In the cultivation of my gardens, which I have pursued almost as strenuously as the cultivation of my mind (and with equally spotty and indeterminate success), there comes a time when enough is enough. The tomatoes are still producing fruit, though in the cooler nights they simply won’t ripen, broken green promises on yellowing vines. Aging katydids saw stridently away in the autumn clematis which has given up its perfume and now chokes the arbor with its filamentous old bloom, and even September’s late full moon, hazy through the exhalations of a landscape heavy with dust and harvest, stalls among the ash tree’s emptying boughs, seeming to lag in its brightness, numbed and dim.
Garden fatigue, I call it. Mostly a spiritual malaise, it’s a kind of hangover after the excesses of summer. The potatoes have been dug, cured, and arrayed in small piles on shelves in the darkest corner of the basement; colanders full of green beans have been trimmed and blanched and frozen then stacked in standing bags in the freezer like files packed with the testimonials of abundance. The apples are sauced, the onions stored, while in the ground, the late mesclun and radishes are up and going in the crisping days.
But I feel a weariness, a paralysis of body and spirit, that deadens the push I feel earlier in the season to make sure that all my work comes to fruition, that the discipline of beginning the thing, and then ending it, is all. Now I can walk down the driveway and not care if something needs tied up, or pulled down, or composted, or burned. Waste and Sloth haunt me like Original Sin—You there: still some beans that need picking! Hey: walking onions that need re-setting! Yo: carrots—right there! abandoned to the grave! And what do I do? Nothing. Walk away.
Young people who, in the spring, are all enthusiasm and strength to get a plot in the school’s community garden built, filled with good soil, then planted, are, by this time of the year, long gone from their gardens, which now shower weed seeds all around, and which are littered with the leached orange skins of once sweet red cherry tomatoes. A few fallen bean pods clench like severed fingers amid a scatter of weed leaves and debris.
I used to blame the kids, but not so much anymore. Sociologists have a term for the equivalent in their own work: compassion fatigue. Too many addictions. Too many unhealed injuries to the soul and spirit. Too many clients with no direction. Too few solutions to pressing problems. Too little money wrenched or cajoled or legislated away from impacted, poisonous, self-congratulatory wealth to distribute to the suffering poor in the richest land in the world. Too many small-scale Katrinas and Sandys and Sandy Hooks in every Ninth Ward of America. Too many wars and causes for more wars lurking in the ruling class’s pysche, and in the insatiable military-industrial complex, all of it sowing guilt and resentment and then remorse among the franchised and disenfranchised alike.
So it is in the garden. From the first muscle-stretching labors of March, getting the potato beds ready, clearing away the last Fall debris, muscling new rocks into a gap in the wall, raking and carrying the last leaves tumbling from holdfast oaks, turning the half-frozen compost piles—those were almost ecstatic opportunities to get outdoors, to get the body back into shape, to ready the ground and the season and the spirit again. But then the disciplines of cultivation, rotation, harvesting, then planting once more, in a hurry to beat the first autumn frost: a person is worn down. By September, it’s become a matter of will and character, a push against the coming weight of winter—no longer the exhilirating rejuvation of things as it was in spring, but the deep awareness of drought, freeze, deseutude, decay.
Forever rise and decline, ripening and rotting, germinating and drying up, forever systole and diastole.
And it is an essential part of anyone’s education. Some kind of husbandry—the caring for a little plot of land, a few dozen rows of spinach or beans or radishes, raising a few chickens or a pig, the kind of agricultural work which Thomas Jefferson held to be necessary to a functioning democracy—I would guess there’s a gene for it in nearly everyone, but unacted upon by what is becoming a diconcerting number of American people. It is not primarily an education in success, but an education in failure, an education in the tragedy of things, an education in the often inexplicable—and apparently unintelligent—design of creation. One year the squash succumb almost immediately upon blooming to squash bugs and vine wilt; the next year, they flourish and create peck baskets full, while something else languishes and gives up. Forever rise and decline, ripening and rotting, germinating and drying up, forever systole and diastole.
Hold steady, one can say, and there are things that will, indeed, go the way you need them to go. Sawing a board. Writing a sentence. Raising a roof. Say “hold steady” in a garden, and there’s no guaranteeing what will happen. For weeks, you’ve waited for the asparagus beans to bloom; for a couple of days you’ve not attended to them and now the pods are two feet long, almost beyond their prime. An outbreak of bugs swarm the crookneck squash; flea beetles plague the mustard.
But husbandry means you’re in for the whole deal; remember, husbands participate in a marriage, for better or worse. You’re in for the back aches and the pain of your aggravated plantar fasciitis. You’re in for the occasional cut which fills with compost and mud and then turns itchy and red with infection. You’re in for the sick chicken whose vent needs clearing, or the pig that abcesses, or the dog mauled by the groudhog it killed.
No wonder then that relatively few people get serious about gardening or small-scale urban farming. (A recent article on urban gardens in New York City bemoaned the fact that less that 800 people in that vast metropolis sustained an urban gardening effort—this despite the 25,000 available gardening acres, according to a Columbia University study.) It’s a second job, or a third, for many of us; in the summer, it gets us up early to feed and water the chickens, to work the beds before it’s too hot, and in the winter, it draws us out into the wet and freeze, into the dark and wind, into the occasions of despair.
Which is exactly why it is necessary to the schooling of a mind and a soul. Sitting before a screen all day is a kind of captivity; I look in on my non-teaching colleagues at work, and almost everyone is hunched before their computer, squinting, faces pallid in an electronic glow. (I am this way as well, but I resist, mostly, doing only the basic minimum on-line grade and attendance reporting.) I do not feel sorry for, or superior to, them as much as I feel outraged that civilzation should come to this. Hunger and poverty and homelessness on all sides, and most of us have forgotten how to do the things that would most immediately help: how to plant and grow things, how to put up and preserve things, how to enact our obligations to share in the privilege of hand work helping Creation.
There’s the deepest root, I think, of my garden fatigue: the wearing down of my faith in culture by my daily witnessing of what appears to me its increasing denaturing and its decreasing useful robustiousness. Sure, there’s a lot of lip service paid to exercise, and here and there huffles of colorfully clad joggers and bicyclists make it seem that at least part of the country is healthy. But sitting around and texting, walking and messaging, lounging and watching TV, eating out at fast food restauraunts, so many of us are breathlessly soft, and getting softer. Soon, I fear, we’ll just, like punctured amoebae, slowly leak away.
Richard Hague continues to live and work in Cincinnati after 45 years of teaching ended with his refusal to sign an objectionable Archdiocesan contract. He is at work on several projects, including Beasts, River, Drunk Men, Garden, Burst & Light, collected sequences and long poems, forthcoming from Dos Madres Press. He operates Erie Gardens, a small urban farm, in his neighborhood of Madisonville. He recently gave the Hughes Lecture and a reading at West Liberty University, and launched the 2014-2015 Reading Series at Northern Kentucky University.