Saturday, 29 March 2008

A Chesapeake Garden, by Elizabeth Ayres

At the party, Joe’s table contribution was two grocery sacks stuffed with salad greens, cucumbers, carrots and radishes, which I ignored when filling my plate because I hate cold crunchy food. But everywhere I turned that night, there was Joe, talking about his produce with the enthusiasm of a first-time astronaut just back from a stroll on the moon. “I want to see your garden,” I said, and that’s how I, maven of the frozen entree, ended up at Joe’s place last fall.

I hear us now. Me, giggling. Joe’s voice, exuberant. “Look at this,” he exclaims, “Chinese Red Meat Radish.” He whips out his pocket knife and slices into the white roundness. “It’s magenta inside, have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” I murmur an appreciative “No,” Joe continues, “It tastes every bit as good as it looks, sweet, crisp, great for stir-fries, and over here.” He points up the row, “German Heirloom Radish, more pungent.” Tenderly brushing back the mounded dirt, he sighs, “See that green shoulder? And this.” I hold my breath to the silent drum roll. “Black Spanish Radish.” Triumphant, he holds aloft a verdant sheaf from which dangles an ebony globe. “Grated, sliced, raw, fabulous with lentil soup,” he boasts. I make a sound I hope is sufficiently admiring of such versatility.

Over the next hour we will wend our way up and down the long rows, where every plant took seed first in Joe’s heart and he knows them as a mother knows the children of her womb. With him I will rave over the collard leaves, that look like some flower’s wild, green dream. I will wrinkle my brow, wondering, Will that tiny cabbage make it before first frost?

Joe’s friend, Mike, is in the far field, plucking kale to make Maryland Stuffed Ham for Thanksgiving. Joe will call out, “Make sure you get some broccoli, it’s absolutely gorgeous!” He will stoop down, straighten, place a rock in my open palm. “Part of the beauty of gardening here,” he says. “This land was settled long before we arrived.” The rock is triangular, knapped to a sharp point, notched at the broad end. My forefinger curls into the groove, brain slowly registering what hand had instantly learned: a fine digging tool.

It smells like the dirt it came from, seed-like promise of something both urgent and unfathomable. Shaped like a heart? A womb? I imagine I am the ancestor who wielded it, readying my store of implements for Spring, which isn’t even a green blush yet. The season of growth will be here soon. From planting to harvest I will know, even as I am known: a unique and irreplaceable beauty. Worthy of love and admiration.

And if this is what we all want, isn’t this also what we could give birth to? The whole world to be our carefully tended, our bounteous, our infinitely diverse, oh-so versatile and generously shared garden?

Maybe I’ll meet you at the party.
See National Geographic Apr 2007 Jamestown and the Powhatan 1607; America Found and Lost about Amerindian agriculture on the Chesapeake; scientists' report on Chesapeake 2006. For impacts on native ecosystems elsewhere in the world, see Rivers International film list.
Elizabeth Ayres is the author of Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005) and Writing the Wave (how-to, Perigee, 2000), and is completing American Dreamscape: Reflections from Chesapeake Bay Country, from which collection this essay is taken. She runs a Creative Writing Center with writing retreats on the Patuxent River.

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