It’s a Saturday morning at the church garden, the community garden that Larry, one of the people behind the whole idea, dubbed the “Victory Garden.” During World War II, coming off the poverty and desperation of the Great Depression, with the American agriculture and manufacturing systems largely dedicated to arming, supplying, and feeding a massive American army fighting on three continents, American citizens found food, fuel, and other supplies in short supply. Under the constraints of a rationing system, people planted “victory” gardens in their back yards and communities, supplementing the meager food goods available on grocers’ shelves with what they could grow and preserve on their own.
Larry, a veteran of the Air Force and the Border Patrol, who worked on the security detail at U.S. consulates in Europe and Asia and patrolled the Texas-Mexico border, is a quiet spoken, earthy, deeply Christian man. Although he wears a pith helmet in the garden, he is deeply tanned. His back yard looks like it could have come out of a photo spread in Organic Garden magazine, with his raised beds of vegetables, flower and herb beds, fruit trees, compost bins, rock fire pit, and wooden swing. One of his ministries at our church is working the food pantry, and he conceived the Victory garden in part as a way to encourage the customers who visit the food pantry every Wednesday afternoon to become more self-sufficient by growing their own vegetables to supplement other sources. As summer wears on he shows disappointment when garden plots go untended and unpicked, as people who signed on to develop the garden in the cool temperatures of spring have dropped out and let their plots grow over in weeds, leaving perfectly good vegetables to rot on the vine. July and August are brutal months for gardening in Arkansas.
Leroy drives up in his van, then takes several minutes to maneuver his wheelchair to the side ramp. Finally he emerges from the van, wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He wheels his chair along the mulched garden path—cheerfully calling out to everyone working that morning—to his plots, which he works seated in the chair, with just a little assistance from friends for the heavy digging. Leroy was a medic in Viet Nam, and he talks about humping sixty, eighty, hundred pound loads of medical and personal supplies on patrol in the sweltering heat. “Those guys used to complain about the heat and how much they had to carry,” he says. “I’d tell them to stop complaining and shape up.” He volunteers with the differently abled in our community, helping with vocational training so they can be more self-sufficient. Leroy never passes up a chance for a conversation.
Getting to know other gardeners is part of the attraction of the community garden. A young newlywed couple hand painted a sign announcing their plot belongs to “The Pratts.” A retired university professor comes out in the late mornings after sleeping in late. A young university professor brings his three children to the garden, the oldest a first grader, and though he doesn’t get any work done, his children rush down the path to inspect the garden and then offer a report on the corn, squash, and watermelons they planted. A woman from the neighborhood walks over, curious, wanting to know exactly who we are and what we’re doing here, giving Larry a chance to talk about church. A guy wheels a barrowful of mulch down the path. His shirt reads D.A.D.D., which stands for “Dads Against Dating Daughters.” One day I ask Larry about his grandson, who nearly died four years before and was the subject of daily church emails. He tells me the story again, how he and his wife were visiting family in Germany when they got the news that “Little Robbie” was deathly sick, and how they drove all night to get to an airport with a non-stop flight to New York, and how they covered the night shift in Arkansas Children’s hospital for three months, allowing the parents to rest at home. He begins to choke up and he tells me that even now, with Robbie recovered, he can barely talk about that time. And there’s Terry, a retired man whose wife was my oldest daughter’s first grade teacher for two days before she was diagnosed with cancer, became desperately ill, and died eight weeks later, having never stepped back into the classroom after that second day. That was seven years ago. We were stringing rabbit fence one morning when I told him, “You probably don’t remember us, but your wife was my daughter’s first grade teacher. My wife and I went to the hospital that night everyone came to pray.” Terry got quiet, thinking about it. I was afraid I’d touched the wrong nerve, but he said, “Yeah, I just don’t remember any of those kids. But Barbara and I were in that classroom every day that summer getting it decorated. She really liked working with kids.”
I remember hearing a segment on NPR a year or so ago with a guy who’d written a book called Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind. It was a serious book about the value of one of our most misunderstood byproducts. The idea that stands out the most from the interview, though, was the author talking about spending a day spreading manure manually, meaning wagon and pitchfork, with his son, before turning the manure into the soil. He talked about how easy it was to talk with his son when they were working side by side, doing repetitive and largely thoughtless work by hand. There was nothing there to distract them except the occasional task of moving the wagon, and the cadence of their work was marked by the things that they could say together over a forkful of manure in a field.
As the temperatures begin to rise in May and the spring garden wilts, it’s time to start pulling out the bolted lettuce and broccoli plants and begin planting tomato sets and sewing bean and corn and cucumbers. Summer gardening fills the freezer with ziplock bags and plastic containers of freezer pickles and jams, tomato sauce, green beans, and pesto; it fills the pantry with jars of pickles, sweet peppers, salsa, and jam. The work grows to be unbearable, as temperatures and humidity soar, and the simplest task soaks my clothes with sweat. The sun tans my arms and legs, leaving pale swatches of skin under watch bands and Teva straps. Weeds grow as fast as the vegetables and have to be pulled. Insects lay eggs on the underside of squash and pumpkin leaves, so it is necessary to turn every leaf and look for the clusters of pin-head sized brown eggs laid in parallel rows to form neat rectangles. Tomato worms and squash bugs blend into the green leaves with near perfect camouflage. The dry soil sucks up the water, which must be applied every other or third day, or else the plants will shrivel and die. After an hour or two I wash the dirt off knees and hands and retreat to the house to “lay up under the air conditioner,” as Larry says, to change into dry, clean shorts, underwear, and shirt, which may happen three to four times a day.
Every day I walk down to the garden and watch tomatoes ripen and squash and cucumbers and beans grow on the vine. The basil and cilantro and rosemary are aromatic and remind me of Italy. Once the garden begins to come in, Lisa and I are suddenly overwhelmed with the necessity to do something with all the produce. We eat what we can, and it’s pleasurable to put a plate of home-grown sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on the dinner table, to serve up zucchini lightly sautéed in olive oil, to slice cucumber, onion, and tomato into a cold pasta salad. We bake loaves of zucchini bread and store in the freezer. Tomatoes are stewed and transformed into sauce and frozen for the winter months. Peppers and cucumbers are pickled. Chili peppers are strung in clusters on monofilament fishing line and hung up to dry. We keep going to the internet to find yet another recipe for pickles, for ideas about what to do with zucchini and squash. It’s exhausting, but at the same time deeply fulfilling work.
On the occasion of my first wedding anniversary, my father joked with my wife and me: “Are you going to try another year?” He died the following September, short of my second anniversary, seven months after his initial diagnosis of lung cancer. I had seen him in July, when he and my mother and my brother and his family came to visit us in Denver. We were summoned to Mississippi to spend the last fourteen hours of his life sitting by his bedside. Lisa and I came home again at Christmas, making the two day drive from Colorado. After I had been at my mother’s house for an hour I told Mom and Lisa I was going to drive over to the cemetery. They asked if I wanted any company, but I said no. It was a pretty day, cool with a clear blue sky. There were a couple of cars in the cemetery cul-de-sac—two old men and one family wandering around the graves. There were two plants on Dad’s grave. A poinsettia Mom placed there earlier that morning and a dying flower of some kind. Apparently Mom brought it out there on their anniversary, Thanksgiving Day, because there was a damp but still legible anniversary card which read, “Clarence, I luv you and will always luv you. I miss you.”
I cried, then walked across the cemetery and through the trees and found the railroad tracks that I remembered playing on as a kid. I walked down the railroad tracks to my father’s garden, which lay behind a little scope of trees. The whole distance from grave to garden couldn’t have been more than 200 yards, probably not that far. I found an old corn stalk and broke it off, a rotted gourd or pumpkin of some kind. I took a seed out of the shell and walked back, laid the stalk on the grave and planted the seed. I wrote him a short note, mainly to say I loved and missed him, wished he could still offer me advice. I told him about the new Pathfinder and the drive out, that Lisa and I had been married for two years now, that we still loved one another, and that we were going to “go for three.” A train came by just before I left. It rumbled along and made a pleasant sound.