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Your Hands in the Soil: Tending the Garden of a Nation

“With my knees in the dirt and my hands busy, I find that gardening and activism are blood relatives.”

"With my knees in the dirt and my hands busy, I find that gardening and activism are blood relatives," writes William Rivers Pitt. (Photo: Pixabay)

On my kitchen counter lies treasure: 17 perfect cucumbers, three zucchinis including one large enough to double as a war club, one green pepper, one sweet onion and the long scallions from the onion which I can smell two rooms away that look like a green cat-‘o-nine-tails. This is only the first reaping; to follow are strawberries, three different kinds of potatoes, cilantro, parsley, more onions, more peppers, more cucumbers, more zucchinis, two different kinds of lettuce, snow peas, beans and — Fates be kind — 10 million tomatoes springing from 18 different plants. I tried for garlic, but the warm winter foiled me. So it goes.

I spent the day with this small harvest and its mother garden in a cool misting rain. Water ran lightly off the brim of my Farmer Will hat and dripped on my hands as I pulled the day’s yield. I dig the hat; when the sun is out, my shadow on the ground looks like Indiana Jones. At one point, a young porcupine trundled by, maybe as big as my shoe. We both paused and eyeballed each other, the porcupine in an abundance of caution and me in a smiling heartbeat of bliss, because who gets to see a damn baby porcupine? We concluded our mutual examination and went about our business. I laid in the pea trellises, staked a few tomato plants and called it a good day.

Serious gardening is meditation. It is a long pause in the cupped hand of life itself. There is a good deal of work involved in creating something from nothing, in taking a blank space and painting it green and red. I put my hands in the dirt and smell the soil between my knuckles, I feel the sun on my neck, I shoo away the early summer flies and plant at pace, seed here and seedling there. I watch the weather like a meteorologist to know when to water and when to let it ride because a soft rain beats the sprinkler any day. I watch the leaves for signs of yellow. I watch for buds and flowers. All the while, I am outside in an ocean of green and blue with hummingbirds and hawks and dragonflies, and I am also inside myself, diving deep as I perform the rote duty of tying a stalk to a stake.

With my knees in the dirt and my hands busy, I find that gardening and activism are blood relatives. They share the difficult act of creation, the labor required, the joy found in a successful bounty and the crushing sense of defeat when a crop is barren and wilts back into the soil. Gardening, like activism, is a worthwhile endeavor even if your bushels lay empty, because the effort yields its own rewards. There is also this: If I do not tend my garden, tend it every day, my crops will go to seed, the weeds will come to suck the nutrients from the soil, and the whole thing will collapse upon itself in a riot of rot and ruin. Gardening is every day. So is activism, and the weeds are forever busy.

These are hard times, filled to bursting with hard choices. You are left with two options: Surrender to the rot and ruin, or go to the garden and tend it. I choose the garden.

The thing about gardening is that it’s all about tomorrow. You work until your back screams laying new soil, planting new seeds and seedlings, watering, paying deep care to the smallest detail. You stand up and step back with the sweat pouring from your brow, and all you see is nothing. A blank space of potential unfulfilled. You dust yourself off, go inside, the sun comes out, the rain clouds mutter by … and then one day, like a magic trick, little fingers of green reach out from under the soil seeking the light. They grow. They gift food to sustain. You have to wait for it and work at it in equal measure, but it comes.

So it is with activism in these grim days. You have to get your hands dirty, you have to work hard, you have to care and you have to wait to see if the crop you’ve sown takes root and reaches for the sky. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but the effort truly does yield its own rewards, and the sun is patient.

Tend your garden.

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