Monday, March 28, 2011

Of spring, plowing, dandelions and the urge to "verse"

April's column for East Village Magazine:

About this time of year, the days lengthening and the last crusts of blackened snow finally melting, my dad used to get overtaken by an uncompromising compulsion. He had to get out and plow some dirt.

My mother found it endearing. She understood he needed to set aside his preacher garb and dig out his overalls from the year before. My parents didn’t always get along but in early April they companionably united in answering the pull of their garden plot. Even if the humus was still a little frosty, they’d be cheerfully harmonious, at least through the planting, with the promise of their crops.

My mother’s bow to spring meant scavenging for early dandelion greens, which she considered a necessary tonic to perk us up after winter’s depletions. She’d toss the greens together with vinegar, a little sugar, chopped bacon and an egg and serve us several rounds of rejuvenating wilted dandelion. When we moved from the country to the city, she complained she couldn’t find enough early dandelion the dogs hadn’t peed on. She never trusted city greens.

But come the springtime planting season, I’m awkwardly reminded I’m no farmer. I didn’t get the gene.

I’m a “political gardener” like I’m a “political lesbian.” That is, I’m happy to support lesbians and gardeners and I’ll do whatever I can to back their rights and clear their path across and over obstacles. I earthily admire and respect their life progressions.

But it’s always second hand for me: I’m not a gardener and I’m not a lesbian, more’s the pity.

(Wait…how did lesbians get into this? I’m treading dangerously close to well-meaning faux pas. So allow me to drop the Sapphic analogies and get back to gardening. In conclusion, if you’re a lesbian gardener, especially of the metropolitan variety, let me just say you have met my criteria for urban goddess. )

Me, I’ve always connected gardening with being grown up: if you grow your own, you understand the world. You depend on no man or woman but yourself; you take responsibility for your primal needs, you cope with the vagaries of drought, flood and pestilence. You know that not all shoots survive. You know you have to prune, sometimes ruthlessly, to fortify what remains.

I remember several years when my parents’ most cherished crop, fresh strawberries, got flooded out in the bottomland they’d persistently tried to recover. They added truckload after truckload of purchased dirt, but still it often wasn’t enough. I remember their moaning distress at the loss of their first hopes.

But if they were lucky, disaster struck early and they could start again. Sometimes, though, they’d simply say, “well, this isn’t going to be a good year for strawberries. But just wait…it’ll be the year for something.” And they were almost always right: after the strawberries tanked, maybe it would be potatoes thriving in their dark nests, or the cantaloupe would be especially juicy, or the Peaches and Cream corn would be the sweetest yet.

I suppose you’re concluding, and rightly so, that the most I learned from growing up with gardeners was how to craft analogies. I suppose that’s something. The rest is sadly lost on me. When I get the urge to garden I bring back pots from Home Depot that I then plop into other pots. And then I forget to water them, or I forget to deadhead, deliciously morbid spondee, or I forget to ask somebody to tend them when I’m out of town. I think this means I’m unevolved.

One thing I’m good at: somebody found slugs in my marigolds, and told me you could round them up with beer. That I do extremely well: I pour whatever brew I have on hand into little dipping dishes and plant them in the dirt in flower boxes. This Final Solution sort of horrifies me, especially my own guilty pleasure in counting soggy corpses of a morning. It’s downright Shelley-esque the way they die, and sort of poetic in the interest of yellow blooms.

In short, when springtime comes my only plowing is these words, line after line after line. It’s a kind of gardening, a hopeful patience as close as I get to making something flower.

In truth, in April I often feel the urge. My restlessness aims at making verse, a word derived directly from the plowman. In Latin it means to turn at the end of each row, and then to turn again, and then to turn again, making things straight and readying the earth for springtime growth.

My father used to say if you wanted to plow a row straight you couldn’t look down or back. You had to keep your head up, looking straight ahead. My mother said in spring you needed dandelions. Between the two, there’s truth aplenty there to get me going on the page, at least till May.