Phew, that was fast. I put the finishing touches on an article late last night and it is already up on the Guardian website. This one, about the relationship between myself and my maternal grandmother is a bit more personal than usual and I am still getting used to having put it out there. However, it is also just the sort of thing I am pushing myself to write more of despite fears and reservations.
I’ve struggled over the years (more than I care to admit) with feeling like an outsider in the gardening industry. My personal history just doesn’t look like many of the stories I’ve heard from the overwhelming majority of garden writers. And so I have hidden who I am. That’s not to say that my writing is not honest or true, but that there is more, much, much more.
I have often felt that what I had to say about my own experiences was too much, too heavy, too messy, inappropriate for this venue (garden writing) …not quaint and cute enough. I’ve silenced myself in small ways as a result. As what I produce has increasingly become tied to my ability to make a decent living I’ve silenced myself still more.
I took the first steps away from that self-imposed choke hold a few years ago and then moved forward further still last year with the Recreating Eden documentary and a personal piece for Organic Gardening magazine. I saw these venues as opportunities to push myself and reveal more about past experiences that have lead me to where and who I am as a gardener. And as a person too. It’s difficult to separate the two and I suppose maybe the problem is that while my way of creating a palatable public presentation was personable, it withheld the complexity of my humanness. In the end neither the outcome of the documentary nor the article were nearly as dramatic as they felt at the time.
This new piece is another take on the Organic Gardening article, which will be evident within the first few sentences. I suppose the thing is there is no individual story that sums things up. I am often asked to talk about how I got started gardening and I have to admit that I have never been able to answer easily or succinctly. There are many stories, and a book’s worth of experiences that lead me to where I am. I know in my heart that complexity is the truth behind all of our lives and that if I want to see and feel that I am not an outsider (perhaps we all are) then I need to be willing to take a chance and step into my own fears a little bit. Or a lot.
I listened to this essay about the importance of physical labor by urban gardener Mary Seton Corboy yesterday morning on the This I Believe program and thought it was so brilliant I had to share.
Listening to her talk about digging ditches made me want to run outside and dig something… except that it is winter here and the ground is frozen. Day-to-day physical activity is something I miss sorely during the winter months. During the warm months there are average labors like planting seedlings, turning the compost pile, hauling buckets of water to the container plants out on the roof or getting on my bike to go anywhere I want. But in the winter exercise seems forced. I have to make a point to “get outside” on a long hike in the cold, or drag my reluctant ass to the gym where I then use a series of strange machines in a loud, obnoxious environment to achieve what comes so easy in the garden. I also find physical labor, especially in the garden, offers a chance to blow off steam or problem solve as my body goes through the motions of a task at hand. My body takes over on its own in a way that opens up space for my brain to go through its own motions and work through issues from a different perspective. Meditation in motion. The idea that I would be or should be striving to reach a point in my life where I can delegate those tasks to someone else… forget it! I would lose out on one of the places I find joy as a gardener. As a human being.
As a writer and speaker I am sometimes pressured to speak about gardening as easy work. In a way this is true. I try to put a positive and approachable spin on things because I whole-heartedly believe that gardening is something all of us can do. Gardening is for everyone. No one should be intimidated out of giving it a shot. But that’s not to say that it is easy. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is as easy as breathing. Unfortunately, what comes easy to one person can be utter hardship to another. Factors like personal strengths and weaknesses along with climate, conditions, location, resources, etc can dictate all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle differences from one gardener to the next. Sometimes it is brutally hard. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
I find real joy in hard work and labor. Sometimes I hate it and want to kick at the ground screaming. Never mind the things I can’t control: the groundhog that ate every bean and broccoli seedling; the summer a fluke weather pattern brought a plague of aphids in on the wind. Aphids literally rained down from the sky! Imagine how much hand squishing it took to get that under control.
Sometimes I love it and hate it all at once. I might complain about lifting bags of soil up five flights of stairs and hauling endless buckets of sloshing water through the apartment to the containers out on the roof, but all of that only serves to instill a heightened sense of pride in everything that comes out at the other end of the work: homegrown food and beautiful outdoor spaces to relax in. There are some good stories in there too. I often wonder if I would feel as much pride if the seeds just grew on their own with no help from me at all. Would I treasure each tomato in the way I do? Would I demand to be photographed with every zucchini plucked from the plant? Probably not.
So on top of the body, mind and spirit benefits that come from the hard work we do in the garden there is also the joy, pride, and sense of accomplishment that comes from something that is not handed over on a plate. The sense of something meaningful that is hard won. The taste of small victories.
I am standing in front of a community garden taking photos when a youngish dude (I am not good at guesstimating age) holding a guitar and a large, open bottle of vodka approaches me.
Him: What are you doing?
Me: I’m taking pictures of these beans and bean flowers.
Me: Because I think they are beautiful and I am impressed by this garden.
Him: Why are you wearing a bike helmet.
Me: I was riding by on my bike and stopped to take a few photos.
Him: [Laughing] Are you afraid you’ll fall off?
Me: I’m afraid I’ll get hit by a car. I value my life.
Him: [Takes a swig of vodka] What are you doing after this?
Me: I’m working. I’m working right now. This is my work. I take pictures. I write about gardening.
Him: Do you like your work?
Me: Very much.
Him: So I don’t get it. Why do you do this?
Me: Because I love gardening and I love good food. And I want to share what I know. Because people need good food but they can’t always access it either because it’s just not available or they can’t afford it. And because gardening makes people feel good and it makes them feel good about themselves.
Him: So you don’t make porn with that camera?
- Homesteading — the kind that involved living in tents and no machinery — was terribly difficult. I’m sure of it. Of course I already knew this, camping merely drove that point home in a new way. Simple tasks take longer, requiring more planning.
Who wants tea? Well, first you’ve got to make a fire. This might require collecting wood. It will also require making flames first thing in the morning when you are still half asleep. Then you’ve got to wait an eternity for that fire to get hot. Then you’ve got to wait another absurd length of time for the water to heat up. You will probably give up and settle for a lukewarm beverage, if you can wait that long. If there is one thing I hate to go without it is my morning genmaicha. Some campers look forward to that first indulgent post-camping meal. My favorite post-camping experience came the next morning when I got up to make my morning tea. The whole thing was accomplished in minutes with a mere flick of a button. No dangerous half-asleep fire starting required.
- Here’s something you should know before setting out to camp in the wilderness. There are these little insects called Deer Flies. They look an awful lot like regular flies with one exception: regular flies are annoying but basically harmless, while deer flies slice off chunks of your flesh using their special slicing mouth parts. I am convinced that they are collecting human meat for Satan. There is no other explanation. After suffering through five days of their menace, mosquitoes are beginning to look downright civil, polite even. Sure they leave a bump that itches for days and days but by god deer flies have left an indelible scar on my psyche that no ointment will ever heal.
- Note for the future: Do not allow me to camp with small children. Not because camping is hard (except that it is) but because when faced with legions of biting insects, strong winds, and four hours of arm-breaking canoing I am unable to prevent the steady stream of elaborate cursing that will inevitably come pouring from my mouth. Please, think of the children.
The best way to learn what makes a plant tick is to see it growing in the wild. I consistently glean a lot of knowledge from these experiences. This trip taught me tons about blackberries and blueberries. Both were in season and both were easily found just about anywhere we went. Blackberries were always fully exposed, growing where the sun shone brightly and the soil was poor or non-existent. Sometimes it grew in the sand right at the water’s edge or in open meadows sitting alongside wetlands. Blueberries tended to be underneath the shade of larger coniferous trees or just on the edge of forests. They were always found among the low, sprawling juniper bushes.
Blackberries growing out of a rock.
Check out the view behind me.
Wild Blueberries. Tasty and FREE! Foraging makes me feel like I’ve scored the most awesome deal in town. Sure I have to do the work but still…. FREE. Picking them by hand has given me a whole new appreciation for the price of a pint of wild blueberries.
Picking Blueberries. Note the coniferous trees both big and small. The ground was basically granite and pine needles.
- Here’s a tasty camp dessert that I made up on the spot utilizing our foraged berries and provisions we had on hand. Add some sugar and fruit juice to a bowl of wild berries. Break up a few slices of bread into small chunks and add to the mix. Set it aside for 30 minutes or so allowing the bread to soak up the juices. Wrap it all up in foil and set over the fire to cook for about 15 minutes. Enjoy. Go ahead and lick the foil but try to avoid cutting your tongue.
Making foraged wild berry dessert. I look high here but I promise you the only thing I inhaled on this trip was fresh, super oxygenated air. And a lot of campfire smoke. I like to make fires so fire-starter was my self-appointed role.
- Camping in the rain is another kind of tricky. Have to go to the bathroom outdoors in the rain? Try to hold it in. That’s all I have to say about that.
- I have a lot to learn about plants. And mushrooms… forget about it. Better to assume they are all poisonous.
- Camping is a reminder of how easy we have it, a demonstration in the excesses in our modern lives that we can probably do without. I learned that baking soda really is the miracle powder. You can use it to scrub dishes, wash hair, brush teeth, and remedy bee stings. It really doesn’t taste that bad when used as toothpaste.
- I can tolerate all manner of dry, bland food when forced. Being surrounded by beautiful landscape makes everything go down easier.
“What that kind of attitude and approach is saying over and over again is that gardening is not for you; you don’t belong here.”
I met up with Teresa Cheng a few weeks ago for lunch at my favourite long-time local eatery, Cafe Bernate for an in-person interview to talk about urban gardening, growing food, and sustainability. We popped back to my place after the interview to take some quick snaps and of course I sent her off with some extra tomato and anise-hyssop seedlings I had kicking around. I have a tendency to unload plants or herbs onto visitors. I may be a terrible sales person but I know how to “sell” a plant.
The result of that conversation can be found on the Taste T.O site, Talking the Green Revolution with Gayla Trail.