Sowing the red suns of August

  • Illustration of gardening tools

 

This was my dream: I wanted vines obscenely thick with tomatoes, a constellation of what my friend John calls his "red suns of August." Early Girls and Romas; don't forget peppers and some cucumbers snaking around my feet as well, and a long hedge of basil. I wanted to walk into the garden, maybe barefoot in the summer heat, and casually and gently drape my hand over a basil plant and then bring its leaves up to my nose to savor the fragrance. I would keep a shaker of salt on my bench and make a dinner of sun-warmed tomatoes. The juice would dribble down my chin and I would rinse off under the bracing cool of the hose. I wanted a garden. I should have known better.

The garden soil was full of rusty nails and potshards and broken glass. My first eager spadeful bit into what looked like chunks of melted car battery, along with bricks and lengths of wire. No earthworms, no rich humus black as coffee grounds. All those things which my gardening books and magazines said were desirable in garden soil were absent unless I had overlooked the chapter on "The importance of scrap metal," or "Horseshoes as an iron source."

My wife, Carolyn, and I worked for small market farmers when we were in college, growing nearly everything from flowers and eggplants to expensive salad mixes full of weeds and bound for chic Bay Area restaurants. We got our hands dirty those years, and despite the backaches and sunburns we learned to love it. But now, living in the high desert of eastern Oregon, we had our work cut out for us.

Carolyn started flats full of vegetables, including little pots of herbs and peppers which, until we could trust the weather, we kept in the warm and damp of the laundry room. Occasionally I crept into the room and watched the first tiny leaves suddenly burst from the soil. With each sprout, I sighed like some proud father. During the day I went to work building raised beds and a cold frame of scrap lumber and hauling truckloads of clean, dark topsoil from the riverbank. The barn floor was a rich source of compost, though from the stack of library books I pored over at night, I learned of the devious weed seeds within just waiting to sprout.

But spring runs late at 4,200 feet above sea level, and it wasn't until the hot heart of summer that we planted a half-dozen of the tomato plants and peppers in raised beds and placed trays of lettuce in the cold frame.

As an act of faith, Carolyn moved the tender basil outside every day, and the delicate plants, though a bit confused by their mobility, slowly reached for the high summer sun. Some afternoons, she and I knelt in the garden, pulling at weeds until the soil left bruises on our knees and turned our skin to orange rind.

In Northern California my father tended a garden like some beautiful jungle when I was a young boy. In a 20-foot-square plot tucked behind a leaning picket-and-wire fence in the corner of the yard, he grew bushels of tomatoes and beans, and always a zucchini. In those few feet of earth for the golden months of summer he farmed.

Midsummer, he would pay us a dime for every tomato worm we picked off the vines; some years my sister and I made a small fortune in candy money. I remember their vivid colors, that peculiar false eye, the menacing horn on their backs rising to our fingers as we flung each worm into a Folger's can. A writhing green mass, their numbers seemed to multiply on the smooth mirror of the can's bottom. When I go home now, at age 32, the pay has climbed to $1.

First came a mid-July frost. In the diffuse morning light, the tomato plants shriveled black and tiny. The plants seemed to writhe in pain. And during that same night hungry deer discovered our garden. On my knees I sank two fingers into a hoofprint in the yielding soil of the tomato bed they had trampled while eating well.

As quick as that, the dream was over.

Gardens are, among other things, a turning away from fluorescent grocery-store aisles. A bountiful and productive garden is a taming of the wild - perhaps our first exposure as children to nature, a chance to hold a fat, green worm as it squirms in our fingers, to play in the mud and clay or do battle with an intrusive, but elusive ground squirrel.

I walk out into the yard and look at the tiny plants. Dead, bare; they rattle in the slight breeze. But the dream isn't over. Just across the fence my neighbor is finishing a second cutting of alfalfa - the air is moist and heavy with the stink of life as the swather cuts through the bright green fields, a string of gulls trailing the huge machine as if it's a ship he is piloting. As I watch him, and then lose sight of the swather as it tops a small rise, I start to understand what my father was after all those summers. I'll try again.

Gardening serves its own high purpose. Wherever they are, gardens give us back the generous gift of our innocence. In the garden I have learned the boldness of the deer - how they bed down unseen in the tall oats until nightfall, and then walk near the front porch of the house to pick at tender young plants. Deer move through my dreams, silent as fog.

Sean Gillihan lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

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