November 12, 2002

Good Life, Fertile Soil

I have been outside between showers on this Indian Summer day, to clear away the remnants of our vegetable garden, the first one we've had in years. It felt like a goodbye. It felt like picking up in the guest bedroom when friends or family have left us quiet and hollow after a good visit. Leaning on my rake, I stared unfocused through pale remnants of summer squash and frail vines and roots, remembering our first real garden.

We had moved from a large far-southern city to a small Virginia town, a stop-over for six years until our first country home would reach out and find us. Moving to the farm back then, we left our city pseudo-selves and discovered our true country selves, the persons we had thought ourselves to be all along. It was like a great hello, like meeting ourselves for the first time.

In the country, we had the blessing of enough space and freedom to live... what they used to call elbow room. There was space in the barn and pasture to store my hoarded scraps and remnants of wire and wood. Here on the farm, I could pile high the manure I shoveled from the county stockyard without concern for being upwind of the neighbors' noses. There were no overly-curious or excessively helpful advisors here in the country to tell me "you can't do it like that". We now had the freedom to explore, and the freedom to fail in our own peculiar ways, liberating us from the boogeyman of doing things always in the 'way its gen'lly done'.

I bought a big-wheeled garden cart, and I bought a tiller. From my "Build It Better Yourself" book that I had never used, I made a hay rake from saplings I cut on our own wooded ridge. Our former neighbors would probably say that I did not make it exactly right, but I made it and it felt good in my hands. The huge garden I planted in my ignorance and zeal was large enough to feed Grant's army; there would be washtubs full of organic left-overs, and so I created my first compost pile.

Maybe my favorite memory from that first year of country trial and error was the compost pile. I remember a cool November morning like this one, watching the steam rise up through the slanting sun as it lifted from the mound of hot compost: the heat of decay turning water into vapor. I had read an article in our worn how-to magazines that said you could actually slow-cook a chicken in your compost pile if you tended the pile just right and you coaxed the bacteria to produce enough heat. My pile was plenty hot, and I was proud of that. But I never did cook a chicken in it. Could have if I'd wanted. There were no nosey neighbors around to report our new eccentricities to the rest of town.

By springtime, that steaming hill of corn shucks and melon rinds, grass clippings and bloated squash, plus a hundred other bits of yellow and orange and green from table and garden had transformed miraculously into a rich and dark, sweet-smelling humus. The turnings and waterings, snows and winds, and the workings of a million million agents of change had transmorgrified dead plants into organic food for the next year's vegetables, and these in turn would somehow power the process of building human tissue and powering human thought: the clever chemistry of the country.

It has been twenty years now since that first garden. We moved back to the city again and wandered in the congested wilderness for years before returning recently to the soil that we grow best in. Meanwhile, our children have grown up and moved away, and their parents have imperceptibly weathered and worn, transmuted by the uncertainty of growing constantly on rocky soil into something other than they once were. Different, changed by years, richer in wisdom, perhaps. Throw nothing away; there is something to be saved from all of it. Layer upon layer of hope and regret; birth, death; cold tears and warm sun; freeze, thaw; heaps of memory and experience in bits and pieces. These myriad things from the places and people we have been are altered by the alchemy of time to make a new soil to sink our roots in, and it is good.

We are mature gardeners now, and our nutrient needs have changed. The medium we are growing in here seems to be about the right mix. We have cycled back to living in the country again and for good this time. We had a wonderful garden this year and I have me a fair compost pile. And some day yet, I may see if there is enough heat in it to cook a chicken.

Posted by fred1st at November 12, 2002 06:32 AM

Beautiful entry, Fred. I love this!

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at November 12, 2002 11:03 AM

Beautiful essay! One thing... don't try to cook a chicken in the compost... ew... Notice that you used the phrase "cook a chicken" and "bacteria" in the same sentence. Sounds like a trip to the hospital.

Posted by: Fran at November 12, 2002 12:14 PM

The office has voted this is worthy of Reader's Digest and/or Oganic Gardening. Very touching piece.

Posted by: Liska from NOLA at November 12, 2002 01:00 PM

Country living sounds great, I wish I could...

Posted by: Dave W. at November 12, 2002 10:49 PM

Amen, Brother

Posted by: Charlie at November 14, 2002 07:13 AM

Is there anybody?

Posted by: Covtun at February 18, 2004 10:05 AM

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