Warm day. Dry soil. Early spring. It’s groundbreaking day in the garden.
I go out to negotiate with ol’ Dobbin, my middle-aged rototiller. She’s getting a bit stiff in the joints and cranky at times, but, if you talk gently to her and coax her choke just right, she’ll start up eventually and put in a few hours of work.
Good work, too. Like a weaver at the loom, I work my way across and back over my plot, watching the pattern of prepared earth emerge line by line. As my body starts to sweat, my soul begins to swell with the thick smell of turned soil. With the tussle of cool air against warm sun. With the hope of new life in the ground.
This rich mixture of feelings, a perfect mood of tranquil excitement, is broken on only one plane: noise. There’s nothing exalting about rototiller roar in your ears. Like most of us in this mechanical age, I’ve learned to largely tune out such aural messages and concentrate on the other sensual blessings of early-season gardening. Occasionally, though, that never-ending wave of sound makes me envy the gardeners who quietly spade their soil. Or the few farmers left who pop open their sod with the slicing “schissss” of a horse-pulled plow. True, not enough envy to make me actually work up my whole garden by hand. I’m too lazy or selfish with my time, I guess.
I keep tilling parallel lines, joyful and intent on the ribbon on ribbon of soft, dark earth. But every once in a while, the noise intrudes and reminds me that—let’s be honest—I’m chainsawing the soil. Running a two-wheeled Cuisinart through sleeping, brown earth. But, I quickly reason, all gardeners assault the soil. The hand-tool digger whacks big clods into little ones with a garden fork. The horse plow throws huge rolls of earth turtlelike onto their backs.
I wrestle the tiller through a tight 180-degree turn, flinging myself around in a half-circle, and start down the next row. My thoughts take a new turn, too. Gardening is not a natural activity.
Gather wild nuts and berries, forage feral fruits of the earth, if you want to be Joe (or Jo) Back-to-Nature. But don’t tell me that osterizing the earth into brown marbles, yanking out every plant that wants to sprout in the soil, and then inserting the foliage you chose where you chose is a natural activity.
The machine and I sputter to a halt. I gaze over the plot, envisaging its future, and my spring-inebriated self cries, “It is, too, a natural activity.” Soon these chocolate rows of earth will nurture the births of peas and flowers, little seedlings that, like tiny-fingered infants, tug chords of protectiveness from my heart. Soon transplants spoiled by the soft life of their indoor maternity ward will look to this plot I’ve prepared for succor, for home. Soon the sodden brown soil will turn green with life, a green flecked with yellow, blue, red, orange, pink, white. Bees, toads, and butterflies will join the increasing revel in its bounds.
I check the tiller. Relief—luckily, all it needs is gas. I refuel so again I can switchback down my garden road. First, though, I kneel down, pick up the gas cap, and palm some of the prepared earth. It’s dark, rich, loose. Five years ago, when I started this garden, it was pale, lean, slick. Cover crops and compost, fertilizer and time have turned this clay into loam. I, human, have intervened, but my efforts have steered this garden’s life, made it better.
Earth in hand, mind on soil, the relationship becomes clear. Gardening is an interface, a connecting portal. I tell the life I sow what I want it to do. It replies by what it does and doesn’t. I listen to those answers, devise a response, and try again. With this dialogue, I delve into the language of another species, nay, another phylum, trying to translate–to serve it better so it can better serve me.
The broader lessons of gardening aren’t the same as those learned from wilderness: maxims about the need for untrampled nature. They are teachings in communication, interdependence, and relationship, human with earth. They are a continuing-education course in getting better at getting along, finding a way to fit on this planet, one where people, as well as flowers, belong.
I set down my handful of soil, recrank the engine, and, once again, head the tines down a row. Grateful for my garden. For my tiller. For this exhilarating day.
And, noise and all, for another chance to break spring ground. ❖