Some people experience a connection to the earth at an early age. They sense a deep connection between the human condition and the very ground upon which we walk. They are motivated to learn the basic tie between people and agriculture. They come to understand that humans depend upon nature and that humans are part of nature.
by Robert R Ducker
Several weeks have passed since Alfred’s school dismissed for the summer. This morning he is standing in his backyard. He’s telling himself there is nothing interesting to do. He’s feeling bored on this clear, warm morning in June. The sun is already high above the hilltops, rising into a solid blue sky. Alfred’s friends are gone. Jamie was the last to depart, gone with her family on a vacation trip to South Carolina. The others are also on vacation or staying at their grandma’s.
Alfred stands and looks into the glaring sun. He holds his right hand above his eyes as if in salute. As Alfred’s eyes adjust to the light he realizes that he is saluting Mr. Porter’s pet beagle, Rocky, who is sitting on the edge of Mr. Porter’s back deck. Rocky seems to be enjoying the warmth of the morning sun also. “Good morning Rocky”, Alfred says as he notices the dog sitting quietly. “Too bad you don’t like baseball or fishing. There’s no one else around.”
Alfred continues to pan his view away from the glare of the sun. Looking left and then right, Alfred surveys the neighborhood for any sign of inspiration. While in the midst of his final attempt to locate friendly life forms near his home his attention stops at a view of Mr. Porter’s garden. The plants are glistening in the sunlight. Their natural coloration is magnified by a fresh coating of morning dew.
Mrs. Manypenney’s narrow backyard lies between Alfred and Mr. Porter’s garden, yet, it seems to him that he can taste the green crispness of the lettuce, nearly fluorescent with many bright hues of green. For a moment Alfred senses his fingertips grasping the firm, smooth roundness of tomatoes that will soon begin to ripen.
His attention lowers to the earth that surrounds the plants like a blanket. This rich brown blanket is smoothly compacted in some places, loose and roughly pebbled in others. Alfred barely detects within the rich soil another discovery; the thin newly sprouted tops of his favorite vegetable, green onions. Alfred likes to crunch green onions raw with a bit of salt dabbed on the end. He smiles as he thinks “A fresh green onion can make any baloney sandwich even better.”
As Alfred is speaking these words and imagining the smell of onions, pictures come to his mind followed by sadness. He has just reminded himself of his grandfather and the way he used to have something interesting to say about almost anything. The last time Alfred was at his grandfather’s house was after his grandfather’s funeral. Alfred and his cousin Justin had gone out to the garden that had occupied so much of his grandfather’s time and attention. Alfred pulled up a radish from the ground and started to clean it off. He was surprised to see that the radish was very large and that it had split open in several places. He bit into a very small piece to discover that that radish tasted hot and unpleasant. As Alfred reflects on that time he concludes, “Grandfather was very sick that summer. His garden must have been lonely.”
The next morning, Sunday morning, is another clear June day. Alfred is up early again. Today he walks out into his small yard with a burden of gardening tools and several small white envelopes with pictures of vegetables on them.
Alfred kneels down directly at the edge of the rectangular plot he marked last evening. His serious expression, combined with abundant physical gestures, convey the sense of a novice practicing a sacred rite of his culture. He waves his hands in flat circular gestures out over the 5 foot wide by 8-foot long future garden that he has outlined with white string tied to small pegs at each corner.
Gathering a perception of the depth of the entire space that will be his small masterpiece, he allows his thoughts to flow without sequence or focus. He experiences the physical properties of his garden space. Alfred finds that he is experiencing an unfamiliar state-of-mind. He is studying the land around him as if he has never been there before. Alfred senses the width and the depth of his garden, the orientation of this space to the remainder of his known Universe, and the cool air that flows directly above this tiny monument to agricultural concepts.
Through the several generations of civilization that have previously lived where Alfred lives now, the earth of this space has proved to be a convenient dumping ground. The dumping activity in the garden area has been limited to the ash and debris from coal furnaces. Slivers and chunks of the blackest anthracite are evenly mixed with the earth. They are a favorite treat of Alfred’s dog, Charlie, who will crunch, and crunch, and swallow chunks of coal that are nearly the size of golf balls.
Alfred believes that these coal snacks may be good for Charlie’s digestion. Alfred’s teeth hurt when he imagines chewing the coal. Also commonly found in this earth is ash from spent coal. The ash is sometimes colorful but otherwise seems completely useless. “It may be”, Alfred says to Charlie.
You may not believe this, but Alfred has chosen a very good location for his garden. Even with the deposited impurities, the soil of Alfred’s garden is rich with layers of earthen residue that have been deposited by uncounted floods of the river. It is true that this dry, light-colored earth strongly resists attempts to mold it or to work it. Its rock-like consistency would rather crumble into a lifeless powder than to submit to its historic role as a fundamental constituent of the living world.
“All that is needed to create a miracle in this place . . . is water.” Alfred muses thoughtfully to himself. This is correct. Mix this dry, coarse earth with the right amount of water and you immediately have rich, brown, moist soil.
Alfred is thinking that Mr. Porter had a good idea. He senses inspiration rising within him and he sets his mind to a new goal. His goal is to grow a garden this summer.
Alfred imagines that some sunny morning later this summer Mr. Porter will walk out onto his deck and he will stand with Rocky at his side. Mr. Porter will look out across the neighborhood. He will look out to see Alfred’s garden. From his deck
Mr. Porter will be able to smell the radishes growing within Alfred’s garden. From his deck Mr. Porter will imagine that he is running his hands gently over the cool, leafy, crunchy, green lettuce in Alfred’s garden. Mr. Porter will be able to see the green tops of the carrots and in his mind he will pull one from the ground and he will crack the carrot like an orange stick and then he will think that the core is bright and fragrant with life-giving juices and solid with nutritious orange meat. Best of all will be the green onions. Mr. Porter may not have to rely upon his imagination to experience their strong scent.
Alfred believes Mr. Porter will conclude that his neighbor has grown his garden very well.