(Beware, this is an essay. Once you begin reading you may not stop, and there goes five minutes of your life, *poof*.
The harvest of possibilities to be found in a vegetable garden in early spring is worth more in some ways than anything you’ll harvest months later.
Most wouldn’t think to look for dreams in a plot of sun-muddy spring land strewn with unkempt soil and the derelict remains of last year’s weeds, or corn and broccoli stalks (an errant tool or two, or a child’s wool mitten lost on a winter sledding run). But it’s surprising what can can grow to fruit in such a place.
Close your eyes and look: A regular McElligot’s Pool of potential lies just beyond the fence. See over there, in that corner? There corn will ripen borer-free this time, its hybrid stalks rising higher than a clothesline in August. And here, the leaf lettuce won’t be stunted or bolt to seed in a June hot spell; it will thrive instead in cool, moist weather, providing fresh salad greens well into July and after. And the peas will ripen on schedule this year, in the lengthing evening light of June, just when the children get out of school – providing them with weeks of entertainment in the picking, shucking, blanching, and eating.
“The pickers are coming!” we announce, half-running down the path in single file, armed with paper bags, our taste buds standing at attention. The pickers are coming! Prepare yourself, pea patch! Pick two, eat one, eat another, pick another, until it’s a wonder anything is left to fill the bags. But there is.
Over there, butternut squash will send out dinner-plate leaves, with vines the size of a garden hose, and tomatoes will ripen as needed, one or two at a time (three on the days when company comes).
Or that’s the idea.
Everything could, of course, turn out the way it did the year we built the barn, when everything was planted late, nothing was tended properly, and even the rhubarb sent up spindly stalks out of pure indignation I suppose. The more we give to a garden, or any living thing for that matter, the more we get back. One or another crop does poorly every year, but we keep planting and tending because we know our labor makes a difference – and this time, this year, everything might just turn out right. This year, anything is possible.
Many seasons ago, our adopted Korean daughter Elsa was born brain-damaged but physically normal except for her serene beauty. She was diagnosed as autistic, among other handicaps, and had neither the ability nor, it seemed, the desire to communicate. For years she made no sounds but laughter and occasional tears – being unable even to gesture yes or no, or point to things she wanted. She was an extraordinarily happy and captivating child who looked nobody in the eye, rejected all physical contact, and was silent.
She wanted to speak, it turned out later. Wanted to hold and be held. Wanted, in effect, to be a normal child, but she couldn’t. Circuits in her brain had crossed, and she didn’t know where to begin.
She received a bounty of help from specialists, one of whom taught us sign language. Every day I’d take Elsa out in the backpack and give a name to everything we found, in sign and sound. I’d hold it, and say “leaf.” Or “water.” Or “dirt.” Or point to “sky.”
And then one day, after I don’t know how much time, but years, we were out in the barn doing chores one afternoon, and she put down her manure fork. She stopped and looked me in the eye. And then, working hard, and concentrating to get it right and be understood, she said, in a combination of sign language and sound, “Ah”( fist on the chest, little finger raised, meaning “me”), “You” (pointing to me), “yuh” (fists closed across the heart) .
The word order was wrong, but I knew that she had just said, “I love you.”
She’s 31 now, able to communicate, and working full-time, living in a group home independently.
Some weeks after the barn incident we were down in the vegetable garden together, surveying the winter-over rubble and desolation of last year’s growing efforts, and she looked up at me, waving four fingers under her chin in the signed word for pig (or “messy.” It’t the same sign.) And all things considered, I had to agree.
But just imagine, if you will, the possibilities.