Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gardening in The Spirit of My Father

My father, Arden Jones, taught me to love the land.  Above is a photo of him, not long before he died in 2001.  He is with my two oldest daughters in the garden he helped us to build and cultivate here in Novato.  Although my father was not well when this photo was taken, I  love it, because that was him, to the very end, crouching down in a garden to investigate, smell, taste, cherish and honor everything about the living world.  While most obituaries list professional achievement, the main paragraph of my father's read:  "He was especially fond of spiders, ticks, bats and other tiny beings who he felt might be misunderstood or under-appreciated," ... and, "His ability to find magic under every stone made him a friend, in particular, to young children." We all loved to be with him in nature.  You can see in my younger daughter's face what he was able to inspire ...pure wonder.

One of the reasons I am so enjoying the Indian Valley Organic Farm is because Steve Quirt and Wendy Johnson are bringing me home to a lot of what my father understood and tried to share with me about gardening.  As an adult child working beside him I remained semi-rebellious, and would often purposefully focus on something like arrow-straight rows, wanting to know that we were following the plan.  I was fastidious when he was open-hearted and experimental.  I was sometimes impatient with the way he loved to tuck things in here and there, encouraging me to watch and see which plants liked each other, and how they would do in a particular soil.  I couldn't understand why he insisted on hand-watering so many plants when the entire modern world was using irrigation tubing..   I often doubted his relaxed, trusting approach to the wildness of growing environments. 

My father was patient with gardens, so they  thrived and grew magnificent and productive in his care.  His gardens drew insects, and, of course, all sorts of critters.  He created spaces that brought children looking for mystery or adventure or solace.  His gardens also brought adults,  looking for peace, or the comfort of a sweet tomato.  Or, sometimes, just looking for their children.

When my siblings and I were young, my father drove our family across country in the summer so we could spend time in the woods of Nova Scotia, Canada.  These were the same woods where he and his mother spent time, where she had shared with him all she had learned from her father.  My father came from a line of people who believed nature carried all of the wisdom we humans might need.  The danger for this type is a tendency toward misanthropy or isolation in the modern world, some of which we boast in our family lineage.  My father was not particularly adept at managing in the modern world, but he seemed to truly enjoy being with others in a garden or in the wilderness.  He was a guide and a fellow explorer. He was a large man, but he always crouched down, as if to make himself smaller in the face of nature.

One of my earliest memories of solitude was lying down within one of my father's gardens, the one that grew beneath my childhood home.  When things felt too complex in the house, there was just enough space for me to settle in between his towering rows of corn, beans, and squash.   From that perspective, the yellow squash blossoms looked like delicate fans, and seemed to carry the whole sun in their translucence.  Scarlett Runners tangled around the corn stalks, their beans dangling like fanciful earrings.  A wayward Morning Glory vine, jeweled with blue blossoms, reached across the divide between the rows to create a shade canopy.  Resting there I felt small and unknown to the world, like a snail, or a beetle.  And I felt safe.

My children often wander down to what we call "Grandpa's Garden" here at our home.  It is overgrown and wild, depending on the extent to which I tame it.  They disappear there on summer evenings, and I know they are munching on grapes or blackberries, maybe trying to keep a straight face when they taste sour sorrel leaves, a game he taught them.  One evening a few years after my father died, when one of my daughters was seven, she stayed in the garden for hours.  Finally I called her for dinner and when I asked what she had been up to all that time she said matter-of-factly, "Oh, I was just down there talking to Grandpa."

I do feel sometimes, when I am digging my hands in, turning the soil, that my father is speaking to me.  I hear him, asking me if I don't see how wonderful it is, all the life that dwells there in that one handful of soil?  He encourages me to stop, to take a moment, to relish those fine thread-like tendrils, to see what it is, after all this time, finally, miraculously, sprouting from seed.

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