Watch my Garden Grow

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.

12 comments on “Watch my Garden Grow

  1. The sister says:

    This is one of the most beautiful tributes you have written so far. Of course it made me cry.

  2. professormortis says:

    I’ve had a similar experience, both in trying to maintain my parents yard (and house, for that matter), and in working my own yard. My father took a quiet kind of pleasure from working in our yard growing up. He never instructed me in maintaining it, unfortunately; I absorbed what I did from watching and helping him. He didn’t have the kind of pride in it that you talk about.

    The thing is, he could do it, he knew what to do. I always feel the loss that I do not know the things he knew, the knowledge of how to fix and mend things, maintain things. I remember cleaning our guns hanging over me for a long time after he died. Dad never showed me how to clean them. He just did it. So I had the cleaning set, but not the knowledge and had to figure it out. So many things were left that way.

    • theelderj says:

      It is sometimes surprising how similar our situations with our fathers ended up being. When it comes down to it, we shouldn’t have been so surprised to lose them both so young (neither was a health nut)–but I think if you had asked us both in 1999 we would have thought our mothers were worse off. And here we are…

      Your father was a man of many skills. He left a lot to live up to, especially in the story-telling department. Although, to be honest, you’re pretty good at that too. If it is any consolation, I think he came from a vastly different era–when ‘men’ were expected to be able to do everything from minor car repairs to building decks (a hold over from the depression era of our grandparents). The thing is, I am pretty sure your dad wanted a different world for you. That’s another thing about the world he came from–an era when men could work in factories but still respected knowledge and conventional centers of learning.

      You do his memory well.

      • professormortis says:

        I think in my case I can be forgiven thinking my father would live into his 80s since his father did (and was similarly “healthy”); the thing I never considered was that his mother died before I was born. But yeah, I am sure we would have both said the same thing.

        Thanks man. I appreciate the kind words-I forget sometimes what an awesome bullshitter my father was and that, in that at least, if not in the ass-kicking and skills department, I’m carrying something on. I’m not sure that everyone felt he did, that he worked with, but I am glad he did. One thing I miss more than almost anything was giving him books to read and then discussing them, or just talking history with the guy. Great times.

        I didn’t say it before, but I should have: this is a beautiful post.

  3. […] wrote a whole entry about gardening a few months back and my brother did as well so I don’t want to get too far into it so as not to belabor the fact that I like to […]

  4. […] the produce side like me. My brother dabbled, however, he now is again in an apartment and can only dream of when he can deal with a […]

  5. […] was on vacation from my new job as as a teacher this week so I took it upon myself to work on the gardens and yard of my home. This lasted for a few days while I listened to more Tame Impala and continued […]

  6. […] to harvest next year to feed ourselves and have some sense of a connection to our heritage and landscape. I’m not getting on the soap box here as growing your own vegetables is not feasible for […]

  7. […] university of pedigree which once translated to almost zero common sense in relation to tools and manual labor. The work itself can be incredibly monotonous, like this time of year when 90% of what we do is […]

  8. […] love Rogue Wave. I have never heard this band on the radio. Well, into just last Friday when the College Radio […]

  9. […] the summer, I really started to listen to music more widely—I became obsessed with Wilco, Rogue Wave and wore out my love for Iron & Wine faster than I can now believe possible. For a few weeks, I […]

  10. […] our faces in the mirror, in furniture and objects around the room, in the simple action of turning over the soil from winter for the new spring. The act of living needs death for its […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s