The ask: Can you write about what you love?
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral…
I am in love with this crazy beautiful thing called life. This spring I started my first vegetable garden. I was lucky to have a planter box ready, full of loose earth and weeds that offered so little resistance. In my hands I held small paper packets of mesculin, baby lettuce, Siberian kale, and Swiss chard. I’d also bought an Early Girl tomato starter, its single stalk about a foot tall, and a 4 pack of baby spinach, their tender-looking leaves each about the size of a child’s mouth, open in awe.
Growing my own food these last 3 months has already brought so much joy into my life. There may be nothing more startling than scattering a palm-full of seeds, covering them up with a thin layer of soil, watering and watering for days and weeks with no change, until that one day when you go to wet the earth and see a tiny shoot curling up and away. When mine first came up, I wanted to name them. You there on the outskirts, you’re Allen, and you here with the double-leaf-tip, you are Esmeralda!
There is no substitute for wonder.
Each day I’d bring water and I’d smile, looking at all the green stalks poking up, a small army of sprouts. I felt proud, the closest I imagine to how a mother would feel, seeing all these fresh, young starts, feeling the potential for so much bounty.
The first time I grew cilantro and chard at my old house, I did nothing besides water. Soon, the small plastic containers were thick like grass with the seedlings. As the leaves grew bigger, I noticed dark splotches forming all over their surfaces. They were crowded, but I figured the plants themselves would work it out—grow tall, grow sideways, something, and then I could transplant them. But the splotches got worse, soon covering all the plants, so I did what we do—I posted to Facebook. A friend linked to the scientific explanation, telling me in simple language, “You must thin your plants.”
You’d think such a step would be easy—the plants are so small, their slim green bodies not even an inch tall, smaller than a blade of grass…they have no feelings or physical sensations that we know of, but man. I put it off for days.
Each morning I’d come down with the water and see if any of the sprouts looked unhealthy—the leaves eaten by insects or some defect, but they all looked the same, green and lively, and, to my detriment, I actually thought they looked cute. I’d find myself greeting them in that high-pitched voice we mostly reserve for babies.
But as memories of my failed cilantro and chard settled in, I began to wonder at my irresponsibility. Maybe I shouldn’t have sprinkled quite so many in the first place? I thought of the Native Americans and even though I have no actual proof of this, I imagined some woman wrapping up individual seeds at the end of the harvest, storing them somewhere safe and dry. I’ll admit that the image I played in my head was more like the logo for some seed company: two palms cupping a single seed above a perfect little hole in the ground. The seed in this picture is roughly the size of an almond, though, not the reality of the sesame-like seeds I was dealing with.
After letting my mind have its last fun, I took a breath, and began to pinch and pull. At first I tried to transplant some of the shoots, but after a day in the new location, I’d come back to find them shriveled up and collapsed back into the soil. They were too young, their roots not yet ready for the shock. Meanwhile, the other plants grew taller, their leaves doubling in width and diameter in only a few short days. I was in awe.
The tomato, which I’d bought as a seedling, needed stakes within a week, and a huge-circular trellis for its thick green arms a couple weeks after that. The spinach, which I’d also planted as seedlings, was leafing out in ever-growing circles, the smaller leaves vying for sunlight. I soon realized it was time to make my first harvest.
Cutting spinach and baby chard leaves, individually and discriminately the way I do, is a different feeling entirely than the thinning. Here there is no dramatic plant death. Instead there is a sense of teamwork, culling leaves so others might get the sun they need, thanking the plants for a job well done. I recently planted carrots and expect that when those are ready to be pulled from the earth, I’ll do so with a sense of satisfaction.
I realize that these plants have grown into the fullest expression of themselves. As far as their DNA is concerned, they have led a rich and full life—they have been successful in carrying out their master genetic plan. At this point early in the harvest, they’ve done everything except ensured their offspring, and some, like the tomato, has even done that.
As I cut and pick the vegetables I’ve watered and watched grow, mixing lettuce and kale, mustard greens and spinach, adding spearmint, I’ve come to see these plants as a model for our own lives. I wonder at how we might live each day as the fullest expression of our nature, even or especially with the absence of a guarantee for more.
Washing and rinsing, dressing the salad and topping with seeds—pine nuts and almonds, a bit of blue cheese, it’s hard not to feel my own true nature bubble up. There is a deep sense of purpose and satisfaction that comes from growing your own food, even if it’s just enough to make lunch. As I feed myself with a bowl of ingredients I’ve just harvested, there’s a sensation of joy, of connection, of my place in the world being clear. Human. Animal. Alive…and fully capable of sustaining myself with water and sunshine.
The beauty of letting our plants go to seed and pruning back the perennials comes, for me, from a sense of balance and empathy. In my body, I understand the need for rest. The garden helps remind me of the acts of creation we are capable of with enough regeneration.
We are, at the end of the day, just organisms. We will die and have our ashes scattered or our bodies buried. In these ways, our carbon will live on in the plants and animals that continue in our absence, our fluids watering the world. We know this. Death is no secret to our species, despite our efforts to deny it, draw it out, live each moment devoid of its presence.
Out here in California, our growing seasons stretch out and confuse even her natives like me. When I used to plant bulbs in the fall in Colorado, we knew that they’d come up as soon as the snow melted in late spring. Here, there is no such logic. You’ll find yourself walking through a tropical paradise in the middle of February. And we humans, too, lose our hibernation.
Growing up in Berkeley in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, it used to rain. A lot. Come December, our bedrooms would carry the rank sent of mildew and our towels always seemed a little bit damp. You wore more sweaters and you stayed inside. This new California—the one paralleling the frenetic tech boom in San Francisco—is entirely new to me. And somewhat overwhelming.
For spring equinox this year, I went to a yoga class where our teacher dedicated the practice to grounding, focusing on drawing energy out of the earth and into our feet. She talked about the seasons, how she felt like she’d missed all the hibernation and energy storage of the winter. Now that spring was here, she said, she just felt exhausted.
The class was spent drawing out restorative poses, with lots of slow movements and floor work. I, too, was feeling overwhelmed by the go-go-go energy of spring, and had just begun experiencing my first anxiety attacks. Every time I rose up into mountain pose in class, I grew lightheaded and had to drop to the ground.
The climate of California allows her inhabitants to live in a bit of a la-la land: to eat strawberries in the dead of winter, to wear shorts year-round, and to work at companies that encourage employees to eat, play, and even sleep at work. And don’t get me wrong, I do love California, but our resources are running thin; we must encourage rest.
“When you don’t have a winter,” my yoga teacher said, “you can’t open up and grow in the same way. And without more water, the plants will all die.”
Each time I lose a plant to slugs, or have to cut one back to make room for another, I think about this cycle. I try to accept and even welcome the beginnings and the ends. I eat my artichokes, enjoying the flesh of each thick leaf in full knowledge that this is it—that they won’t come back till next year, and for this, for this period of absence I am grateful. I dare say, I love those artichokes even more.