A couple of weeks later, I returned to the SEEDS garden and started digging. Hillary the expert gardener directed me to help level ground for new beds. The work was not intuitive to me. Here was a lovely slope of green earth that Hillary had marked to transform into plots for community gardeners. The old plots had been deemed too small and too close to the infamous persimmon tree. The tree itself hung over them, casting its lush shade onto the earth and blocking easy passage between them. So the plots would move. But why were we digging up earth to make it flat?
She patiently pointed to the slope, “Do you see? It needs to be flattened.”
I didn’t see, I just kept digging where Hillary pointed, the mini-mounds that raised themselves from the ground in an explicitly undesirable manner. Was this some sort of type-A gardener’s joke on the naive volunteer: inglorious busy work? Sigh.
“The slopes would make the wooden garden boxes difficult to construct,” she confirmed.
I’d never prepared ground for a garden plot. I was just happy to be of service to the garden, and so I dug a patch of grass, weeded out the root system and spread the freed dirt wherever Hillary pointed.
After about an hour, I began to take note of what we were accomplishing: a face-lift, smoothing out undulation in the top surface, relaxing the curvatures, filling in the folds. The area became flatter, the slope more consistent, lower now, a plane surface being readied for its frame and canvas.
We pulled old pieces of moldy wood from the pile behind a shed. Hillary and I piled them one on top of the other into a simple cart and pulled it over maybe 20 or so yards to the bed area. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Hillary is a goddess in cargo pants. She is one of innumerable earth-workers who expertly read the rhythms of the earth, manipulate its inconsistencies, and break ground into fertility. Hillary chooses this work, was schooled for it, seeded her passion for functional art with her calling to landscape design. The earth is indeed her canvas.
Here, at SEEDS, she is a teacher, a guide, a composer of lines upon which community folks strum their green-thumb songs into modest plots of vegetables which they may or may not eat, much less need. The community garden is both a necessity and a luxury. It is a poetry of the erotic, as Audre Lorde might have noted.
The simplicity of garden work, the elegance of the body moving and shaping earth, is a meditation that moves me. Like most community gardeners, I do not work every day in a farm; I am not beholden to the yoke of agricultural industry for my livelihood. The acts of earth labor are a pleasure to me, in part because they are rare.
At its best, gardening is a yogic practice—reminding me to straighten my back, tightening my core muscles, bend with the knees, breathe the scent of dirt under nails and thank ants that bite despite protective pants. Be quiet. Breathe. Train the eye on the infinitesimal, opening from roots, routing blockages, flowing into the expanse, reacquainting one with the earth in one’s self.
fruit of the earth and
i am so far from home
until i travel through
my own mouth