As a five year-old, I dug eagerly into the dirt with a trowel, constructing shallow rows. At the time, I was a city kid living next door to a vacant lot. I owned that little private jungle and cultivated carrots and radishes in its sparse soil. Crazily large seeds erupted into fire colored nasturtiums—I was hooked.
When I was nine, my family moved to a house that stood in the middle of a working apple and walnut farm. My father bought a straw hat, took to smoking a corncob pipe—and as if embodying the spirit of his own childhood in rural Alabama, planted an enormous vegetable garden. Almost half an acre of corn, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, turnips, and whatever else struck his fancy at the feed store seed rack, stretched across what had been weedy patches of front yard. I remember the look of triumph on his face as he cradled one of his enormous heirloom tomatoes.
Ducks and hens paraded through our garden. One mallard named Charlie often followed us kids as we tromped up and down the dry summer orchard rows throwing dirt clods at one another. Charlie would run up to our beagle George, and close his orange beak firmly onto the hapless dog’s upper lip. This painful intercourse prompted George to run up and down the rows of apple trees, howling as the duck flapped his wings—the pathetic George shaking his head from side to side, desperate to dislodge his feathered sidecar.
I developed a youthful friendship with the farm’s overseer and he would walk the orchard with me, teaching in Spanish and a bit of English, the names of the local apple varieties or how to tell when walnuts were ripe in their green jackets, and why his fingers and hands were so darkly stained. The farm laborer’s days of endless pruning, tending, picking, and eating lunches from out of buckets sitting in the summer heat seemed foreign, but even that small inclusion at the edge of their world was important to me.
After my father died, I managed to keep alive his love for growing things and raising animals. As a teenager I picked blueberries, apples and prunes. I always had a couple of ducks, chickens, or a resident rabbit or two. I struck up friendships with neglected dogs and stray pigs running through the yards.
One pig in particular, trotted up and down the road begging neighborhood kids for handouts. A plan was hatched to make the 600-pound boar drunk on tomato cocktails which we kids were sure had booze-like qualities. The pig rolled onto his back and let us feed him cocktail after cocktail. After my playmates had gone home to dinner, I guiltily showered the spicy aspic from his belly with the garden hose, praying I hadn’t killed him.
As a young newlywed, I raised French alpine dairy goats, pigs, ducks, geese, angora rabbits and laying chickens. I never felt out of place with a post-hole digger, mucking out a shed, or keeping a passel of goat kids in the kitchen, next to the woodstove. We lived on seven acres, managed a self-sufficient lifestyle, and I harbored daydreams about running a small goat dairy.
Our place was alive with noise, dirt and responsibility. And yet, life on a small farm wasn’t in my future; I spent the next 35 years following my divorce living in big cities and small towns—a single parent, struggling to make ends meet.
After moving to Seattle, the only time I ever saw an egg, it was an anemic ghost of a yolk straight from a big-box food chain. At our ramshackle apartment there was no yard to speak of, and even though we had a couple of cats and one old country dog, city life with its roaring noise, inconsiderate neighbors, and stale air slowly worked to erode my sense of self. Even the dog, raised on open acreage and used to running free, slowly lost his mind.
In between a career and raising a child, I decided I could no longer tolerate the aggressive traffic and lack of privacy that Seattle living required. I moved to a smaller city, turned quite a bit older, and my son mysteriously grew up and left home. Still longing for that lost connection with the land, I planted iris and tulip bulbs in my new yard, hacking up wild elephant bamboo. Slowly, life in a small town inched along, yet I was still unanchored from my rural roots.
In 2003, I made a pilgrimage to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to move in with a new sweetheart. Incredibly, I could see hundreds of stars that had been obscured by city lights. I heard trains calling in the distance, witnessed green grass age to gold seed, smelled corn silage as it was cut, and felt the rough skin of soil warm my bare feet.
Life in the valley is a constant lesson in motion and change, especially true within the confines of the garden. You cannot stay stationary or stuck in old beliefs and truly experience rain, heat, shifting cloud cover, or bountiful summer nights sitting alongside honeysuckle vine, listening for the return of the hummingbirds.
When Alfred Adler said, “Trust only movement... life happens at the level of events, not words,” his philisophical eye may have traveled over a WIllamette Valley garden. Movement and growth dominates the landscape: tractors tilling in the spring, seed trucks overflowing, bulky moon-tired rigs spreading fertilizer, whirls of dust, massive migrations of geese and ducks, insanely large tomatoes, and in nearly every backyard—the soul-retrieving garden.
The garden that helped bring me back to life has become my lover. It calls to me in the middle of winter, “Oh darlin', isn’t it time to order potato seed?” It pens love notes in the fall, “My dearest dear, take my plump luscious white papery cloves, ripe for planting and stick them into ferdant soils, ~Adoringly, your garlic” It thins and browns my body in the summer and cheers for my newfound strength, “You go girl… hoe, hoe, hoe!” It reminds me of its bounty in the spring, singing tender praises, “Sweet green shoots, tiny green lettuces, fertilize my heart!”
Without dirt, without this tiny patch of garden paradise, I would drift from my moorings, a sad aging wanna-be farmer. Instead, this wild Oregon garden holds my health and happiness in its continuously shifting presence—and as her slave, I am lucky to serve her.
Causes Madeline MacGregor Supports