Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Joy of Dirty Hands

When I was a kid I hated gardening. My mother asked me to help her in the garden, and I'm pretty certain I whined and was such a miserable companion that she finally found great relief in letting me just stay indoors to read or watch TV. It was too hot. It was boring. It was dirty. And tomato hornworms were just too gross for words.

Gardening is now something I find I can't live without. Our move to Tokyo in March of this year was only feasible in my mind because I had a chance to have a garden. (That first one fell through, but then another and even better opportunity presented itself.) I didn't even have a garden of my own until we moved into a farmhouse in Michigan more than five years ago. There, along an old fence, I dug out the sod in a strip about two or three feet wide and about ten feet long and planted my first tomatoes, beans, kale, swiss chard, basil, parsley, and beets. It wasn't long before nasturtiums and johnny-jump-ups, and a couple bush squash plants were added. The next year the garden jumped the fence - literally and figuratively - to become about four times larger. Popcorn, cardinal climber, morning glories, potatoes, cosmos, chives, and peas joined the green chorus.

Morning found me in dew soaked slippers with a steaming coffee checking the progress of seedlings or just soaking in the thrill of seeing those plants. Before heading into the house after a day at work I'd walk over to the garden to see how the day had gone, and more than once a nice skirt received a swish of dirt from an irresistible urge to weed "just a little bit" before even greeting my husband.

I found in gardening a chance to do something concrete. It put food on our table, in our freezer, on the pantry shelves, and made for some great gifts. Canning tomatoes, drying herbs, and whipping up batches of pesto for winter pasta remains satisfying work. And the task of eating them is work I tackle with relish.

I found great beauty. Thick veined cabbage leaves are one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever seen. Cobs of homegrown popcorn glinting in the sun thrill me to the bone. My own eye for color and composition is still developing, but I confess I don't work too hard at that. I like the increasing madness of my garden as the season progresses.

I made new friends. The praying mantis, the assortment of bees, the birds, and the occasional neighborhood cat are welcome visitors. Not to mention the instant bond that develops with a fellow gardener when we learn of each other's passion. There's nothing better than a good chat about growing vegetables. It's what bonded the Takashi's and I almost instantly despite a language barrier.

It's in my blood. I've written about this before (not for publication), and I think about it alot. I come from long lines of farmers (who doesn't, really?), and the joy I find in planting, weeding, harvesting, monitoring, eating from, composting, and viewing the garden (mine and others) courses through my veins. The rolling landscape of hay, corn, horses, wheat, and cows with woods, rivers, lakes, and kitchen gardens the same square footage as many homes in new developments is a part of my heritage of which I am most proud. As I tend my own small plot or work with the Takashi's to tend their fields, my mother and grandmothers and friends and family (here and gone) who've gardened and farmed before work beside me. The joy in that alone wheels me out to the garden and farm again and again.

Gardening and farming presents a chance to explore my own history, the history of others, to find common ground through food and the growing of it. It presents an intellectual and creative challenge each and every day of the year. And an element of surprise in the volunteer nasturtium, the sneaky fresh potato crop. I could write about this for hours, years, and thousands of words, and still not quite hit it right. But when I see dirt still stuck under my fingernails while at my office (I only have so much patience with a nail brush) it reminds me of who I really am and what I love best.

Inspired by the essay contest over at Gardens of the Wild Wild West. This is probably too long, but it was too much fun to stop.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful essay. I missed the contest deadline but your reasons, especially the attachment to the family who came before, echo in my heart. Look forward to reading more about your Tokyo gardening. Happy New Year!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks so much for reading and the kind words! If you're ever in Tokyo, give me a shout. And Happy New Year to you!

AmandaS said...

This is wonderful reading Joan - very beautiful! Thanks.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Mandy! How nice to hear from you! We can't wait to see you all in February. I'm looking forward to catching up. And thanks for reading and the good words. I'm glad you liked it.