My work is transformed when I view the task at hand through verbs I learned through gardening: tend, nurture, sow, dig, weed, share, till, harvest, nourish, rest.
Yesterday was the autumnal equinox, which means that fall is officially here. Right on cue, the first leaves are changing from green to shades of gold and crimson. The air is crisp, and the nights are cooler. In the Northern Hemisphere, fall also marks the beginning of the harvest season. Tending a garden has certainly changed the way I think about food, but it has also given me a lens through which to reflect more broadly on community, justice, faith, and hope. I love that gardening invites me to consider a way of being that is governed by a rhythm all its own. This steady beat brings my tendency to rush without reflecting to a halt. Every garden is unique and every gardener has a different philosophy, of course. For myself and for the housemates with whom I have gardened over the years, these three raised beds have come to constitute a sacred space. A space of hospitality, of nurture and delight, they are a space around which we are reminded of finitude, of beginnings and endings, of gratitude.
When I garden, I remember the goodness of the gardens tended by the women in my family. There are my mother’s rows of green beans and corn, blueberries and fig trees. When I stand in my backyard, I am reminded of the tenacious care it received decades before I was in the picture. Last summer while I was picking tomatoes for canning, my next-door neighbor, whose familiarity with the neighborhood spans forty years, mentioned that it was so good to see someone growing things again in my backyard. “Again?” I asked. The previous owner had a tremendous garden, he explained. Grapevines, tomatoes, eggplants, flowers, if you could imagine it, she grew it. That stove in the basement? (I had always been puzzled). She canned food all summer long. He guessed that the soil would be in great condition, and he was right. From where I stand, I can see that the ways in which we live today are intricately tied to the future, just as they are to the past. She and I have both cared for and nourished this tiny patch of land, even though it belongs to neither of us. The garden becomes proof that conquest and submission fall so very short in defining the types of relationships we can cultivate with the earth and with each other.
Kneeling at the edge of the raised beds, I am reminded of the myriad of ways friends have contributed to this garden effort over the years. I remember my friend Cat, who started it all. I give thanks for the folks from The Food Project who built the first raised bed; I give thanks for my friend Jesse who built the other two. I give thanks for neighbors throughout the city of Boston whose mown grass becomes compost – and then cucumbers. I give thanks for housemates who have carried untold buckets full of coffee grounds and banana peels to our own compost bin (thank you, Mariana) which yields its own nutrient-rich dirt(!!). I give thanks for the neighbors to whom I can pass bags of fresh vegetables over fences, for friends I can send home with bunches of basil or handfuls of chives.
Growing one’s own food is a political act as well. Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma have inspired Americans to take a closer look at the production and consumption of what we call “food.” They have encouraged me to make it a practice to support companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which preserves heirloom and organic seed varieties, and farms like Allendale Farm, Boston’s last working farm, where we buy seedlings. I have now seen first hand the direct and undeniable correspondence between the soil, the plants, the water, the air, and my table. If I don’t want it on my hands or in my salad, I don’t put it in the garden. But I don’t just eat food from garden, and here the lessons from my garden stay with me each time I shop for food. What food purchases ensure better conditions for farmworkers? More sustainable farms? I am thusly reminded that the manner in which food is grown, picked, and processed matters.
Then there is the garden itself. I confess our garden is a sprawling, wild, and feral thing. We grow some things we choose, but we also grow some things that choose us. We plant the things we know we love, new things we think might – and then a lot of marigolds. We plant tomatoes, basil, and peppers together because they help each other out (also, they are delicious). Each plant needs breathing room for its roots and space where vines can stretch. Here are lessons of hospitality, of a commitment to the unknown and the unexpected.
Gardening is a radical act of faith and hope. It is where I, who often doubt, who can be so anxious for results, have learned to trust that when conditions are right, things will grow. I have learned to wait. I have experienced – literally tasted – possibility that is encompassed in the smallest of seeds (realized potential is delicious!). And how amazing is a seed? How miraculous is it to plant tulip bulbs with numb fingertips in the middle of November, and then come home one April afternoon and see the tiniest top of petals pushing through the soil? As a doctoral student, my days seem full of verbs like read, write, analyze, reflect, critique, revisit. My work is transformed when I view the task at hand through verbs I learned through gardening: tend, nurture, sow, dig, weed, share, till, harvest, nourish, rest.
The tiny backyard behind a big orange house on a busy street might not seem like a space the sacred would call home. And yet it does, revealing something new every season, and changing us, too.
Kathryn House is a North Carolina native who has made her home in Jamaica Plain, MA since 2005. She is currently a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. Her academic interests include the constructions of gender and sexuality in evangelical Christian traditions and ecclesiologies. She is in the process of ordination in the American Baptist Churches, USA and a member of The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. She is also the co-founder of Bridesmaid Trade, an online bridesmaid dress consignment business. Kathryn can be found online at @kharthouse.