There is something about working outside in my yard that is primal. I throw myself so totally into the tasks of planting and feeding and weeding that I eventually resemble a wild woman with my matted hair and dirty fingernails. My arms and legs and clothing bear the stains of the dirt in which I luxuriate. I’m no Martha Stewart with cute rubber boots, a fashionable hat and perfectly coiffed hair as I tackle the tendencies of nature to challenge me in planning a lovely vista for the plot of land that is my domain. By the time that I finish my work I resemble someone who has been living on the streets without access to soap or water. My muscles, my back and my knees ache from the contortions to which I must subject them in order to keep my garden in tip top shape. There is nothing glamorous about the labor I do in my yard, but somehow it brings me so much contentment that it works quite well to soothe any anxieties that might be stalking me. It’s rewards are immediate and tangible unlike so many of my other duties.
I sometimes feel as though I carry genetic tendencies to luxuriate in the back breaking labor of gardening. All four of my grandparents thought of growing and caring for plants as a glorious pastime. My grandmothers tinkered with their flowers daily and my grandfathers dreamed of becoming independent of markets with the produce from their bountiful crops. Both men toiled on less than satisfying jobs for decades, dreaming of a time when they might own enough land to be known as farmers. One grandfather eventually achieved that goal. The other died before it became a realization. There is something in my own nature that compels me to hold dirt in my hands and watch my plants bursting forth with color or bounty from one season to another.
I remember going to visit my paternal grandmother as a child and taking walks with her to gaze at the wonders of what she had grown. She was known for an ability to reproduce any kind of plant. Someone once joked that she could take a dry dead stick and bring it to life. She rarely purchased vegetation at a nursery. Instead she worked with seeds and cuttings from friends. Both she and my maternal grandmother caught rainwater in barrels and took the time to lovingly water each plant by hand. They collected egg shells, coffee grounds and unused portions of fruits and vegetables to enrich the soil of compost heaps. The food they gave their flowers and bushes and trees came from the recycling of nature’s bounty. It took time and much effort to grow the magnificent specimens that decorated their yards but theirs was a labor of love and a desire to keep the earth beautiful.
Neither of my grandmothers had much formal education. They were unable to read or write, and yet the knowledge of gardening that they held in their heads was encyclopedic. Sadly I was too young to take full advantage of what they knew. I never dreamed that I would one day be as taken with growing things as they were. Had I known that my obsession with gardening would grow as much as it did I might have taken notes and garnered their expertise. They certainly were unable to leave a written record of their practices. Experience was their only guide.
I had a lovely compost heap at my last home. I lived in a neighborhood unencumbered by rules from an HOA. I chose a spot behind my garage that was visible to my neighbors who seemed unconcerned with the unsightly mound. They instead used the times when I added scraps to the soil to talk with me over the chain link fence that separated our property. We conversed quite often and got to know each other well. The loveliness of such moments made my gardening experience even more precious. It took on a communal nature that brought me happiness and security.
Now I generally work behind a wooden fence that is lovely but has the unexpected consequence of keeping me from really knowing the people who live around me. I have privacy but few opportunities to talk with them as we all come and go in a continual rush to complete the tasks of our lives. Most of them hire people to mow their lawns, put mulch in their flowerbeds and generally tend to the upkeep of their yards. When they are outside it is usually behind the wall of the fence so that we hear them but cannot see them. Like the neighbors in the old television show Home Improvement we may catch a glimpse of the tops of their heads if they are especially tall, but little more. We make promises to get together but time passes quickly and the right moment rarely comes to do more than just smile and wave as we go about our individual lives. I sometimes long to tear down the barriers that separate us but instead I just toil quietly on my own.
Working in my garden is a joy. It releases so much serotonin into my brain that I feel as though I have taken a powerful happy pill. I feel close to the earth, to my ancestors, and even to those neighbors that I cannot see. I enjoy the sounds of life and laughter along with the buzzing of the bees and the chirping of the birds. I like the idea of providing a home for butterflies and hummingbirds and tiny lizards and dragon flies. It’s a dirty job in the heat of the south, but one that brings me more happiness than I might ever describe.
As I grow older I am less able to spend hours working outside. I recall the time when my grandmothers eventually abandoned their adventures with nature. They became unable to tackle all of the work that a splendid garden requires and their lovely collections of flowers turned to seed. I dread the thought of becoming that way so I know I must take advantage of the energy and good health that I still possess while I can. Yard work is a lovely therapy for me. I intend to enjoy it while I can.