These Treacherous Days of Early Spring

Last week, I was volunteering at a friend’s Baltimore City farm—something I have done for a few weeks now and hope to continue for a while. This particular morning, a group of high school students had joined us to do various glamorous farm tasks like weeding, moving sticks, and digging trenches.

These were pretty thoughtful teenagers, interested in healthy food and gardening. As we were working, one asked me, “Why are you an urban farmer?”

I think I mumbled something unspecific about liking food and we both moved on—it wasn’t a significant moment, but it has been sticking with me. For starters, I don’t really consider myself to be an urban farmer or a farmer at all. The farmers I know are resilient, resourceful, knowledgeable about plants and bugs and soil, and endlessly cool. I’m not sure I’m any of those things….yet once a week, sometimes more, I show up at a place that calls itself a farm and I learn and work. In my own small garden (150 square feet, please and thank you), I have decent soil structure and worms aplenty and I’ve grown some delicious tomatoes, chilies, and salad greens over the years.

So if not a farmer, what am I? A cook? An artist? A gardener, a writer, a candlestick-maker? I think I’ve always really internalized the loose notion repeated in self-help media and at distant family gatherings that I need to find my purpose. But I’ve never really given myself permission to be something or claim something, let alone embody it. Farm, cook, grow, create, those are all things that I do, so why not things that I am? Either/both.

And my purpose? Why I am here, there, on a little lot in Baltimore, digging in the dirt? At the heart of it all, I think I like the journey. I don’t know where it’s going, but to be bound up with Nature is a gift. I like to create, make messes, tinker, dig holes, build, watch seeds grow, wage insect war, cut flowers, feed people, cook something delicious, make pickles, taste the perfect sundrenched September cherry tomato alone in silence, then share the rest at dinner. I’ve found the pleasure of making and sharing special with people I love.

Finally, I can’t quite say why, but the words below feel important to share along this train of thought. I’ve recently discovered Henry Mitchell’s garden writing and it’s touched my soul. He so often struggles against Nature and Nature usually wins, but what’s really worth loving isn’t victory, it’s the journey for a beautiful thing.

From The Essential Earthman, ‘These Treacherous Days of Early Spring,’ by Henry Mitchell:

When we complain of weather we are always on firm ground. It is not imagination or idle dreaming; there is excellent reason for complaint. This time of year, a day may bring temperatures of 90 or 25. You never know.”

I remember one year the daffodils reached such glory that almost any one in the garden would win a blue ribbon. One year. Once the trout lilies outdid themselves. Several times the azaleas had no blemish anywhere. The gardener, naturally, remembers those years and is in a snit for decades afterward if the insolent wind presumes to blow. He remembers the year it didn’t.

The truth is, of course, that there is no day of the early spring that is safe. Usually, after the gardener has carried on a good bit and made life miserable for a number of people, the weather settles back and the gardener stops hollering everything is going to die. But already I dread those terrible days in May when torrents will fall and it will get cold and raw. How gross and clumsy Nature is. How ill-planned and slipshod. On the other hand, who could stand a really revolting climate, like Southern California or the South Sea islands? Lucky is the gardener who has learned first-hand and early that Nature is outrageous everywhere and, as the schoolteacher said in one of Eudora Welty’s novels, when the tornado headed for the schoolhouse and she had to think of something quick, “We’re in the best place right here.”

Rumor, as we know, is almost the only home of truth.

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