Friday, October 12, 2012

From Whatever Field, A Gift

"Perhaps, after all, it is not what you get out of a garden, but what you put into it, that is the most remunerative.  ...By gardening, I do not mean that insane desire to raise vegetables which some have; but the philosophical occupation of contact with the earth, and companionship with gently growing things and patient processes; that exercise which soothes the spirit, and develops the deltoid muscles."
----Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, p. 53
The season is waning -- a gradual descent that does not sadden me, but affords me moments to pause.  A few things remain -- some lingering chard, valiant against the cold; some sprouting kale and twigs of broccoli that won't likely come to any good.  The carrots I have left to stretch out the season along with the parsnips and rutabagas and some other leafy thing whose identity I've forgotten -- but I dug up the beets and turnips this afternoon.  In a week or so I will plant the new garlic for next year, and I have begun to ready the greenhouse for a winter experiment, but just now there is this window of in-betweenness I can only describe as "quiet."

What have I, following Warner's accounting, put into it this season regardless of what I've gotten out?  I willingly confess to his indicted "insane desire to raise vegetables," but I nonetheless agree with his assessment.  It has been the contact with the earth and companionship with gentle growth that has nourished me most these past many months.  I was telling friends this week that I score my efforts a "C-" for the season, given the meagerness of the harvest.  But the warmth and settledness of my spirit somehow doesn't comport with the lowliness of that grade.  I have felt satisfaction, if not all that much fruitfulness.  I have felt diligence, if not expertise.  I have felt attentive and observant if not always productive -- not at all unlike my years in parish ministry.  More often than not in those days the most I could do was be present; and as often as not presence was enough.

Naked brown stems still protrude from many of the trenches; I'll pull them up when I have the chance, along with the other acts of tending in preparation for next year.  I begin the process of putting the furrows to bed for the winter with, if not much else, a bumper crop of tangled confusions I'll spend the next several months teasing out into comprehension.  If I am successful.  The dirt work, in other words, gives way to book work.  And I, of course, enjoy that too.

And every bite -- regardless of where it came from -- I will chew more slowly, more gratefully, more appreciatively for the blessing of simply having it on my plate...

...and all it took to get it there.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prairie Management as Spiritual Discipline

Yesterday I spend the better part of two hours and a full tank of gas/oil mix in the power trimmer assaulting volunteer saplings in the field.  It is a formidable undertaking that has no end in sight.  Some of the species I recognize -- osage orange (from the thorns), cedar (from the smell), walnut (actually, just a guess) -- while others are mysteries.  In fact, given my larger measure of arboreal ignorance, I could be cutting down things I will later regret.  But I am more interested in prairie than forest in this particular area, and so the saplings need to go.

And I get the concept.  Given the 7 or 8 (I lose count) 5-gallon buckets-full of walnuts I have collected from beneath a single tree in the front yard and relocated with, again, no end in sight; given the hedge apples still waiting to fall in a veritable hailstorm of green and knobby orbs, I am only surprised that derivative saplings aren't taking over the world.

That said, there are plenty -- many of them nowhere near their sources.  Squirrels or rabbits or birds or deer or the wind itself -- or all of the above -- have scattered the seeds far and wide, some number of which obviously taking root.  There will be more such days to spend; more such gallons of fuel to burn if my interventions are to mean anything at all.

The whole process, however, has me thinking about other infiltrations that silently and, for a time, invisibly take root where one least expects them.  Habits, I suppose, I am thinking about primarily -- good ones, but more glaringly bad ones.  In their infancy, a mower can knock them over -- or a good, firm yank; before long a shovel is required, or the trimmer I was so violently wielding yesterday.  But in a surprisingly short span of time, the trunk of the things have thickened and deepened to the point that more extreme measures are required -- a chain saw, at the very least.  Eradication, to say it another way, benefits from early detection and early response.

And so I cut...and ponder, amazed at all the noxious sprigs I discover growing within and without.  And the field's experience is as humbling for a person of spiritual consideration as it is daunting:  this fact that there is, as I mentioned, no end in sight.

No end to the noticing, the truncating, and the bundling of all the detritus that needs hauling away.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Perhaps "Noxious" is Only a State of Mind

I think it is genius.  Or a horticultural appropriation of aikido.

Over the weekend we traveled across the prairies of Kansas to attend the 34th annual Prairie Festival sponsored by the Land Institute near Salina.  There were scientific reports, art exhibitions, folk concerts, dire lectures by climate change experts, glimpses into the tragic stories of farmers in India who were shifted from subsistence farming to cash cropping.

And there were prairie walks.  We hiked out into the fields to explore the test plots under the guidance and annotation of the scientists who are conducting the fascinating research.  All focused on the perennialization of grains, my favorite involved efforts involving grain sorghum...

...and Johnson grass.

Johnson grass -- a noxious weed -- and sorghum -- a desirable grain.  Crossed.

It turns out that Johnson grass and sorghum share some genetic ancestry which make them likely partners.  This isn't, after all, the kind of genetic modification that borrows an isolated gene from a butterfly and inserts it into a squash to produce a kind of tie-dyed pumpkin.  This is the slow and tedious process of shaping and nudging the generations of natural selection and crossing between cousins to borrow the desirable traits in one for the benefit of the other.

Or, as I was thinking, that horticultural aikido I mentioned before.  Aikido, a Japanese martial art synthesizing physical defense, philosophy and even religious belief, redirects the force of an attacker into a positive action.  In the case of these experiments, the tenacious reproductive and perennial prowess of the Johnson grass -- typically viewed with hostility by gardeners the world over -- is redirected to the positive benefit of the sorghum, rendering it not only perennial, but also as tenacious as its incorporated cousin.

So I have begun to think about this spirit of aikido with regard to my own garden, wondering to what positive uses I could turn the noxious elements I have encountered -- indeed, "battled" there.  I am certainly not into genetic research or experimentation, so those kinds of applications are out.  But surely the only obstacle to an effective and transformative use of squash beetles and tomato horn worms is my own lack of imagination.

Give me time.  I'm working on it.  In my spare time.