Steps to Nature
can dig it, he can dig it, she can dig it, we
dig it, they can dig it, you can dig it.
Oh let’s dig it.
Can you dig it, baby?
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.
contact Jo Page at firstname.lastname@example.org