Friday, October 17, 2008

Keeping My Hands In The Toilet

When I was in college, my mother encouraged me to get a job cleaning houses. You’re living the life of a privileged spoiled kid, she said. Just going to classes and eating in the cafeteria. Not doing one lick of dirty work! What you need is to clean some bathrooms. It will give you perspective. Keep you from thinking only about yourself. You hear me?

She’s definitely on to something. It’s hard to get too big for your britches when you have your hands in the toilet.

Or in the dirt.

Basically, that’s why I garden. The world looks different when I’m messing with compost and worms and tree-sized weeds. And I feel different. Gardening keeps me grounded. Pun most definitely intended.

My mother and I dedicated an entire chapter of Our Book to gardening; it’s titled “Grounded”. Here is one little snippet—my mother is writing:

Doesn’t gardening seem too nutty? In defiance of the boggling array in the supermarket’s produce section, people coaxing from the hardscrabble loam their basketfuls of strangely lumpen victuals? Spring after spring, the poor, foolhardy souls crouch unceremoniously in the dirt, seemingly possessed by the instinct, their thin jackets a poor defense against the ballooning wind, dropping the defeated-looking seed into furrows, expectant of the miracle. After the green nibbins poke through, they must hustle out to hack their hoes at the intruder weeds jealous for the sun, or else run the weeds down with a bronco tiller, plodding mule-like on behind in the churned-up earth, harnessed between the bucking handles. (For pre-season plowing, The Happy Pappy used to borrow an actual chug-a-lug tractor, but one winter he decided instead to pick-axe our entire garden, and over the course of several months, section by section he attacked the cold sod mangled with dried-up plant stalks, swinging away like he thought he was John Henry, only not racing with the steam drill.) And when under the blasting sun the plants hang heavy, these people, alert to the mere degrees of separation between “ripe” and “overdone” and bowing to the urgency, must move humpbacked among the rows to shovel up the yield or pluck it from the vines, wringing the especially diehard hangers-on by their stubborn necks. Why, oh why, this looniness?

But it seems loonier to not garden. What’s dirt for? When we go back to Pennsylvania to visit relatives, I gaze at the sprawling housing developments that used to be farmers’ fields, each dwelling graced with the standby arsenic-treated deck, propane grill, jumbo garbage cans, and stretch of yard which the owner mows sitting down, jiggling his belly fat, steering expertly (afterwards he retreats again to the indoors to strain his muscles on a mighty Total Gym exercise machine). Not one frilly carrot frond sprouts from the soil, not even a this-a-way that-a-way cucumber vine. Instead, geraniums and petunias and those long spiky fountain grasses are bunched in landscaper-advised plots up against the house’s foundation, bedded in forbidding black plastic the Mulch ’n Gulch boys laid over with tonloads of tan bark. What’s the use? Where’s the meaning in just a big velvety weed-killered yard and some color-coordinated decorator blooms nodding their futile heads?

And what sense is it when vegetables and fruits come as artful components in a supermarket-bin collage, waxed shiny and stickered with bar codes—when the perishables suggest nothing of their muck-rooted, sun-drenched, rain-pounded beginnings, and shoppers need only stuff their choices into those maddening pull-down plastic bags, never picking up a bit of crud under their fingernails, and next click their chilly heels on to the store’s deli section? How can it be that a civilization in worshipful pursuit of knowledge, adventure, health, and longevity has abandoned its primal connection to the soil? How is it possible that children in an information-overloaded society are growing up believing that strawberries are supposed to be crunchy (or of puffed-wheat consistency, if found in a cereal box), that “tomato” means something hard and pink, that corn should stand up in the dish like tin soldiers, that green bell peppers’ God-given flavor carries an odd gassy taint strongly suggestive of rubber tubing, chlorine spray, and refrigerator-case plastic grass?

And what, anymore, is there for children to do all the torrid summer long?


Sweetsie and The Baby Nickel, on a blustery October afternoon, playing with their cars and trucks in what used to be the potato patch.


  1. Like I already said, this is the book that should be published.

  2. well said. i agree totally. and now I must go pick the broccoli and put the tomato cages in storage!

  3. I'm old enough to remember how food should taste. I've tasted blackberries picked from a dusty vine by the road, rinsed, then drowned in thick yellow cream. I remember the wonder of vine ripe tomatoes, all they asked for was a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Fragrant peaches gushing with sweet juice. True story: I was at a market. Every cantaloupe was hard as a rock. (Yes, it was Summer.) I asked the produce clerk if he was hiding any ripe melons. He smiled and said: "Let me pick a nice CRUNCHY one for you". Sad but true, unless you're blessed enough to have a garden you no longer know what food should taste like. There, now I'll get off my soap-box.

  4. p.s. You AND your mother -- your writing speaks to my soul, lifts my spirit. Thank you, both.