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Baby Steps to Nature

I can dig it, he can dig it, she can dig it, we
can dig it, they can dig it, you can dig it.
Oh let’s dig it.
Can you dig it, baby?

—“Grazing In the Grass,” Friends of Distinction

Well, I dug a garden. I have never been one of those people to go all Thoreau-esque about the beauty and the stillness of nature. Because when I’m in nature I think about snakes. Or bugs. I think about how, if a good windstorm blew up all of a sudden out of nowhere and that tree over there threw off a branch it could end up smacking me right in the head, pinning me down like a lepidopterist’s specimen.

I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t really like nature. And then I get disappointed with myself because I don’t like shopping malls either. So where the hell is my primal milieu?

But after I dug this garden up, I started thinking I’m more Nature Girl than I had previously thought. After all, last summer on a hike in south Florida, slathered in sweat and Cutter bug repellent, I actually liked looking at all the various flora and fauna. I stood by the edge of a murky lagoon waiting for a crocodile the way a kid stands on the sidewalk waiting for the parade.

I didn’t see any crocs. And my two young companions were ornery and peevish (not like their nature-loving mother) so we ended up returning to where it was air-conditioned, where there was pool water tempered by chlorine, where we could wear flipflops.

I’ve been resisting the gardening urge the way I resisted reading Harry Potter. Only I’ve been resisting it even longer. My sister is a serious gardener who, even now, even knowing I have taken the plunge and dug up the dirt, chastised me for wearing gloves.

Some people just won’t give you a break.

I’ve been resisting gardening because I knew a woman living in the lovely wilds of Columbia County. Her husband grew all their vegetables and she used to go on and on about how amazing the potatoes were, how lush the lettuce. In the fall she canned scores of jars of tomatoes and I was simply jealous. I wanted to play Laurel’s Kitchen, too—though I could have done without the compost pail beneath the sink. But I had no garden to supply the goods. No scarecrow. No acreage. No gardener.

And I live in Niskayuna. In Niskayuna you don’t find many people who grow all they eat, keep a compost heap by the woodpile or run chicken wire around their gardens.

I wasn’t really interested in landscaping or flower gardens, which there is quite a lot of in Niskayuna. Even my yard has some stray tulips and tiger lilies. And a peony bush with one flower on it.

Anyway, if I was going to put in a real garden, I wanted to be able to eat things from it—despite having very little sunshine and no skill. I usually grow a mess of herbs, but I’ve been hankering for some black-seeded Simpson, some tender little carrots, some tasty little beets, maybe even some tomatoes so I can make chili sauce the way my father used to.

Memorial Day, with my kids inside burning CDs or painting their toenails, I got out the shovel, the rake and the gloves. I dug in.

It was different than what I expected. For one thing, I left my contacts lenses out and my gloves on so that if there were any worms I wouldn’t really see them and I wouldn’t have to touch them. Hermaphrodites just aren’t my thing. Call me old- fashioned, but in my world it takes two.

The digging was kind of pleasant in a meditative way. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it was. Then I went out to the garden shop to get what I needed to enrich my sandy soil. And of course, each person I talked to—friend, sister, store clerk—gave different advice about soil enrichments.

I ended up with seven 40-pound bags of peat, top soil and 5-10-5 (I still have no clue what those numbers mean—I’m not even sure what motor-oil weight I use.) Then there was the matter of getting all that stuff into the plot I’d dug. And then mixing it up.

It was not easy work. I felt like Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain trying to figure out how to put in a garden. In fact, at one point Madeleine came out and told me I reminded her of Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain—not because she thought I looked like her, but because my digging and hoeing skills were similar.

But what does Madeleine know? She’s just some teenager who goes rock-climbing indoors. She’s no nature girl, either.

Then Linnea came out. She has to catch something like a million bugs for the bug project she’s doing in science class. She kept flitting around the yard, waving her net, looking busier than I think she really was so that I wouldn’t ask her to help me play in the dirt.

But I wouldn’t have. Because in spite of myself I started realizing that I was playing in the dirt. I was really liking this dirt. One minute I was quoting the gravedigger’s scene from Hamlet to myself, another minute Cool Hand Luke. Then I’d switch into major garden meditation mode and dig and rake and mix with all the intensity and focus of a yoga class.

My back was killing me. But there was all this lovely, dark dirt, still untrammeled by plants and seeds. I knew that the next day I’d be tucking in little seedlings and nasturtium and lettuce and beet and carrot and phlox and you-name-it seeds. After that, my lovely quadrangle of soil would change, would become a garden, distracted from its solemn, shade-on-shade beauty by having to support and succor life.

At dusk I sat on the porch step with a glass of wine and some Advil. I took a long look at what I had unearthed—still more earth, dark and damp and peaceful.

I’m sure there is a time to plant and a time to sow. But not without first going in and digging deep.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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