Hello Up There!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
English Nursery Rhyme
Wide shot: A dilapidated chicken wire fence almost completely engulfed by winter squash vines and blackberry branches. As the camera zooms in, you see large outcroppings of knee high grass and weeds surrounding eight foot tall tomato plants with yellowing leaves, a stand of asparagus engulfed in worms, more squash, and a tower of crooked greasy-bean plants fighting for dominance with several cucumber vines. The camera comes in closer as ominous music begins. Through the tangled mass of vegetation, Lavinia is creeping on hands and knees, her filthy sweat-stained shirt riding up over her love handles. The creeping is difficult because in one hand she is holding a yogurt container of soapy water. Music builds as she slips the yogurt container under an eggplant leaf and delicately taps the leaf.
Crap, Crap, you bastard, you lousy excuse of a creature, you evil monster, I will get you, I will get you!
She paws through the straw mulch, but alas, her quarry has escaped. She peers carefully at the plants, then,
LAVINIA (a la Wicked Witch of the West)
I’ve got you now, my little pretty!
She swoops with her hand. Close up of a blister beetle landing and sinking into the soap bubbles.
LAVINIA (pumps her fist)
Yes, creatures were harmed in the filming of this movie.
Many years ago, I traveled to India and had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with representatives of the Jain religion. I had never heard of it before I went, although I had heard of some mythical sect of people who feared treading on the ground or breathing the air, in case they harmed some innocent creature. It wasn’t mythical at all, but an extreme version of Jainism. Their respect for life is so strong that they don’t kill bugs in their gardens and somehow learn to live with them. My friend Bonita always tells me that all I have to do is contact the garden devas (nature spirits, quite different from me, the garden DIVA) and make a bargain with them.
And I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve done incantations, gently moved my tomato hornworms to undisclosed locations, held Japanese beetles in my hand and admonished them to take their families elsewhere, and even offered sacrifice plants. But nothing works as well as a container of soapy water.
Each time I triumphantly enter the house with an armload of vegetables —my garden bounty—and announce, “Yay! Free food!” my husband Ron smiles and remembers the $500 worth of soil amendments, organic fertilizers, garden tools, tomato stakes, and the expensive array of “organic” insect control products that have assisted in the production of my free food. When I add in the time and money I spend in order to have enough zucchini to leave in the front seat of my neighbor’s car, it’s clear that I’m not coming out ahead, financially. It would be way cheaper and a lot less work to just pop into the farmer’s market. Even cheaper if I bought these hard-won onions or cucumbers at the agribusiness-supported supermarket. So why bother?
Look at any creature on the planet, besides humans. Their entire existence is taken up with food, sex, and sleep. Some get into the concept of shelter, but many just tuck up into a tree branch for their forty winks. And until recently, most humans spent a great deal of time on the production and/or acquiring of food for survival. Now that I’ve been “liberated” from this back-breaking work, what the heck am I doing out here scolding the squash, stroking my fusarium-infected tomatoes and telling them to brace up, tearing out the horsemint, and cursing the flea-beetles? Is this some middle-class insanity? A vestigial habit from my Eastern European genetic makeup? I mean really, why do I need three hundred cucumbers? What am I going to do with them?
This year, I made cucumber relish, bread-and-butter pickles, raita, cucumber-and-lime salad, gazpacho—a triple win because it also includes tomatoes and peppers—and of course, cucumber sandwiches. (Ron will eat anything that’s between two slices of bread.)
By the time summer squash season ends, Ron is practically on his knees begging for something besides zucchini fritters, zucchini bread, zucchini kofta balls, zucchini salad, and zucchini omelets. Each year I tell myself I will only plant one plant. Each year I plant about eight, just in case seven don’t sprout. Then, in an attack of ultra-Jainism, I can’t bear to kill the extra seedlings.
While in the garden in the ninety-degree heat, I entertain fantasies of selling my house and moving to a condo with a few potted plants. “Imagine the time you’d have then,” I tell myself. Instead of weeding, you could be writing the great American novel. You could learn to play the piano. Develop the ability to not kill orchids. Meditate. Produce the show you keep thinking about. Volunteer for some needy organization. Then I spy a perfect strawberry. “I made that!” I proudly announce as I pop it into my mouth.
So maybe it’s not genetic compulsion or some sort of species programming. Maybe gardening is my little way of playing God. I cultivate the vegetables and flowers and ruthlessly destroy the weeds. I choose which bugs live and die. I revel in my power to nurture a pepper to redness. My hands at my hips, my legs spread, I stand over my “kingdom” and shout, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” like the Jolly Green Giant.
Michael Pollan, in his book, Botany of Desire, suggests that we have it backwards. I’m not in charge of the plants. The plants are manipulating me. By offering tasty fruit and lovely blossoms, the plants seduce me into planting, pruning, watering, weeding, and nurturing these lazy prima donnas who need do nothing but stretch their faces to the sun. So then, are the vegetables playing God?
In Morgan Freeman’s wonderful series Through the Wormhole, he asks the question “Is there a Creator?” He tells of his fascination watching an ant farm, wondering what they make of him, if anything, as he adjusts their habitat. I watch the ants in my garden struggling down the potato leaf carrying the carcass of a striped cucumber beetle, a triumphant march home from the hunt. How different are they from my victorious entry into the kitchen with my bowl of cucumbers and peppers?
There is an alchemical proposition, “As above, so below,” suggesting that the universe is a macrocosm and that each microcosm contains the whole. Like a Matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll, or perhaps like a hologram, where each part contains the whole. It implies that somewhere out there in the universe, there is someone bigger than me, tending a garden. Am I the crop, the ant, or the cabbage? Or am I just the soil that some invisible energetic crop grows in? And if I’m also a microcosm and a macrocosm, what universe is inside me? Imagine the busy gardeners working in your gut. Busily planting beneficial flora, waiting for just the right “weather” to grow a nice batch of candida, battling wicked parasites, harvesting nutritious vitamins. Are they cursing their creator as she swallows that key lime pie? Do they struggle in a deluge of tannins as the iced tea descends? Do they dance wildly after a rain of red wine? Is there a social hierarchy? Or is it just a bubbling cauldron of acid waiting to devour what rains down, like the birth of a planet?
The blessing and curse of the human situation is that unlike “the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky,” I have the ability to ask the question instead of just doing my job. I have the choice to plant a garden of vegetables or sow my seed in some other way: raising children, nurturing a painting, weeding out useless efforts, fertilizing new technological innovations.
Camera pans from Lavinia’s feet upward, revealing her reaching up to the sky.
Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?
She drops her arms. Then her head snaps downward to look at a plant
What the…? An entire FAMILY of Mexican bean-beetles!
Credits roll as Lavinia scoops the offending invaders into her yogurt container. Over the music we hear loud booming laughter of an unseen observer.
When not stalking slugs, Lavinia helps others remove the hidden parasites in their life habits via the Feldenkrais Method and The Creative Body. Ashevillemovementcenter.com. Visit the cosmicomedy blog! Cosmicomedy.com