When I wander out there now, it is with the seasoned and settled eye of a grandparent detachably amused by his own offspring and pleased at their progeny. The garden, of course. I seem to be largely on top of matters there and oddly accepting of botanical disappointments. Naturally, one is drawn to the latter. The brussels sprouts are hanging on like the Russian army bivouaced for the winter. Which is what a snow-loving organism does when the morning air has acquired a Tennessee Williams languor. I know it’s all wrong. So what? Why not hang on until the cooler autumn? What’s to lose? I do lose track of the aphids, that much is true. They are vile, truly bloodsucking and their place in the ecosystem seems assured. Forever. The mystery of the red cabbage, which isn’t cabbage, only thickens. I am winding up this mystery. Shoving things toward their dénouement. Paul, Tuesday helper, pulls non-cabbage up on a regular basis. They have produced nothing, these drains on the agricultural community, and I will shortly have their benefits cut off. Compost time, my lovelies. And by the way, fuck you.
Bringing us to the good news, in terms of agronomy. One can barely sight the tops of the tomato plants. They have reached a higher level and are now communicating with beings beyond the outer solar system. Which keep encouraging them to flower, bear fruit and extend their green joyous hands skyward. On and on. Hard to say what to do now, the eight-foot stakes supporting them now being at their limit. Yes, one can go high-rise, but only so far. Think of the earthquake risk. Above all, think of the harvest. There are globs and globs of big green tomatoes, one of them now shifting gear into the yellow spectrum, soon orange, and you know the rest. And, as I say, I largely observe. As with all grown children, my interventions are few. True, the lettuce recently needed rescue. Rather surprising, considering their two weeks in the ground, very much post-transplanting. But there are lessons in all of this. The laziness and indulgence of youth clearly visible in the lack of botanical effort, particularly in the root department. Keeling over at the slightest breath of mid-70s warmth in a late afternoon breeze. Necessity not quite having gotten there, the knot of roots grown entangled in the plastic sixpack clearly sufficient until the lettuce leaves reach a certain critical mass. Until which they coast. And, if one is honest, don’t we all?
One grows, one learns, and after a few seasons the harvest comes in full and intact. My neighbor’s little girls seem to have no grasp of vegetables, at least how they grow. Which means that when they are around, we have a go at a few onions and garlic. As each bulb emerges, there are oohs and ahs, followed by a fight as to who gets the next one. Never mind, for there are plenty to go around. And I know how to do this. I didn’t as recently as last year. When the tops of garlic die down, turgid green stalks losing their tumescence, withering into straw…well, watch out. Let them wither too much and there is no trace left of the garlic. Try to pull on them, and there is a good chance they will break, also cutting the farmer off from his crop. Unless one does what I am doing now, levering the underground and unseen bulb up and free with a trowel, while a little girl pulls. And there it is, satisfyingly big and coated in earth and dangling off its stem. See, kids, this is where food comes from. Folks like me, doing stuff like this in a planter like that. Satisfying. But no longer particularly demanding.
Actually, there was a time when I was farming on a large scale, at least from a quadriplegic perspective. I was a homeowner, if one takes into account indebtedness to one’s in-laws and a soon-to-be-corrupt mortgage company. Never mind, for my contractor father-in-law built some rather impressive beds in our backyard. It didn’t occur to me to elevate them. It also didn’t occur to me that within a few years I would actually be in a wheelchair. The wheel of fortune cranking up for some massive turns. Never mind.
The harvests astounded me. Corn, in one particularly warm year. Tomatoes quite reliably. I would hobble out through the screen door, cross the terrace and make my way to the crop zone. Everything needed water, of course. I stood there with a hose for hours. In between watering, assuming that all the planting was behind me, there was weeding. With four beds, this was a Sisyphean task, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, begun, completed, then begun again. When leg fatigue began to take over, I sat down on a three-wheeled garden scooter. It had the maneuverability and the instability of a tricycle. At least once, I fell off the thing, rolling a few inches onto the sandy path between beds. My neighbor Bob was there in seconds, barely interrupting his own lawn watering to get me back on my agricultural feet.
Did the wife participate in this experience? Yes, she must have. Unfortunately, what remains in my memory is the later years when she was largely absent. She had a horse several miles away. I had a garden several feet away. And even if the beds were too low for my deteriorating neurology, they were low enough for my spirits. Depression, psychic reenactment of mother abandonment, what else is a first marriage for?
I did learn how to garden. More to the point, I learned how to learn. The whole thing is charged with mystery. I know the world is full of politically-correct twaddle about how one should compost everything and eat nothing but organic rutabagas. But in this particular year, almost 20 years since my first wife announced our divorce, damned if I’m not rich into the later lessons of organic home gardening. The little plastic barrel on rollers that claims to be a compost tumbler and is no bigger than the smallest beer keg, well into its maw has gone virtually a year’s garbage. Virtually nothing goes down the sink disposal, these days. Why bother, with everything happily decomposing in the silly tumbler? And if I seem to digress, you will understand that the compost tumbler gets regularly emptied into a hole dug in the raised beds. That is to say, several hundred teabags, coffee filters, endless peels and roots and wilted and forgotten refrigerator greenery, all reduced to this compact and odoriferous mass. Compact, but far too heavy for me to carry. Which is why God invented my helper Paul, who disposes of the unpleasant stuff a few times a year. And this same stuff can be the only explanation for the profusion of tomatoes, the vines sailing ever upward. What’s a guy to do but watch and marvel? What is going on underground? Hard to say, but I have yet to see a teabag emerge when the soil gets pitchforked in the spring.
In short, failed marriage and gardening have given me a healthy respect for decomposition. Things need to fester and rot. Underground processes defy both scrutiny and explanation, and somehow they sustain life. And speaking of life, strange how late in the experience, one gets the hang of things. While simultaneously learning not to hang on. I did everything in my suburban, marital garden. Somehow I even pitchforked the cover crop under in the spring. A major act of leverage, the application of body weight, and endless patience. Surely I tied up the tomatoes myself. It all had to be done, I did it, and consciousness be damned….
It took seven years to get over the first marriage, if I think about it. And I am.
; Seven years being the traditional view of life’s phases and cycles. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about phases. I had reached the end of some road. Rejected and dejected. Bankrupt spiritually and soon financially. In short, I was headed down, down to where things rot and wet dripping teabags disappear forever. If anything comes of all this, well, it is a sort of miracle. It’s enough to make one stare at 10 feet of tomato plants in disbelief.