As a child, I let my incessant imagination go during solitary walks in the garden. I looked under rocks for Mountain Garter snakes (I called them Red Racers), stared at flower blossoms, and observed the slow growth of vegetables for hours. Bleeding hearts were little girls with pink hair and pigtails and green button squash were flying saucers. I was enamored, too, by volunteer species like the velvety cotton leaves of mullein, running my fingertips over them in the sunlight.
We had an impressive garden with mature apple trees that were, lucky for us, there when we bought the house. I’m not sure what type of apples they were, but one tree bore sweet yellow, slightly spotted apples, which looked like they had been marked with the tip of a pencil. The other had tart, light red apples with swaths of unripe green. Both were a little smaller than your average store bought apples. We did our best to pick them, eat them, and turn them into applesauce and apple butter before they met their fate under the tree, rotting and turning beige and soft as if they had been baked.
We also had a cherry tree that bloomed idyllic white blossoms, but never bore fruit, in addition to an apricot, fig, and plum tree, which my father incorporated seamlessly along side paths that bordered swaths of vegetable beds on our one acre. There were also small purple and green grapes that grew up the fence that ran down the periphery of the backyard. I loved to pick stainless steel colanders full of these bittersweet jewels for the whole family to share while contemplating the life cycle of a raisin. There were always a few shriveled and parched, still clinging to vine, just not able to let go.
My father used to make a delicious, aromatic spaghetti sauce with generous amounts of fresh oregano and rosemary and a hint of red wine. One day while working in the garden with him, he squatted next to our herb garden, closest to the rosemary and took a deep relaxed breath in with his eyes closed and said, “Mara, smell that,” in a state nearing ecstasy. And I did, mirroring the drama of his deep breath in through my nose, simultaneously gaining an appreciation for nature, homegrown food, and family in one deep whiff.
My first garden was not just the landscape of my childhood, but more like a family member, complex and vulnerable and beautiful in the way people are. Perhaps gardens for me are what Madeleine cakes were to Marcel Proust (more specifically the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past). Tasting or even seeing a lemon cucumber or spaghetti squash can take me back to the long summer days in the Sierra Foothills of California, and the abundance of fresh fruit accessible to us all summer, the multitude of melons at our fingertips, trying each and every one throughout the season during our elaborate picnics in the front yard. The juice of each melon, cantaloupe, Casaba, Crenshaw, honeydew, Juan Canary, and of course watermelon, dripped down our arms in a sweet sugary tributary that dried glossy in the sun.
I have rarely lived anywhere, nor has my husband, without digging a shovel into the earth and planting seeds. Any little plot will do. Home is where we harvest.
Today we live on just a quarter of an acre, which we mostly use to grow food, in the modest, but vibrant, city of Asheville, North Carolina. Our garden is urban. The sound of traffic can be heard while we pick okra, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, figs.
All gardens are a sort of palimpsest. Year after year, season after season, the soil is cleared, the previous harvest devoured, erased to allow for the next. Traces of its previous incarnation lie barely visible to the eye in the chemistry of the soil’s flesh. It is a constant cycle of erasure and reimagining. Hunger and creativity join in matrimony with the planting of each seed, each ingredient plucked from the vine, dug from the earth.
We feel most alive when participating as creative custodians to our little corner, quarter of an acre, of the planet. We would feel lost without it. It forces us to touch the earth.