The garden

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The garden
Caitlin Rockett

I sat on a wooden stool in my garden one mid-September evening enraptured by an orchestra of crickets. They sounded louder this year, like they sound in Western North Carolina where I grew up. 

I let a warm wave of nostalgia carry me out to sea, but a cramp in my lower abdomen sent me crashing into the shore. My period. A reminder of recent loss.  

I took a drag off a joint and stared at the narrow bed where I’d grown lettuce this year, letting my focus grow softer and softer until everything blurred. Time became meaningless and all that mattered, all that was real, was the sound of crickets singing to one another, the smell of honeysuckle, the warmth of the sun…  

But time isn’t meaningless… not exactly. I forced my eyes to focus. 

These were the final days I’d get to spend in my garden before the first mid-October snow on the Front Range took it away, so I tried to take it all in: the verdant husks of the tomatillos, the trumpeting squash blossoms, the delicate tendrils of a pumpkin vine grasping the trellis, like an infant seizing their mother’s finger. 

The garden in its current form is two years in the making, built at my rental property with permission from my landlord. To build the raised beds, my husband salvaged discarded wood from construction sites where he worked, and I’d spent days carefully watching when, where and how long the sun lit up the backyard. It started as three beds the first year, six the second. 

I shoveled at least three yards of dirt into those beds, and a couple yards of mulch. That’s approximately, by my estimate, a zillion shovels full of dirt in and out of a wheelbarrow. I painted the fence around the garden barn-red and put a jet black latch on the gate. I tucked a cheap, solar-powered bird bath that lights up at dusk and a wobbly planter box full of pink and purple petunias into a southern corner for a spot of decoration. In a northern corner, a flower bed that may one year actually pass as a flower bed. I salvaged a tiny rocking chair from the bric-a-brac my mother-in-law brought over for a yard sale and set it near the flower bed. 

I woke up early most mornings to water the garden while the sun was still shy and forgiving, then I’d sit on that wooden stool and drink coffee until I absolutely had to leave for work. 

My husband built the beds (something he reminds me of when we fight and I say productive things like, “You don’t even love me!”), but what was inside the beds was my labor, my craftsmanship. 

It was a tough start to the growing season for our little garden. A spring hail storm wiped out most of the seedlings I’d grown under a cheap grow lamp on my dining room table for six weeks. I knew I needed hail netting, some hoops — I took a chance and lost. 

We made up for the loss by finding a family nearby who sold homegrown veggie and flower seedlings out of their driveway. Supporting another family took some of the sting out of losing my own seedlings. (Later, in the summer, a complete stranger gifted me a dozen or so other plants and several bags of soil, further salving the wound.)

By late spring I had a decent smattering of thriving plants: four types of tomatoes; early summer squash; Bibb lettuce, spring mix and spinach; half a dozen hot and sweet peppers; some pie pumpkins. Apparently, snap peas, cantaloupe and strawberries fell outside of my skill level this year. I choose to believe they knew I tried my best. 

By early-summer, the squash were a micro rainforest in their bed, the stalks of the tomato plants were thick as my wrist in some places and the alkaloid smell of their foliage perfumed the air. The lettuce was long done for, but the basil and oregano were bushy. 

Outside the barn-red gate my husband and I were lumbering through a labyrinthine immigration process, making payments to the IRS, fighting back credit card debt, paying my student loan, living without health insurance and generally grinding our way through millennial adulthood questioning our very existence. I was sick of coming home from work to clean and cook a meal every single night; he was exhausted from 12-hour days of manual labor with unproductive men who often had opinions about “illegals.” 

We were pretty sure we were still decent people, but we were worn so thin we could barely see each other. 

I went home every afternoon and sat in the middle of the garden while the dogs chased each other around the yard. Before I washed dishes or put a chicken in the oven, I would watch bees dive deep into the bells of squash blossoms. I’d lose 20 minutes pulling weeds. I’d wonder if I should leave, and what would happen if I did. I thought about my husband building the raised beds. I noted where the sun was in the sky and what time it was. 

Maybe that wasn’t the right place to plant the lavender. Better get that chicken in the oven.

As the days grew longer and hotter, our patience and compassion grew shorter and colder. Everything was grounds for a no-holds-barred, knives-out, Katy-bar-the-door argument: the trash can, the recycling, the cat box, the dog’s leash, the dead lavender.

After our USCIS interview in late June confirmed there would be thousands more dollars to pay and many more years to invest, I thought we’d hit rock bottom. 

But we hadn’t… not just yet.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.”

You could say the same of staring into the night sky and contemplating the physics that willed us all into being, but that’s a little too existential for day-to-day work in my opinion. 

The garden — a tiny universe — is much more practical. Tangible, at least.

In the garden I put my hands in the earth and quite literally ground myself. The passage of time is both important and meaningless in the garden; I know when the frost will probably come for my plants, but until then I will selfishly lose track of the hours as I watch them grow and climb and blossom and bear fruit. 

It’s clear we’re meant to take care of one another; the plants take in the carbon dioxide I exhale, and I take in the oxygen they release. I train them on trellis climbing; they teach me acceptance in the face of transience. 

On that mid-September evening my husband walked out the backdoor to find me staring blankly into space, elbows on my knees, smoke curling up from the joint. 

“You OK? What are you doing?” he asked. 

A dull ache cried out silently from my belly. I translated.

“Digging for God.”

“What?”

I looked around the garden and thought about all the things we lost this summer, and all the choices we made. I thought about all the things we will lose in the future, and the choices we’ve yet to make. I thought of my little seedlings, the ones cut short by hail. 

Somehow we still managed to grow a garden.

I stood up. “Come look at this bug.”