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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Garden as Therapy…

Good morning, gloryAnd they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day:...

Genesis 3:8

I have a good friend I’ve mentioned from time to time in The Ripple. She turned ninety-seven last March and though she is not a national treasure, she is a treasure to me. Our friendship began before I turned twenty, so I have known her almost all my life. When I think of my friend, I think of  the pioneer days and the Great Depression years when life, compared to today’s Easy Street existence, was knock down hard. One of five children, all girls, my friend and her sisters were daughters of a dry land wheat farmer who eked out a tooth and nail existence on the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County, Washington. During the Depression years and beyond, her father fought a constant battle with the elements, both natural and economic, in order to make a living from the arid scabland and provide for his growing family.

Quite the letter writer my friend is…I receive two, sometimes three letters a month. I’ve saved most all of them; they would likely fill three shoeboxes, two certainly. Several years back she suffered a stroke and as a result her handwriting suffered, as well. I suppose the proverbial “hen’s scratchings” describes her penmanship these post stroke years. No matter how many times you read them, some phrases, in spite of the context, remain unintelligible. Hardly a letter arrives in which she doesn’t apologize for her spelling and handwriting. Due to the circumstances of her growing up on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, she has only an eighth grade education: high school was not an option; the nearest one was twelve miles away. But I blame the stroke for most of her difficulty in stringing the right words together (“I guess at most of my words,” she often admits).

In our letters we exchange notes about our gardens (hers always outpace mine…Eastern Washington sun, you know). Her last two letters saddened me, not because my friend’s faculties are slipping a bit, her words jumbled in places, not that I couldn’t understand all the passages, but because of a sentence I understood well enough to realize a milestone event had happened in her life. “We have no Gardmen [garden],” the sentence began. She went on to say her grandson let the weeds “take” it, then brought the tractor in and tilled the entire plot under,vegetables and all. Although you’ll not find a more positive ninety-seven year old anywhere, I could read the disappointment beneath her words.This year’s garden for her, as the last’s, was a joint effort by her and her grandson’s family. Decades of hard work have worn her down. “The Ol’ Gal is wore out,” she said in one letter. “Bone on bone,” about her hip joint in another. And “One leg I have to lift to sit down.” She gets about these days with the help of a walker…problematic for the stooping and standing gardening demands. With the help of her family my friend has been able to have her vegetable garden in the past. But not this year.

Each spring for as long as I can remember, she’s planted a garden. Even though she and her husband worked their twenty acre apple orchard, she always made time for a garden, the produce from which she canned, froze and shared with neighbors. Usually by the end of February, my friend’s windowsills were already brimming with tomato starts. Come time to plant them outdoors, many had even set fruit. This spring, too, the tomato starts lined the sills, but now the sad milestone for my friend.

Grandson is devoted to his grandmother. Nowadays much of her care is his responsibility: doctors’ appointments, retrofitting Grandmother’s home so she can continue to live in it, arranging for drop-in caregivers, grocery shopping (his wife stops by with an evening meal from time to time)…all the while working a wheat ranch and being a husband and father to two children. And so the garden was just one more added burden; I understand full well; you do what you can, but it’s life that has the final say. “Its easier to go buy what you want,”he told his grandmother. That my friend has no garden to tend and harvest this season is upsetting enough, but equally bothersome is the fact her grandson appears unaware of the fact that a garden offers so much more, I believe, than a basketful of vegetables at the end of the season. Grandson truly doesn’t understand the Zen of the garden.A riot of color

Oftentimes as you go about your daily life, you feel as if you’re midstream, struggling mightily to stay afloat, unable to move forward, but the garden is a place where your efforts are rewarded, your successes realized; you can see you’ve made your mark. The adventure begins with the first furrow planted. You look for the earth to buckle above the stirring seed, the first fiddlehead of bean curling from the soil, the blade of corn piercing the dirt, the sprouting pea….Then the garden beckons daily. garden in AugustYou create a new world each year, plant by plant, row by row: your very own realm to explore, a landscape that changes day by day, week by week. Perhaps encouraged by the pull of the moon and stars, each morning the garden seems a new and different place.

Cup of coffee in hand, I walk the rows in the cool of the morning. There are always surprises: that first pink blush on a green tomato (it wasn’t there Soon for saladyesterday); a cornstalk beginning to tassel; the first tiny string bean, yet only a crescent nail paring; a dot of color in the sweet pea row, the first blossom of the season; a tiny blimp of cucumber; a squash blossom hosting an early rising bee. (Is the Savoy cabbage finally beginning to head?)

Evening. The wilting garden has shaken off the heat of the day, perked up in the shade. sunset on the gardenGarden walk time again, and cool beverage in hand, I wander the rows, looking for surprises, inspecting the day’s progress, all the while making mental notes of tomorrow’s priorities: what rows need weeding, plants staking or watering. I set the glass down on a post (where I find it again two days later), and take out some of  the day’s stress on a stalk of pigweed or lamb’s quarter insinuating its weediness on a row of shell beans, squash vines or hilled potatoes. I grip the culprit at ground level, pull. Momentarily the weed resists and then the satisfying give as the roots release. I shake the dirt from them and cast the weed aside, leave it at the mercy of tomorrow’s sun.

“We have no Gardmen,”my friend lamented. No more the satisfaction of the journey from seed to harvest. No more tomatoes on the window sills. No more squash to give to neighbors. No more cucumbers to pickle and share with family and friends. Even the weeds, gone. In my letters I share my garden with my friend as the season progresses, what has ripened, what I have canned, frozen, dried, or pickled. My garden is the only garden she has now. The weeds have taken hers; the windowsill tomatoes, the potato vines, squash, cucumbers, strawberries…everything shredded by the rototiller. The Zen of the garden and part of her life only memories now.master gardner

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  1. I feel sympathy for your friend's loss. I have a mug that reads, "I garden, therefore I am." A friend in his mid eighties once used the term "Bad Old" to describe another octegenarian who was no longer able to do anything he enjoyed. Hopefully your regular correspondence gives her some pleasure and she isn't yet "Bad Old".

  2. I'd be a much better friend if I visited her more often, but circumstances are such.... Not "Old Bad" yet: she still has her indoor garden. Grandson has rigged a tray to the front of her walker to accomodate her watering can. She's a great one for propagating aloes which she marketed (fifty cents a plant) to the Hispanics at her "perpetual garage sale" (no longer "perpetual" because of her failing health). But the houseplants? One can do quite a bit of gardening's a tough habit to break, gardening. Thanks for reading. TMJ