Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The Garden Underground
So I woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning with way too much on my mind. During my first year of teaching, I instituted a personal sleep hygiene policy for whenever I wake up at 2:30 in the morning with way too much on my mind. The rule has since been that I have two choices: get up and do something about whatever is on my mind, or vow to tackle the problem at the appropriate time (tomorrow!) and let myself fall back asleep. There is no lying there worrying myself into a stress-hormone overdose. Well, Monday morning a litany of house projects, specifically, refinishing the cabinets before we show the house to prospective buyers was on my mind. I tossed and turned for another 30 minutes, and then I got up and started sanding. So, with towels draped across the gas stove, a damp bandana wrapped bank-robber style around my face, and the BBC Health Report blaring, I enforced my sleep hygiene policy.
I’m stressed. No doubt about it. I’m manic and whiney and willing to spill my cortisol-logged guts out to anyone within earshot about how much I have to do. But the fact is there is no emergency. It will all get done. It doesn’t all have to get done today. I realized this today when I went to find my brain and it was out to lunch. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say it was out in the garden. Instead of focusing on the planning and grading and phone calls I need to take care of, I’m staring out the window. I’m talking to myself about my life and my plans and all of the things I’m going to miss when I go; and I seem to have no brain cells left for progress amongst all this worry static.
It was time to break and dig the sweet potatoes. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. Sweet potatoes are supposed to love super warm weather. This summer was not a friend to the sweet potato. There was barely a day this summer that was warm enough for the beach! However, as I am wont to do, I pampered my little vegetables just a bit. Just a bit. I draped floating row covers over the vines for most of the summer to create a sultry microclimate in the sweet potato patch. Now, I must mention that these morning glory cousins did not have it easy this growing season. I acquired them from Chris’s mother (who can actually bring plants back from the dead; I’ve seen it with my own eyes) in late April. She brought it to Hopkinton, MA in a kitty litter bucket when she met us there to cheer us on in the Boston Marathon. It was a gorgeous organism that seemed to glow, exuding life and vegetable potential. I knew it was nothing short of a garden miracle that I now possessed. I got it home and planted it, sure that it would have a perfect early start and maybe some robust tubers to harvest in the fall. Then came the hard freezes of May 28 and 29. Everything in the garden died except the peas. (The carrots were under a mini-green house and were okay, and the lettuce made a quick recovery, but potatoes, herbs, beans, and squash were toast.) I was sure my little sweet potato miracle had been squashed like a black fly.
The rest of the summer was cool. The deer had snacked on sweet potato leaves so many times that I was planning violent midnight encounters between their necks and my hands. In the morning, I’d run at them, yelling, waving my arms, and ka-thunking along in my mud boots whenever they appeared near the garden. So, when I went out to dig up the harvest, I wasn’t sure I’d even need a container to carry the loot back up to the house. But I started on the perimeter of the patch and dug my way in. Skinny little pink ropes wound through the soil. They tangled with each other and among the rocks. Eventually I reached into the cold, dark earth and pulled out a handful of actual sweet potatoes, regulation size. I kept on digging. I dug up 15 pounds of the bonus tubers. I hadn’t expected anything. But there I was, harvesting a respectable pile of starchy root vegetables and getting face cramps from the perpetual smile. It was another success I hadn’t counted on. Actually, there had been early summer moments I’d thought about digging up the little vines to make room for more predictable vegetables. There was a bit of faith involved here. The kind of faith I’m getting more and more familiar with. Plant the seeds, amend the soil, feed the chickens, clear the weeds and wait. Sometimes there’s just nothing more you can do to control a situation. It’s just time to wait and have faith in the work you’ve done up to that point.
I screamed like a girl when I upturned a slumbering toad the size of a tennis ball. Its white round belly horrified me for a second. I was sure I’d gored or decapitated an innocent garden gnome. Or a smurf. After considering walking to the neighbors’ house to reassure them that I had not fallen off the roof or clothes lined myself somehow, I squatted down to consider this very rotund toad. (I’d very much like to read his account of the event as I’m sure his perspective was a bit different.) I took a break and gave him the chance to make his escape and went over to the huge sunflower head on which chickadees were landing and feeding on seeds. My camera was nearby and I set a goal of capturing the natural bird feeder being patronized. As I sat there in the October sun, the leaves ablaze all around me, I unwound. I realized how precious that time was. I was doing what recharges me most: following the unfolding story of the garden for as long as it takes. The one early sunflower that I’d let go to seed had sucked up all the plant’s energy and was now a big bird food factory, instead of a fleeting cut flower on my dining room table. The chickadees had set up camp in the shrubs bordering the garden, swooping back and forth between the sunflower and the shelter of the blueberry bush. The sun was low but warm in the crystal blue sky. The toad was warming up and, I imagine, making new winter hibernation plans. Three turkey vultures soared high above, making a b-line south. I was grateful that I’d caught a glimpse of the latest developments in the garden story plot.
I never cease to be amazed by underground vegetables. You don’t get to watch them grow. There’s no solid reassurance that they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to. You just have to wait. Maybe I let fear creep in too much. I consider all of the things that could go wrong. I feel the need to peek and guess and predict. No matter how many times I do it, I’m always surprised by the leap of faith it requires. I needed to stop and listen to that story just then.