Notes in Glass Bottles

My Black Thumb of a Spring

Every spring, I have great ambitions for the eighth of an acre of sand, weeds, rabbits, and squirrels that is our backyard. So far, though, this spring has been a real bummer as far as gardening goes…a real “black thumb spring,” as I’ve come to call it. The rabbits got under my floating row covers and nibbled my lettuce, and I’m on my third attempt to start tomatoes and peppers from seed, after the first two attempts failed. I know, I know—what’s easier than starting seeds? It’s Gardening 101. Meanwhile, my perennial wildflowers that I’m starting in pots have yet to show themselves. The container strawberries didn’t survive the winter. Even the basil is being shy; day after day, I lift the lid on the mini-greenhouse only to find nary a spec of green. For one reason or another, my plants are on strike.

Gardening has always had a strong spiritual dimension for me. It’s my way of connecting with other living things, with the larger ecology of the Earth that supports them, and with God. It is an everlasting source of awe and wonder that a little bit of organic matter—a single seed, so small and light that I have to hold my breath so I don’t accidentally blow it away—could turn earth and water, air and fire (in the form of sunlight) into something green and alive, and a thing of beauty and nourishment, too. Your average tomato seed weighs 3 milligrams. Your average tomato produces 10 to 15 kilograms of fruit. So a single seed produces somewhere between 3.3 million to nearly 5 million times its own weight in fruit alone…and that doesn’t include the plant itself.

And people go looking for miracles. Jesus turned a bit of water into wine, and people called it a brush with the divine. Pfft, if only they’d stopped to consider the tomato slice on their plate, huh?

Besides this cooperation with miracles, the other reason I garden is a little more down to earth. (See what I did there? I know, I know.) Given all the time I spend in front of screens pushing pixels, it is deeply satisfying to work outside under the sky and push dirt and water around for a change. We humans have been doing this kind of work, in one way or another, since the dawn of the species. And we’ve been planting seeds—gardening—for some 12,000 years. The people who first started tinkering with the idea of managing the growth of food crops laid the foundation for modern civilization as we know it today. Come to think of it, agriculture was perhaps the fourth great world-changing invention in the history of human civilization—right after the development of language, stone tools, and fire. And it set the stage for the next big world-changing invention, writing. If we humans hadn’t learned to plant seeds and raise crops, we may never have learned to plant letters and raise sentences…and poems, and essays. Agriculture is prior to culture. No wonder I feel the pull of the backyard so strongly as I sit here typing.

Anyway, it’s fine to elevate the work of agriculture with religion and poetry, but what does that mean for me during this black thumb of a spring? That’s what I’ve been wondering the past few weeks. What does the failure of my seedlings imply about my spiritual connection to the rhythms and requirements of the natural world, much less the rhythms and requirements of God?

It doesn’t take much self-reflection—maybe a minute’s worth, tops—to realize that those wilted seedlings and barren pots are telling me something: I’m not meeting the minimum requirement of time and effort required to pull the trick off this year.

I’m not being hard on myself; it’s just a simple fact. It’s not that I am lazy, but that I am overly busy. Our backyard is an explosion of projects: I’m tearing down an old fence and turning the slats into raised beds; I’m putting up a new fence; I’m laying several hundred bricks left over from tearing down the top ten feet of the chimney. And that’s just outside.

Even when it’s being stubborn, that backyard has things to teach me…in this case, that making things grow requires a certain amount of commitment…a certain minimum level of attention and presence. There are no cheap miracles: they are always predicated on relationship, and there is no relationship without attention, energy, and perseverance.

The fact is, other things are taking up most of my attention, energy, and perseverance right now. Things like my family, my writing, and my professional development. And that’s okay; it just suggests that, at least for a season or two, I ought to be scaling my gardening back to a more manageable level that reflects the reality of my life right now. And part of that reality is my own limits.

It’s my perennial fault: I’m always trying to live life as if I didn’t inhabit one body, allotted a finite number of hours every day. There’s a part of me that has supernatural aspirations, apparently, and it gets me into trouble again and again, this wanting to be everywhere and doing everything at once, rather than focusing on what the limitations of my embodied self will allow. Fifty years, people, and this simple truth is only beginning to sink in.

My garden may not look like much this year, but a family is a kind of miracle, too; and so is faith; and maybe, for now, that will have to be enough.


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