We had a small window of time between rain showers to get our hands in the dirt and deliver the plants to their forever home—soil that would give them ample space to plant their roots.
This is the first year that Eden can participate in our garden. And by participate, I mean that she will make the whole enterprise more difficult. Gardening with a two year old sounds romantic, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we gave her a shovel and told her to get her hands dirty because this is how we learn to become human beings—Adam, from the dirt, or adamah. My own dad tolerated the muddy boots, squashed plants, endless questions, and hampering hands when we were children, and I will do the same with mine.
Norman Wirzba, one of my professors at Duke, calls gardening a form of catechesis, or instruction about becoming humans. Or, it’s Wendell Berry who says that gardening is a habit of the mind, though I’m not sure where it’s written. When we start to play in the dirt, we are reminded that we are made from it, created to serve it, and remain dependent on it for our survival. One day we’ll return to it. "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Gardening is not utilitarian for my family. We only have a few plants that will not produce enough fruit to justify the labor and headaches, not to mention the expense.
It’s the beginning of a long lesson in discipline, patience, and attention.
I grabbed a hoe and Eden grabbed a small, plastic rake to start to break up the soil and remove the weeds. There’s already a lesson here—deep care must be taken to provide the best conditions for something to grow strong and produce fruit. Weeds grow effortlessly, while it takes tremendous care and attention to nurture something delicious. If you don’t tend to your life, your soul, the next time you turn around it might be full of briars.
Our collaborative labor didn’t last long; she took two or three swipes at the ground before discerning that ‘this is hard.’ It was humid from the morning’s rainfall and obvious that it would be much easier to drive two miles to Ingles and get a perfectly round, red tomato. Or better yet, we could pinch both sides of a bag of goldfish crackers and pull it open.
Why are we digging in the soil?
I'm afraid that the work won’t get easier. Just wait until a groundhog comes and takes off the top of the plants or the aphids get hungry for a little sap. If it were easier to grow food, then millions wouldn’t go without every day. We learn to thank the hands that care for our daily bread and harvest each fruit—drive it from farm to market. The self-emptying of others keep us full. It’s an act of prayer. Our hands fold in the dirt we offer thanksgiving for the goodness of lives, creation, and our particular place in the world.
As we dug a hole for the first plant, I accidentally struck an earth worm with the shovel. It began wiggling and writhing around in the dirt, much like I had pulled a fishing hook through it. I picked up the worm, held it, invited her to touch it. This was traumatic. She took off toward the opposite end of the yard. It’s hard to look at suffering. We'd rather pretend that our food doesn't have to die--that we won't suffer or die. You can ignore this inconvenient fact at the supermarket, but on the farm you become an active participant in life and death. The worm may live, but countless other microorganisms will die. As my professor said, “How do we become worthy of receiving another’s death?”
We place the plants in the dirt, which is Eden’s favorite part of the whole experiment. She pushed the mound of dirt closer to the stem, and pated it down. The dirt became wedged in between her fingernails and skin. It is good, even when navigating fungi, infestations, and temperamental heat and rain, because something delicious will emerge. It’s an act of hope. There will be seed, a plant, and then a bell pepper will hang from a stalk in her own backyard. And she may not care for the taste, but she’ll learn about hope—it only takes a seed for new creation to bloom.
When I was a little older than Eden, I planted a green bean plant in a small container and cared for it and watered it all summer. The plant sprouted one bean fruit by the end of the season. But I was the mediator of the whole miraculous process, seed to fruit. I harvested the bean and told my mom that “I wanted to be a seller of green beans.”
Isn’t this our vocation? Our Gardening God brought us forth from the dirt of the ground and we’re called to participate in the miracle of life. We serve the soil and it serves us. We become more human, or more of whom we were intended to be, reflections of God.
Every day we go out and check the plants. “Nothing yet,” I say. “We’re still growing.”
Pax: a greeting signifying Christian love ; kiss of peace.