Essay: In season

Blue morning glories growing on an old farm windmill

"Morning Glories & Windmill" by Gordon Vanus

In Sanskrit, the word for spring comes from sphayati, “desires eagerly.” In Old English, “springan” meant “to leap, burst forth, fly up.”

I’m doing it all. Through the winter, I kindled desire, ogling seed-catalog pictures of voluptuous tomatoes and curvaceous squash. Were they airbrushed? What vegetable could look that perfect? When March came, I leapt, burst and flew, digging and double-digging. I built my compost pile and a fence around it all.

Someday life will depend on this, I theorized. What with all the cataclysms we’re bringing down around our ears, people will have to grow their own food again. But I wasn’t really thinking about the end of the world as we know it. I was thinking about the end of my world.

Last year, my family did the unthinkable. We sold our Kansas farm, the one that my mother and father spent their entire lives building. Even though I hadn’t lived on the farm in decades, it lived in me.

By the time we sold, the original farmstead — where my mother had tended flowers and vegetables near a tree-shaded lawn — had been erased. The house had been torn down and the windbreak burned to make way for one of the sprinkler irrigation systems that have turned the Western plains into an alien landscape. Out of an airplane window — which is about the only way I see Kansas anymore — the fields look like giant clocks with sprinklers for dials, none of them agreeing on the time.

I have no need of a clock now. The angle of the sun tells me it’s spring. Time to dig! It has been a long journey back to these simple pleasures—hands in dirt, nostrils filled with the scent of it, worms writhing as I turn a spadeful.

Lettuce seeds are chocolate sprinkles. Scallions tiny chunks of charcoal. Spinach gray pebbles. Chard desiccated thorns. Gardening is my attempt to make myself whole again in this vacuum of identity-less-ness the sale left in its wake. I was shocked by the wave of seller’s remorse that hit me as soon as we’d sealed the deal.

Seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke believed we gain rights to land when we mix our labor with it, but I think that when we mix our labor with the soil, we become it. Or it becomes us.

So this is a homecoming. We must long for this union in our genes, but few people experience it anymore. How did we forget? Are we that repressed? It would be like forgetting sex.

My hands know. They will slip their seed into the ground just as lips will find each other in the dark. The mingling of self and soil, seed and soul must and will occur.

But gardens take a little more know-how than procreation. Before I’ve even dusted off the knees of my jeans and looped the wire over the gatepost — which I plan to make bloom with blue morning glories like those that climbed the farm windmill — I suspect that I should have mixed the compost on top with the dirt underneath. Even though I carefully screened it, it is too loose to hold moisture. And I shouldn’t have mulched the lettuce with straw. Lettuce needs light to sprout. That’s why you plant it only an eighth-inch deep. Within hours, days, weeks, I discover a host of other mistakes I wouldn’t be making if I’d stayed home and married a farmer.

I couldn’t have done that and become me. But if I now had to choose between growing things and being me, I couldn’t do it. Growing things, I grow myself.

A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellow, Julene Bair has published essays and fiction in periodicals ranging from the Chicago Tribune to the Iowa Review. Her book, One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter, won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award and Women Writing the West’s Willa Award.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *