and start feeding on the leaves, mating, and laying their eggs--a bubbly orange mass of destruction. All a mere gardener can do at that point is to pick off the beetles, one by one, and to wipe the egg-mess off of the leaves. We don't get them all, but we do what we can. I view the beetles as the enemy, although they too are a part of it all, as natural a part of nature as anything else. But if they want my spuds, they're doomed. There is no room for sentimentality, not for potato beetles.

As I work out in the garden, bending, twisting, squatting, digging, pulling, moving with the slow and steady pace of centuries of gardeners, I think gardenly thoughts. But I am also moved by the metaphor of seed. I think of all the hard work citizens are doing to plant ideas in people's minds, to reveal the dangers of our American life, to spread information, to alert other people around us. I think of the citizen movements to which I have aligned my life and I wonder how well our seeds are taking. Sometimes we plant our ideas, our seeds very carefully, in measured rows, 1/2 inch deep and no deeper, and sometimes we scatter the seeds to the wind, with a sprightly hope that some, somewhere will take root and prosper.

Often, we find ourselves wondering why our seeds aren't growing into the flourishing, hardy plants we envision. We wonder why our fellow citizens don't respond. We grapple with the blight the best we can and we pick off the beetles, just as we shoot down the lies of the ever-present propaganda machine, but to what avail? Part of what is lacking, I think, is the general healthiness of our soil. In the past 30 years, it has not only not only not been fertilized, it has been leached of all the necessary qualities of good earth--the minerals, so to speak, of character and integrity and backbone, without which, nothing. Even more, our waiting fields have been burned and salted by our foes. Centuries past, after the siege, rape, pillage, and enslavement of who was left, the marauding soldiers would burn the surrounding fields and then lay on salt. Nothing would grow for generations. The minds of our countrymen not only lie fallow, but are full of poison so that nothing can grow. This is our soil: rocky, sandy, and almost barren, almost a desert. But these are the thoughts of hopelessness and despair, and they just won't do. Gardening, as any other important endeavor, requires steadfastness and perseverance. Giving up is not an option.

As any gardener knows, "volunteer" plants sprout up from seeds from last year's fallen fruit, a too old or too big squash I tossed to the edge of the field last year as part of natural garden waste. And now, to my delighted surprise, at the border of the back forty and the neighbor's lovely acres of wheat, in a particularly tough and ugly bit of dirt, is a huge, prolific spaghetti squash plant. While all the squash we planted are still small and only producing pretty flowers, this gargantuan volunteer is already producing ovaline yellow squash of 5 to 7 inches. It made me laugh, this vital, vigorous plant, sprung out of an old and rotting squash, like a genius out of the ghetto. Thick, riotous leaves and sturdy vines, this stalwart fellow burst out on his lonesome--with no help from gardeners whatsoever. Not planted, nor cultivated, nor even noticed til just yesterday, Mr. Rebel Squash (as it was instantly dubbed) is giving me a good deal of hope and joy. I can only applaud, and I think: We'll make it. Not to worry. God works in mysterious ways.

16 Jul 1996

Patricia Neill, 1997

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8 Dec, 1997