by Richard Gilbert

n the growing season of 1870,
the editor of The Hartford
Courant set out to chronicle for
his readers the delights of garden-
ing. In My Summer in a Garden,
published that fall, Charles
Dudley Warner argued that
one who. plants a garden is
doomed to suffer, and lose,
in the ).wrelenting fight
against weeds, bugs, and
frost. He was humorously
undercutting romantic
notions of nature, of recre-
ating one's own Eden,
planting vine and fig tree,
yet clearly he hoped for a
more elemental relationship
with the earth. "By garden-
ing," he wrote, "I do not
mean that insane desire to
raise vegetables which some
have; but the philosophical
occupation of contact with
the earth .... In a half an
hour I can hoe myself right
away from this world, as we
commonly see it, into a
large place, where there are
no obstacles."
Many people take for
granted today that growing
one's own vegetables does
not "pay." But Warner had
to contend with such mer-
cenary questions. He bristled. "As
I look at it, you might as well ask,
Does a sunset pay? In a certain
sense, it is a sort of profanation to
consider if my garden pays, or to
set a money value upon my
delight in it .... What! shall I set a
price upon the tender asparagus or
the crisp lettuce, which made the
2 Orion Summer 1994
sweet spring a realiry?"
Gardening has brought me
into a vivid relation with nature.
My fellow gardeners and I know
when the weather truly has been
wet, and when it has been danger-
ously dry. We notice when our
prevailing southwest wind brings
a change in the weather, when it
swings to the northwest, or-
heaven forbid-attacks from the
east. Indeed, as one who earns a
living at a desk, gardening has put
my feet back on the real ground.
Seven springs ago, my wife
and I planted 300 evergreens in a
field we had just purchased. Our
eight acres, part of a forty-acre
farm being broken up, had been
mined for corn and soybeans and
winter wheat. The farmer who
rented the land had used herbi-
cides to avoid tilling or weeding.
There was not a tree or a
welcome blade of grass on
the place. Our plot was
similar to countless raw
tracts in suburbs across
America. That first spring
our infant daughter accom-
panied us in a blue back-
pack as we slowly planted
rows of pines; our Labrador
retriever bounded across the
tender ground following
country smells. Those trees
barely show up in the earli-
est photographs of our
land. The red pines were
about a foot tall, and the
Virginia pines were barely
six inches.
Year after year, we kept
planting-hundreds more
trees and shrubs; we fenced
and dug a pond. Having
defined the edges of the
land, we built a house and
began to move the plantings
closer, a green embrace for
our household. I consider
these eight acres our garden,
not just the boxed vegetable
beds, but also the pines smelling
like gin and the meadow where
the deer bed down. Our garden
includes the juneberries blooming
near the front door, the red-leaved
plum waving in the breeze off the
screened porch, and the lusty mul-
berry down by the henhouse. This
spring our daughter, Claire, is a
"big second grader," as she says,
with a little brother to entertain;
we buried Tess-the Labrador
who had supervised our first
plantings-beside the pond she
loved, with a clump of daffodils
for a marker; and the pines, some
of them fourteen feet tall, are
beginning to shelter our house.
Even the smallest garden-a
windowbox or a salad patch beside
the back door-is a mirror and a
window. My failures on our eight
acres have taught me more than I
could have imagined. Energy,
planning, and determination are
not enough to make a natural sys-
tem bend to one's will. Devastated
by some crop disaster or ailment
among the chickens, I have won-
dered what would have happened
had all my plans come true. If dis-
ease or weather had not thwarted
my schemes, would I have taken
my triumph for granted, recogniz-
ing it as my just reward? Would I
think of myself as nature's master?
These lessons in humility must
have been learned by all farmers
through the ages. With my essen-
tially suburban background, they
were surprises to me.
I am more tentative these
days. I realize that nature will
make the final call. But I still
aspire to create a generous land-
scape, one midway between the
suburbs of my boyhood and
wilderness. When all is said and
done, I seek an Edenic landscape.
To me, such a garden is defined
by hardy plantings that are fruit-
ful even without a regimen of
toxic sprays. Such a garden
rewards husbandry without mak-
ing of me an agribusiness slave.
Such a garden welcomes the blue-
bird as well as foraging humans. I
remember feeling that a bounty
of earthworms would indicate we
were beginning to heal our land,
to move in tune with a powerful
cycle that had been interrupted.
By mulching with manure from a
nearby stable, we encourage
earthworms, which aerate and
fertilize the soil and are handy
when we want to slip away to the
pond to fish. There is a great dif-
ference between paying a bait-
shop for worms and digging them
in your garden. A family with
worms in their own dungheap
feels rich indeed.
Charles Dudley Warner knew
that gardeners are dreamers
involved in a spiritual activity. As
he wrote, 124 years ago, "To own
a bit of ground, to scratch it with
a hoe, to plant seeds and watch
their renewal of life,-this is the
commonest delight of the race ....
To dig in the mellow soil-to dig
moderately, for all pleasure should
be taken sparingly-is a great
thing .... Hoe while it is spring,
and enjoy the best anticipations. It
is not much matter if things do
not turn out well."
Like many members of my
generation, I am a lapsed runner, a
hunter-gatherer with precious little
to hunt or to gather along subur-
ban streets. Now I garden. At last I
garden, I should say. Like many
Americans, my wife and I have
moved around a good deal, sepa-
rately and then together. Finally,
thankfully, we settled down. For
anyone who truly settles down, can
a garden be far behind? •
Richard Gilbert lives with his wift
and two children in Bloomington,
Indiana, where he is a writer for
Indiana University and contributes
a gardening column to the local
Forthcoming •••
Future issues of Orion will
include special sections that
• the city
• oceans
• travel
• spiritual roots
Volume 13, Number 3 • Summer 1994
M.G.H. Gilliam
George K. Russell
Literary faitor
Emily Hiestand
Managing Editor
H. Emerson Blake
Picture faitor
Christina Rahr
Poetry Editors
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Alternatives Design
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