My friend Debbie is one of those dependable Southern women who always shows up at the right moment with the just-right offering or gesture. One sad night last month, Debbie dropped by to pay her last respects to our walking companion, my elegant greyhound, Casey. For weeks I had watched my already sleek racer wither to skin and bones, and that day, after numerous rounds at numerous vets, I’d finally gotten a definitive diagnosis — cancer throughout his abdomen. I brought sweet Casey home for one last night so my girls could say goodbye, and Debbie appeared, her smile warm and gentle, her eyes sparkly with sheen of soft tears, her arms full of tomato seedlings.
“I got my garden in today, early for once,” she said, trying to add measured cheer to our mournful abode. “I hope these will produce for you.”
Well, that may require more “hoping” than Debbie was counting on. I’ve never successfully grown a tomato. Or a squash, or cucumber or anything substantially edible before. But then again, I’d also never had my own dog. Pre-Casey I was an outsider in the four-legged world of dog parks and poop-bags, uninitiated into the joys of tail-wagging and slobbery kisses. And in the two and a half years that we had Casey, my days became ordered around dog walking, my house happily transformed into an obstacle course of half-chewed bones and squeaky toys. People can change. Priorities can shift. I fell in love with a pet and nurtured my inner dog-whisperer; perhaps I, too, could nurture a plant into being. Indeed, both are acts of caretaking, of investing in a meaningful relationship — with a creature or with the land — and being fed by the rewards. I can do this, I told myself.
It’s a marvel of modern living that I, a 47-year-old with a healthy appetite, averaging 2000 calories a day, have consumed well over 32,752,000 calories in my lifetime, and never grown, raised or produced more than a few hundred of them myself. And it takes a lot of basil, mint and rosemary — my only successful crops to date — to account for 200 calories. The times I attempted tomatoes previously ended up being a charitable act benefiting the antioxidant-rich beetle population. The pitiful smattering of crabs I’ve caught, and one fish on a deep sea expedition in Florida 20 years ago, plus several buckets of blueberries and blackberries rustled up from the North Carolina mountains are the sum total of my hunting-gathering that has not entailed swiping my grocery store preferred-customer card. My intentions may be green but my thumb, heretofore, has not been.
And is this because I’m lazy? Spoiled and clueless? Too busy? A product of growing up in a culture oriented toward spending and acquiring, and disconnected from the art of growing and creating? Self-reliance to me means buying Clairol “Natural Instincts” on sale at Target, but the most basic natural instinct would be to provide food and sustenance for my family, by myself. The old-fashioned alchemy of seeds, soil, sun and luck. Getting my fingernails grubby, gambling on lunar phases and early frosts, enduring heat and mosquitoes for the satisfaction of sweat, toil and fresh squash. “Do it yourself” at my house usually means Mom’s Not Cooking so fend for yourself, i.e., take-out from Whole Foods, or the cheap burrito joint for the Kids’ Night special. My Grandmother Blum would roll over in her grave. I can still hear her carrying on, bragging about the necks she’d wrung, the feathers plucked. “Honey, if I had a dollar for every chicken I’ve caught, dressed and fried…” she’d say, and boy could she fry ’em. If I had a dollar for every homegrown, fresh caught chicken I’ve ever eaten, I’d have maybe six dollars, almost enough for a large chicken and black bean burrito, with guac.
I may indeed be lazy, and busy, and a product of a generation brought up to think Swanson’s’ TV dinners were a treat, but mostly I’m just ignorant. I don’t know when or how to prune. “Rooting” something is as foreign to me as crate-training a dog once was. But thanks to the fertile blogosphere, I can turn over a new leaf, or plant one. So what if I had no idea what Debbie was talking about when she was grumbling about not side-dressing her tomatoes last summer? Google to the rescue. Sites like YouGrowGirl are today’s earthy-girl version of My Body, My Self, giving basic how-to info, spilling the beans about side-dressing and microfarming and helping empower women (and men, soil doesn’t discriminate) from the ground up. Even the folksy, trusty Blum’s Farmer’s and Planter’s Almanac, first printed by one of my Moravian ancestors in 1829, using paper and ink John Christian Blum made himself, is now available online. In a few quick clicks I can find out the best days to transplant (if I knew how to transplant) or apply organic fertilizer (which, for some strange reason, are different from the best days to apply non-organic — go figure).
I love the irony that high-tech advances like the Web and blogs are inspiring and equipping me to get back to roots and become the dirty girl I’ve always wanted to be. So I’m tilling my conscience and cultivating a change. I’m weeding out my excuses (not enough yard, not enough sun, not enough time) and digging in. It’s taken me a while to embrace the slow food movement as something more than the latest foodie trend, as something I can do myself, in my small yard, with my small dreams of spicy gazpacho from homegrown bounty. But it took me a while, too, to become a dog person, and now there’s no going back. It’s growing season, for me and for Casey’s tomatoes.