This past summer my wife Jes rented a tiny community garden plot for us at a local park. I recall the decision to do so being both sudden and inevitable. Sudden, because Jes sprung it on me—an offhanded “surprise, we’re growing vegetables this year” while I was playing D&D. And inevitable, because after many failed attempts at raising houseplants and windowsill herb gardens, Jes wasn’t exactly subtle about her endgame. She had grown up on a farm. In a way that I never have, she enjoys the feel of dirt beneath her fingernails, the squish of rain-slopped earth beneath her shoes.
So Jes grew vegetables this year, at a tiny community garden plot she rented for us at a local park. I helped her, sometimes. Not often, though. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve a talent for ginning up phony excuses when the time comes to pitch in, to put my shoulder to the wheel—and Jes, frankly, just doesn’t have time for my bullshit. As a result, the bulk of my contributions to the year’s crop came at the beginning of the growing season, when we readied the plot for planting, and at the end, when we winterized it.
Our last day at the plot was two weeks ago. By then, it had been some time since Jes had found anything to harvest, and between her ongoing labors and the lavish attention of the park’s resident deer population, most of the plants had already been pulled, or nibbled down to stalky effigies of themselves. All that remained now was to finish the job. So over the course of two hours, we yanked weeds, pulled stakes, raked earth, and wound chicken wire into bundles that, turned loose in the trunk of our Corolla, blimped up twice their size.
It was cold that day. Damp, too, after nearly a week of rain, but not overcast. No one was out there except us, so as we tossed graying pepper plants and fistfuls of knotweed in the direction of the wheelbarrow, we made no effort to keep our voices down. We talked. We laughed. And when we finished, we packed up and left, no fuss, no big to-do. Behind us, the plot was as it had been at the start of the growing season—dark dirt, and empty. Freshly turned.
It’s hard, as I think back on that afternoon, not to reach immediately for metaphor. Not to see in that newly emptied garden plot a kind of hibernation, or waiting, or disappointment. Not to make mean a blank patch of earth. Such a metaphor would, I think, be an acceptable place to park this essay, if maybe a little pat. But then there are scholars who would caution against my reflex toward easy meaning, and I agree with them. Unchecked, that reflex turns into yet another form of resource extraction. Unchecked, it crowds out the world in the very act of bringing that world—supposedly—into focus.
And so sometimes opacity can be an ethic.
And so sometimes it is enough to say that this past year Jes grew a vegetable garden. She grew hot peppers and eggplants, cucumbers and okra, lettuce and zucchini. And I helped her, on occasion. But mostly what helped her was the rain, the sun, and the plot itself, never empty, never blank, but teeming always with life and death, with microbes and insects and plantlife, decaying and not. With earthworms—inscrutable, slick, burrowing eyeless but seeing through layers of humus and clay, unmeaningly helpful in their shifting and sifting and shitting, while aboveground the season proceeds in its slow tilt toward winter.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.