The island in the center of my kitchen is red upon green. These are not the colors of the countertop; they are the decorations provided by our absurdly productive garden. Zucchini the size of nuclear submarines, cucumbers big enough to club a Grizzly bear to death, string beans and snow peas all the way around the block, and tomatoes … oh my goodness, the tomatoes this year, beefsteak and early-girls and cherries coming through the damn window, a riot of red.
The smell on my fingertips after I do a harvest is … I suppose “humbling” would be the proper word. I don’t have another one, and I lack the adequate vocabulary to explain the scent, or the product. Nothing I will ever do can equal the simple beauty that grows from the ground. The counter is covered, and the kitchen windowsill is likewise packed to the final inch. Once I’m done blanching, blending and freezing the tomatoes, I’m never going to have to buy a can of sauce again, and I will make lasagna this winter by the long ton.
There’s a ritual involved. One morning early this summer, when the grass was spring-long and riddled with dandelions and busy bees, I wore sandals to the garden and got stung on the foot for my trouble. Now, therefore, it’s a sturdy pair of shoes, a broad gardening hat, my old work gloves and a canvas bag to collect whatever has arrived. I swim through an ocean of goldenrod to get there, and my nose quite simply sings. The garden, encased in stone, hums like a live transformer from the tilling of the insects. I pay them no mind, and they pay me less. We work, and then we feast.
Here’s the thing about a garden: You sit there, weeding or seeding or planting or picking, and the whole time you’re saying to yourself, “Well, next year, I’m going to do this different” or “that different” or “I’m going to try something new.” In the verdant green of that present moment, with the soil under your nails and the hot lovely stink of life on your fingers, you dream of tomorrow, of what may be, and the bees hum your name as you do. Gardens are about the future.
I sat in the garden on Thursday under the shade of my wide-brim hat, picked beans and tomatoes with my gnarled old gloves, listened to the bees ignoring me, smelled the earth, felt the sun on my skin, paused in that basic splendor, and thought of New Orleans. Ten years ago Friday, a storm half the size of Texas hit that old blues town in the teeth, and the ocean rose, and the sky fell, and the jazz stopped in jangled discordance, and everyone ran for their lives.
And the people were abandoned. It took George W. Bush and his mob of hapless brigands days simply to get water to dying citizens in one of the most important and iconic cities on the continent. Why? Because the people were Black, and poor? Because Bush and his people were incompetent beyond the bounds of useful language? Because greedy people plundered the levee budget to the tune of nine figures to “fund” the Iraq war prior to the storm? Yes, in my humble opinion, on all three counts.
Native Americans had lived for more than a thousand years in and around what became the city of New Orleans when the French founded it in 1718. In the War of 1812, the British attempted to capture the city, but were thrown back by Andrew Jackson and a ragtag band of defenders. The Port of New Orleans is as important to the world as the femoral artery is to the body. It is history, distilled.
The unique musical phenomenon called jazz emerged in the late nineteenth century in New Orleans as musicians like Buddy Bolden fused elements of blues and ragtime on the heels of Papa Jack Laine. Nick LaRocca and Jelly-Roll Morton followed, along with Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Ellis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Harry Connick, Jr., for openers. All of the musicians who enjoyed a role in the creation of this nation’s unique music culture have played their asses off there, often more than once.
So I sit in my garden, girded by dirt and green and growth, I smell life … and I think of New Orleans. Ten years ago, the sea rose up and did damage the likes of which we’ve never seen. People were scattered to the wind, the Lower 9th Ward was subsumed and then devoured by developers, fast after the buck to be plucked from the wreckage left behind by good people in flight. Wreckage upon wreckage.
I remember Katrina. But I also remember “Acknowledgement.” I remember “Kind of Blue.” I remember “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” I remember the blues, and jazz, and the long river that raised them both like a pair of talented, fussy children in a Louisiana port city that smells like life.
And I remember, in my own little patch of earth, that everything grows back soon enough, given time. The ground looks to tomorrow, because that’s all it has. My garden, and New Orleans, know the truth of this full well.