“What were you thinkin’?” I propped myself on my hoe and contemplated my folly of thirty years ago. Who picks a former ravine to make into a garden. When Highway 11 was originally built, “fill dirt” was used to fill up the creek cut ravine, the newly created creek banks stabilized by what else, kudzu. The scourge of the South…at least one of them.
Who tries to transform a broom straw laden, kudzu encroaching, rocky, and sandy wasteland into a garden? Easy peasy, I did. I had no choice if I was going to have a garden. The flat area flanked on one side by a creek and kudzu and a highway and swamp on the other is the only place that receives the necessary eight hours of sunlight.
It has remained a folly despite the years I’ve spent amending with compost, wood chips, grass clippings, even ground up cardboard. After thirty years I have about four inches of arable soil…and the rocks continue to do the dirty and multiply.
A whiney voice in my head asks, “Why do you do this to yourself. The roads around your house are dotted with produce stands. Walmart has corn for twenty-five cents an ear.” I hear many voices but this one is irritating. It is the voice that makes a yearly visit this time of the year. Outloud, I tell it to shut up.
My grandmother is in my head too, she speaks in a voice I barely remember, “You better clean out those middles. Look at that crabgrass. What about the Johnson grass coming up? While you’re at it do something about the kudzu across the fence.”
“Yes Nannie, I know…and soon the bastard wiregrass will begin its slow crawl.” Common bermuda grass will grow on hot pavement.
My tiller is down and I’m waiting for a part. It’s supposed to be here Monday but who knows, it may not get here, and I have the mechanical abilities of a brick. I should probably use this hoe for something other than a leaning post.
A thick morning cloud rolled in and for a moment I think I will be saved. There was no rain in the cloud despite the “rain” frogs in the swamp singing. The crows in the distance cawed their good mornings as my hoe contacted one of the many rocks. Bending over to pick it up I watched a drop of perspiration from my nose land next to my hand. I was suddenly a small child sitting under a tree as the sun came out again.
My grandparents farmed lands too far from the river to benefit from the fertile silt deposited by seasonal floods. Bottomlands were for the rich. My grandparents weren’t rich…at least not monetarily. They farmed on the lien until my granddaddy, Paw Paw, went to work in a textile mill. Their soil was red with clay and filled with rocks too. Their life was hard…much harder than mine, harder than the rocks they threw out of the field.
Even with steady money, my grandfather couldn’t stay out of the fields. After eight hours in the mill, he would harness the plow horse and do his farm chores before grabbing a bit of sleep in the afternoon. Sometimes he would head out in the early evenings too.
Corn was our staple, for both humans and animals. Somehow the poor soil yielded the needed corn along with beans, squash, okra, and tomatoes. There was nothing exotic in their garden not even a bell pepper. They weren’t the exotic kind. They were the survival kind.
I have a mental vision of a man of medium height with a sweat-stained fedora or cap. Thinning gray hair cut short, a wide nose, and dark-framed glasses. A man I can’t remember smiling except when he was in the fields. A man who watched over my brother and I as we played in a sandy ditch with Tonka toys and green army men. We didn’t know he was slowly dying from a melanoma found too late. I was nine when he died. He was fifty-eight or nine.
I’ve gotten into a rhythm. Hoe the hard ground toward me for a minute or two before pushing the dirt back. Bend over and pick up the uncovered rocks and throw the rocks toward the creek. Rest on the hoe for a minute, stretch my back, and start over. I don’t have the arm I used to have, or the creek has moved further away. At least the rocks seem smaller than they used to.
Again my grandmother spoke in my head, “Get back to work, you can think and work at the same time.” I wish I had asked more questions, “What did you think about Nannie?”
As a small child, most of my mornings were spent under a tree with a book in my hands. Nannie’s rule was “read or come out and pick up a hoe.” I developed my love for reading under a cedar tree or in a clump of privet. I remember the sounds her hoe made when it contacted a rock. I can’t remember her real voice but I remember that sound.
When I got older, I didn’t have a choice. Hand-picking bugs, hand watering tomato plants, and hoeing middles. Putting out chemical fertilizer that made my hands burn. Later she would invest in a front tine tiller that most days beat me to death.
I guess there is something meditative about hoeing…except for this blister between my thumb and pointer finger that interrupts my rumination. My grand parent’s hands were much tougher. Hands like tanned shoe leather with thick calluses. I remember my grandmother’s deeply lined and sun-baked face too.
I don’t know if I could call my grandmother pretty. She had a broad face and wide-set eyes. A thick, strong body built for farm work. Her face was cut with deep crevasses but I remember when she laughed. Her whole face lit up. She didn’t laugh enough.
The frogs have grown silent as have the crows. The voices in my head are still there and I try to shush them with the sound of the hoe. It is humid and the weather liars say it will reach near-ninety today. As I watched the sweat fly from my arms I realized the liars might be right.
My garden is late. Mother Nature has been an unwholesome witch for most of March, April, and May. If June follows suit, it will make a hard, left turn into hell. Too cold, too wet, thunderstorms and hail in March, snow in April. Near record rains in May and a tropical storm kickin’ up a ruckus in the Gulf and it is just the first week of June.
In between tropical systems, I finally planted tomato plants on May the fifteenth…exactly one month past our last frost date. The two-foot-tall plants are standing proudly and filling out in their cages, but it will be a while before my first tomato sandwich. I have one small tomato, it reminds me of a green marble. My guess is summer will be as harsh as the spring, but hope does spring eternal. Sure hope there is no Duke Mayonaise or white bread shortage.
It does not matter. For what I spend in plants, seeds, and fertilizer I could buy from the produce stands cheaper. It is not about the tomatoes, squash, and beans.
My gardening is about connections. Connections to the past, connections to past generations. I see my grandfather in his overalls leaning against his hoe, fedora on his head. My grandmother is in her feed sack dress, perspiration dripping off her nose, a huge straw hat on her head.
It is about connections to the land, even lands filled with rocks. I welcome the clank made the hoe making contact with a rock. I smile when it happens.
The image used is a watercolor, “Hoeing Turnips”, by Sir George Clausen http://www.artnet.com/artists/sir-george-clausen/hoeing-turnips-m85xrTGVVoEQTDt3k_TMhg2