I spent a good 30 minutes tonight weeding the spinach patch. We've been gone the past few days, and the weeds had reached that do-or-die stage where they threatened to choke the baby plants. The best thing about gardens at the start of fall is squeezing out that last round of food, so I crawled between the rows and pulled the weeds by hand, feeling each root system resist, then the release as it finally popped free.
Joe tries telling me the hoe would be faster and more efficient, but I prefer weeding the tool-free way: In the doing so, I acquainted myself with each plant, thrusting itself up through cracked earth in a way that must, from the plant's perspective, feel shockingly brave and remarkable. The last time I paid this spinach any mind, they were seeds, with the look and feel of Grape-Nuts, or all-natural cat litter. And now here they were, very obviously spinach, spreading their waxy leaves in welcome to the wide, blue sky.
I know my vegetables. I know each of them. I know which okra plants need trimming; which tomato plants likes extra water; which leek stems, for some reason, attract more weeds than others. You spend hours of every week alone in a garden with nothing but plants for company, on your hands and knees so you can inspect each leaf and flower, aware of their existence from the moment they were seeds falling through your fingers, and you will know what it's like to commune with vegetables.
Our garden isn't huge, but it isn't tiny, either -- 800 square feet, a double plot at a community garden some 6 miles north of our neighborhood. We drive (or, for Joe, bike) up a few nights each week, and at least once every weekend. It's not as often as I'd like; this summer, even busier than last year, I've felt the urge to buy a house simply for the yard, for the ability to step out of my back door in bare feet and be there, in the thick of green things growing.
This is what I love about the garden -- the chance to feel what it means to be. To exist in a way that doesn't happen in shopping malls, at the grocery store, in your cubicle, in your car while you are driving 45 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone just to get where you are going a few minutes faster. Being in the garden makes me forget about cell phones. Being there helps me appreciate the world around me in a way that is active and immediate and steeped in an almost cellular attachment to other living things. Being there awakens my own awareness of that necessary connection wrapping itself from person to person like invisible Christmas tree lights, shining bright with hope that better things can happen if we all just dig in a little--and I mean all of us, even people we don't think we like very much or understand, even people who think urban farming is a waste of time, even Republicans.
I think of gardening the way some friends describe running. You reach a place where the world falls away, and all that's left are you and the tangy smell of ripening and the hard sting of dirt packed tight under your fingernails. The highs and lows of your day melt into an evened being, and your breathing does, too, as if your emotional self has been pounded down in a mortar and pestle and all that's left is the essence of you--the essence of what you care about and how you wish to live in the world and all that you find beautiful. All of that exists in every tug of weed, every leaf examined. All of that exists, and multiplies and grows, every time we tend to the well-being of something greater than ourselves.
Joe came with me to the garden tonight. As I tended the spinach, he aimed the watering hose at the opposite end of our long tract. This is our routine: I weed, he waters. We each bury ourselves in our own brains, our own motions, and we rarely talk in the garden, except to say things like, "Look! We have lettuce!" or, "Can you bring me the trowel, please?"
I thought tonight about all the things I think about here, in this small slice of silence where time stills until the sky darkens, and how grateful I am for this regular pause. I happened to look up at that moment, and there was Joe, watering the nearby okra. I recognized the look on his face, the one that says, I am here, but I am elsewhere, too.
And so I broke the silence.
"What do you think about while you're watering?" I asked him.
He looked down at me, still on my knees in the dirt. And he smiled.
"Music," he said. "I think about music."
photo credit: Carrie Kilman