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Frequent Gardener Miles

It looks like a wild-haired Medusa on a stick. Flip it one way, and its nine-inch tines dig deeply into the ground, plowing the earth into deep furrows. Flip it the other way, and its sharp, twirling teeth and blades cut off and pull up the strongest strand of quack grass. I'm in the toolshed, wetstone in hand, sharpening the tines of this rotary cultivator, or gartenblechle, as the Amish call it.

The gartenblechle is an ancient-looking tool that found its way into the sheds of thousands of gardeners before the advent of rototillers. The gartenblechle runs on human power. It has no 2-cycle oil, no spark plugs or pull cords. I sit here in the shed toward the end of winter and dream of traveling down the garden rows in the spring with my cultivator, making progress, making time. I glance out the window at the greening pasture and realize that garden travel may be the wave of the future.

"We'll just have to travel less," my gardening friend Marc said one afternoon. We were driving through central Minnesota toward Iowa, the fields frozen with snow, waiting for the spring thaw, anticipating the tillage of the soil and the new sprouts of corn and beans making their way through the earth. We were on our way home from a conference where I'd given a keynote lecture on a college campus before an audience of about three hundred people. Marc had had a couple days of blissful relaxation at the guesthouse of a nearby retreat center. We were discussing global warming and the practical approaches that the world was going to have to take to tackle the issue.

"We now have the technology to allow you to stay at home and project yourself on a screen before an audience," he said. "There's no need for you to make a trip like this."

A pit opened in my stomach. I knew Marc was right. Global warming is a horrible situation that needs to be confronted immediately. But the thought of losing a lifestyle for environmental gain was scary. After all, there we were driving along in Marc's Jeep Cherokee, comfortably warm in late winter, stopping when we wanted, going our own way. And this trip to Minnesota was just a small two-day jaunt for the two of us. During the course of the last couple of years, we had both traveled abroad several times — me to Scotland and Trinidad and Tobago, Marc to Turkey and France. Oh, sure, I thought, I could have given up the trip to Minnesota, even though I saw some fascinating history and people. But can I really curb my desire to see other countries and cultures?

A few decades ago, no one thought of flying around the globe. Travel was expensive and dangerous, and took a lot of leisure time. Only the very wealthy, the very adventuresome, or the very foolhardy became world travelers. If you wanted to see the world, you joined the military. I started my freshman year of college in 1969 with the hope that some day, some day, I might be able to practice my schoolbook French in its native land.

Today, more and more high-school language learners have had a total immersion experience before they even reach college. We jet back and forth across continents, broadening our cultural bases, widening our perspectives, and becoming citizens of the world. Hasn't all this travel made us more sophisticated, more aware of our environment, more open to new experiences, to different kinds of people? If we stop traveling, won't we become more narrow minded, more provincial? How can we give all this up? Here's how: Garden travel.

Let's "stay home and tend our gardens." Let's travel down the rows of vegetables and flowers instead of in polluting cars and airplanes. Before you groan and say how quaint, let's stop and really think about this. Okay, we'll start gardens, lots of gardens. Gardens keep people grounded. You can't be traipsing around the world burning up fossil fuel for long periods of time when you have a garden. Rabbits eat the peas. Lettuce bolts. Weeds take over the broccoli patch. You have to be on top of things in a garden. Pay attention. You need to notice when the tomato hornworms appear and pick them off the vines before plants are devoured. If you're a serious gardener, you don't want to be away during the growing season.

basket of vegetablesI have a medical condition that requires me to eat all-organic food, so I have a huge stake in my garden. If I don't garden, I have to spend large wads of money buying what little organic food is available in my small Midwestern town. The desire for travel dims when you are intent upon your own survival. Instead, you turn your attention to your basketful of luscious peppers, cabbage, or summer squash, vegetables that need to be harvested at just the right moment to guarantee their freshness and quality.

People have often asked me why I don't shut the door and go to Europe for the summer. And come back to what? I ask. A few limp heads of broccoli shipped a thousand miles from California in January? Or a tangle of overgrown beans and rock-hard okra.

Of course most people don't have my urgent need to garden. And for a long while, I tugged at the roots that tied me to the garden. But after thirty years of tilling and hoeing down one row and up another, I've discovered a sense of exploration and discovery within my garden walls. My garden provides all those winter onions, beets, and turnips. But what intangible compensation do I get from my garden? How does it make up for my lost frequent-flyer miles? I like to travel to get distance on my life situation. I can travel to New York City or I can travel to Pisgah, Iowa, and have the same experience. I don't have to be in a different location long to be able to view my difficulties with more perspective. A problem that seems unanswerable will suddenly solve itself when I put my head down on a motel pillow. The act of physically stepping away from an actual place on the map allows one to attain a new point of view.

When I step down the rows of my plot, pushing the gartenblechle, I am in a different space and time. I forget my cares that I keep inside the house, and travel to a new place — even if it is just a few paces from my front door. When I step into my garden, I often experience the same fresh perspective that I do when I step off the plane in London or in Port of Spain. A delight in the newness of the place combines with a detachment from the old environment. With detachment comes shrinkage. In an airplane, you look down toward the ground and your own city seems small, insignificant, just a part of a web of cities on the map. In my garden, I look back at the house and it, too, seems tiny, merely a part of the neighborhood. Could I then have concerns that are any larger or different than my neighbors'?

We are all unique human beings and our gardens are unique entities. No one grows the same plants with the same varieties. No one sketches out the same garden design. No one uses the exact same ingredients in a compost pile. But everyone who has gardened has felt the pull of the tines of the plow through the soil and seen earthworms squiggle through the earth. And everyone who has gardened knows that we didn't invent this activity. We owe a big debt to all the gardeners who have come before us.

I'm grateful to them all, from those ancient agriculturists who buried seeds on their ancestors' graves and discovered that plants sprang forth, to the more contemporary tinkerers who gave us the likes of the gartenblechle. With this recognition of our unity comes a great release of tension. We are all webbed together through our involvement with the earth. Our roots are interwoven through our actions. Each time we press a broccoli seedling into the ground and watch it blossom into a fully developed plant, we become a community, something larger than our own isolated selves in our own plots. Our roots are interwoven through common ground.

Anxiety shrinks when you travel through the garden and realize how few of your strivings and desires matter in the larger scheme of things. Someday the earthworms will be all that there is. So, I'll stay home and start my seedlings on the table near the window. I'll do without chemical fertilizers and pesticides that add even more CO2 emissions to the environment. I'll leave my Mantis® tiller in the shed and take up the gartenblechle. I'll do the garden work by hand. The next time I'm asked to give a keynote address, I'll suggest that I not make the actual trip. Instead, I will project my virtual self on a large screen before the audience. I'll give that a try. There, before a real audience, I'll look larger than life. But here in the toolshed, my hand gripping the cultivator's smooth handle, my face looking out the window over the valley that dips and bends toward the horizon, I feel small. Very small.

Graphics Credits

  • All images © Mary Swander. All rights reserved.
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