In the wee hours, just as the sun had begun to illuminate the sky, we made our way along dusty, winding paths towards our destination, an organic farm 2 miles across the valley in the shadow of Mount Kuchumaa (High Exalted One).
It was amazing to see the landscape bend and shift before me as the rising sun cast colourful illuminations. We walked in formation — practically ran really, in a race against I don’t know what. I am not an early bird gardener-type. I do not greet the dawn with grace. I linger, stumble around, curse the universe, and beg for just one more minute in my comfy cocoon. But then, once I manage to drag my body out of bed, I find it is always worth it. In this case it was worth facing the morning’s cold air, my sleep-deprived crankiness, and the weirdly competitive colourful spandex-cloaked run-walking to see this beautiful coastal chaparral before the harsh and blinding midday sun transforms it into something else entirely.
“Memory is a gardeners real palette; memory as it summons up the past, memory as it shapes the present, memory as it dictates the future.” – from My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid
Hello writers. Our first writing prompt was meant to jog memory and take us back to our beginnings (or somewhere nearish), back to where we have come from as gardeners. Memory and past experiences have a place of distinction in our gardens. It doesn’t always dictate the outcome, but memory (conscious and unconscious) folds into our gardening practice, building a basis for why and sometimes how we garden, and infecting the many choices that we make.
I considered guiding us further down this path, but in the end decided that it makes more sense to come back to the past intermittently rather than sinking into it all at once.
Instead, with the winter behind our backs (or very nearly in some cases), it is time to look to the future, or at least, the fantasy future that we desire. I don’t know about you, but I’ve just spent several months dreaming about my garden. What will I grow? What changes will I make? Where will this growing season take me? Lately, I’ve been marking up the calendar with plant sale dates and anticipating all of the new plants I will be bringing home in the next few months. I have enough springtimes behind me now to know how it will play out. Some plants will be planned for, but others will be the product of pure impulse and spontaneous desire. I think of these as Id plants. “OH, I must have that!”
Sometimes these Id plants come home and take me and my garden in new directions. Other times they are a disaster (and a predictable one) because they are in direct conflict with the practicalities of the real garden that I have. But sometimes in these spontaneous choices lies the key to something that I need. Something that I have not brought into conscious thought.
The following is my response to the first prompt. It isn’t about my first plant. I decided to go in another direction because I have already written about my first plant and didn’t have anything further to say. Instead, I jumped ahead several years to another time in my life when the impulse to grow things appeared unexpectedly. There was actually another time before this, but this is the story that came to mind and I went with it. I’m feeling a little nervous about posting this because I wrote it in one go last night (with a few edits and a break for dinner) so it’s probably full of errors.
Grow Write Guild Prompt #1: Write about your first plant.
In my eighteenth year I moved away from my hometown in order to put some healthy distance between my childhood and the adult life I hoped to make going forward. My new life started out scary, but promising. I enrolled in a local high school so that I could finish out grade 13 and obtain the credits I needed in order to attend university the following fall. I found an apartment, and for the first time in my life got a taste for the true meaning of the word home. I acquired a retail position at a dollar store that was just opening up (I took the job without knowing what a dollar store was!) and soon found myself experiencing another personal first: the insane inner workings and anthropological weirdness that is mall culture.
I learned a lot of new things at this job. I learned how to stock shelves, order items, create schedules, and manage a store. I also learned about people. I have always been a people watcher, a child with a need to understand why the people in my life were, well, so f*cking crazy. But there is a difference between observing the human condition from a distance and confronting the honesty and vulnerability that reveals itself clearly from inside a person’s eyes. I was out on my own now, a burgeoning adult entering the adult world, and in a way, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and looking directly at people for the first time. I did not like what I saw. I had always wrongly assumed — probably out of a need for self-preservation — that the pain and world-weariness I saw in my neighbors did not exist beyond our subdivision’s boundaries, and certainly — no, definitely — not outside of the town. It would be another decade still before I could look strangers directly in the eye without flinching.
But this is not what I meant to tell you. It seems that I never mean to tell you the things that I eventually reveal. My own vulnerability pours out from my fingers; rarely my face.
UPDATE (April 10, 2013): My plants have flower buds!
Are you afraid to grow hellebore? I am. Like clematis, they are a plant that I have long associated with hoity-toity gardeners and their fancy pants gardens. Their ticket price doesn’t help matters. Hellebores are notoriously expensive plants, often coming in at the $20-30 mark in most retail garden centres. That’s a lot of money to sink into a plant that I am almost certain I will kill.
And then I met Barry Parker.
Barry loves hellebores. He also loves clematis (but that’s a story for another day). And you know what? Barry’s garden is awfully fancy. Few fully staffed, public gardens I have visited have been able to pull off what Barry achieves in his urban Toronto backyard. While the initial shock has worn off, after 4 years, it still blows my mind every time that I visit it.
It may be fancy and a little bit intimidating, but I never walk away from Barry’s garden feeling like a failure in my own. I think this is owing to Barry’s heart of gold and his cheerful, encouraging, and generous charm. Instead, I always leave Barry’s garden with a can-do attitude and the drive to do better. Whats more, having Barry as a friend has helped me come a long way in undoing old, self-imposed stereotypes about gardeners, plants, and gardens.
I hope you enjoy this first writing prompt. Future prompts will range from simple to complicated and silly to serious. Some will be straight ahead and others will be surprising and unexpected. Please join the newsletter if you’d like to be notified when prompts are posted to this site.
In interviews, I am often asked to relate my “Genesis” story. “How did you get started gardening?.” It seems like such a simple question. You’d think I’d have a great response in the back of my pocket by now, given that I have been called upon to answer it countless times. Instead, my response is always the same: sheer panic.
“Uh. Well. You see. It’s sort of a long story to tell. Ummmmmmmmmmm… It’s, uh, complicated.” Fumble, fumble, stammer.
It’s not that I don’t know my own story, it’s that it is not a story with a single, definable beginning. The way I see it, there are many things in life that are like this. Sometimes there is no singular act that sets you off on a path, but several acts and experiences — some conscious and others unconscious, that lead you to a destination that you may not have been able to foresee.
After the initial fumbling, my response to this simple/big question is often to begin with my first plant. I’m not certain that it is the beginning of this thing that I do (growing things), but it is an important experience that I can recall with clarity. I was only five at the time and growing a plant was not an activity that I had a hand in choosing. However, my memory of it is telling and a reminder that the urge to connect to the natural world in some way was always there, even if it took me a while to put conscious thought and action to it.
So this is where I thought we’d begin. At the beginning. But not really.