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Monday, June 27, 2016

The Orchardist (which is the title of the book) and The Gardener (who is me)

A place to show her children: and you belong to the earth, and the earth is hard. - Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist

"In our society growing food yourself has become the most radical of acts. It is truly the only effective protest that one can do to overturn the corporate powers that be. By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do the one thing most essential to change the world-we change ourselves.” Some guy named Jules Darvaes said that. And then Pinterest lost its collective mind. Ooh, gardens are radical, and not even the Ninja Turtles way. Cool, cool. Wait. But then what's this?

  1.  The prophet said to plant a garden, so that's what we'll do.
    For God has given rich brown soil, the rain and sunshine too.
    And if we plant the seeds just right and tend them carefully,
    Before we know, good things will grow to feed our family.
  2. 2. We'll plant the seeds to fill our needs, then plant a few to spare,
    And show we love our neighbors with the harvest that we share.
    Oh, won't you plant a garden, too, and share the many joys
    A garden brings in health and love to happy girls and boys!

It says here in this LDS Primary song that growing gardens is showing obedience. So which is it? When we garden are we sticking it to the man who in this case is the industrial farming complex or are we literally following "The Man" AKA The Prophet who, if you are familiar with another LDS hymn, is to be praised? Is growing food for yourself only a rebellious expression if done while being tattooed and do plants only grow better if they're sworn at and spilled wine upon? Or is adhering to a religious leader's advice its own form of radicalism? Is the dirt under my fingernails a sign of blind obedience or is each pepper a little molotov cocktail? OK, when we're dealing with the habaneros I get that it is a very very fine line.

I think there might be a discussion in here somewhere. What if there's a blog post in here in which I can make bad garden puns? Oh boy. Who knew that a garden would be such fertile soil for political debate? 

I've been in and around gardens for my whole life. My grandpa's was famous in his small rural town of Taylor, Utah. My earliest memories of his house are of sitting next to a bucket and snapping beans and shelling peas. I remember making canoes out of the pea pods and floating them down the irrigation ditch. Eating watermelon on the lawn and playing with cousins until after dark.

Now my kids scour my mom's garden for strawberries. My youngest has earned the nickname "The Strawberry Whisperer" because she manages to find sweet berries well after the rest of us have given up and thought the patch to be empty. Also maybe she talks to strawberries? I don't know. She's the youngest. Sometimes we forget about her, Maggie Simpson style. There is a legend of my sister as a baby hating the feel of grass but loving strawberries, resulting in her crawling out to the patch and crying the entire way.

One year in junior high I lost all of my school books. Every one of them. I still don't know what happened. Sometimes we would sled on them during winter, but that seemed fine. I can't imagine that having anything to do with it. Anyway, it cost $80 to replace them. I had to work it off in my mom's garden at a rate of one dollar an hour. She still says it was the best garden she ever had. Now she pays migrant workers the same rate (JK!) (I think!).

Whatever the source of labor, that garden still provides all of the essential vegetables to make her famous salsa, which is actually the famous salsa of my sister's ex-boyfriend's mom, which is also my son's only source of vegetables. It provides so many bottles of green beans, which I hated as a kid but now love. Who knew that all of this time my mom was actually participating in the overthrow of tyranny? Were the seeds of my eventual political rebellion planted even then? Did I begin to fend for the working man while myself toiling for unfair wages? 

One time, after the corn had been harvested and the yellowed stalks still stood, I regarded them as enemy ninja warriors. With a broomstick as my samurai sword I struck them all down. While regarding the aftermath I looked up at the house to see my mom, aunt, and older cousin all looking through the window and laughing. I was at least 16. And I'd really gotten into it. Did I feel the burn of scorn while striking down my oppressors? Maybe I did. Did it stop me? You tell me. Have you tried to oppress me lately? I thought so.

My own garden started very humbly. I built raised boxes myself. And we experimented. The first year we only had enough soil to fill our smallest box. By the time we moved, though, it was pretty good! A small orchard consisting of two plum trees, a honeycrisp apple, a nectarine, peach, and rainier and bing cherry trees rounded it out nicely. I liked that house, and was sad to leave it. I loved that garden, though. Seeing the peach tree heavy with not-yet-ripe peaches was the hardest part.

Since moving we started over. This garden was my hardest task yet. What was once a weed patch filled with unworkable soil and massive rocks is now a rather tidy little food factory.

We turned a literal trash pile into an herb garden.

Crab grass into a garlic patch, and a sandbox into a locale for quiet introspection about dragons.

He did not expect her to be happy—how that word lost meaning as the years progressed—but he only wished her to be unafraid, and able to experience small joys.
When I go for runs, or walk around the neighborhood, I have a pretty good idea of whose garden is there because they heard a Primary song, and who is gardening in quiet rebellion. The obedient gardeners have a start. They got some gumption when it was still spring, and cool. They designated a corner of their yard, churned it into dirt, and planted some stuff, sure. But when it's hot out and the weeds have such onerous personalities that you start to name them and befriend them before destroying them - for as Ender Wiggin once said, "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him." - they stay indoors and turn the AC up and the Netflix upper.

What if there's something more to this? What if, when we think of trying to fix the world's ills, we think of our little corner of the Earth as a garden. And we say to that little patch of land, "This is where I make my stand. This is where I will work." We can't fight every weed, and if we try to it leads to madness (I know because it's part of my actual job), but we can fight this one. I can nurture this plant. I can't ensure that the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and tomatillos and cucumbers will make it, but I can make sure they get a shot. Because they are under my watch. 

And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction.
But what if we are only working this corner of the Earth because we've been told to? What if it's because our church or school or college degree demands it? Do we work when it's hot out? Do we see the wilting plant surrounded by weeds and mourn for it and get out there and help? Or do we do the work when we feel like it. When the weather is just right and the kids are bothering us and we need some time outside anyway.

This is an honest question I've been thinking about a lot. I know myself well enough to know that when I'm supposed to do something out of obligation, I drag my feet. I resent it. I don't like it when people from my church call me and ask if I visited the neighbors who I've been assigned to by someone who probably actually doesn't know my name and certainly doesn't know the first thing about me. Are my neighbors hurting? Maybe. Could they use my help? Almost certainly. Do I visit them? Oh good heavens no.

But the stuff I've decided to do on my own I put my entire soul into. If you're reading this and have volunteered with me maybe you're thinking "that's all his soul's got?" Sorry, I'm afraid it is. (Also thanks for reading and let me say that I respect you a lot) All I can say is in the just over a year since I started actively volunteering I've gotten more personal satisfaction out of it than in a lifetime of obligated service.
How like the orchard she was. Because of her slowness and the attitude in which she held herself -seemingly deferent, quiet- it appeared even a harsh word would smite her. But it would not. She was like an egg encased in iron. She was the dream of the place that bore her, and she did not even know it.
In Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist,  Talmadge works land in the Pacific Northwest. By the time we meet him he's managed his orchard for 40 years and is a master. He walks the land every day and sells his fruit at the market. At one point it was him and his sister, but her mysterious disappearance haunts him. Maybe it's because of this that he decides to help the two very young pregnant girls who he first notices after they steal his fruit.

The Orchardist is the kind of slow-moving story that feels fast. The orchard sounds like a beautiful place, and the people who come in and out of it are interesting and lovely. Talmadge helps other people in the same way he works on his orchard. With patience. He doesn't know people like he knows apricot trees, and he makes mistakes as he certainly must have done in his orchard and how we all do in our gardens. But like a good gardener, he learns from them and doesn't repeat them.

The story that unfolds is tragic, but when you sign up to help people who have been through terrible things, it often can be. It's also, in the end, worth it. When Talmadge takes risks, he does it because he feels he has to. He rebels. Maybe he learned that in the orchard.