In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.
Or something like that.
The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.
See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.
Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.
Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”
What my father wrote
I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?
Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.
My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.
When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house. I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.
Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.
I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however. Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.
Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.
Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.
The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.
And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.
But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.
And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.
This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.
Sow what you reap?
Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.
My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.
I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.
Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.