“One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these.”—Two Gardens, by Michael Pollan
In Literature and the Land, while reading Two Gardens, by Michael Pollan, I was amazed at how deeply this passage resonated within me. I was instantly thrown back to the previous day, when, during Work Program, I too had reflected upon a similar thought while working in the squash garden on the Chewonki Saltmarsh Farm. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, I check the bulletin board after lunch to see where I will be spending the next two hours of my afternoon. In the past few weeks, I have participated in Work Program by mopping the dining hall, picking thistle in the pastures, and cleaning out turtle cages in Outreach’s animal rehabilitation center. When I checked the sheet on Tuesday afternoon, and saw that I would be harvesting, I put on my Carhartt overalls, grabbed my work gloves, and headed over to barn. As a small cluster of faculty and students began to gather and split into various jobs, I was reminded about how incredibly lucky I was to be spending part of my school day outside, learning on a farm. I was assigned to work in the squash garden along with five other students and two teachers.
As I approached the garden, I spied a mangled mess of weeds and vines, tortuously weaving themselves amongst each other. Initially, I could not see any presence of the prized squash we were supposedly picking. Yet, as I started to sift through the tangled plants, I saw my first butternut squash, and amazingly, I felt like I had found a piece of buried treasure. After I had uncovered that one, my eyes adjusted to see others, and all eight of us harvesters worked in tandem, picking up as many squash as we could carry, then sorting them into crates. Soon, the ground near the sorting area was covered with variegated colors of spaghetti, acorn and butternut squash. A couple of squash we even deemed as “hybrids” because they had somehow managed to cross-pollinate with the earlier harvest of watermelon, resulting in a butternut-watermelon-squash mélange.
After our treasure-hunting was complete, we were charged with the task of weeding out every single plant, down to the very roots, in order to prepare the gardens for a new crop rotation and winter weather. Weeding is often perceived as a rather mundane task, but during those two hours, I could not have been more entertained. I chatted with my fellow gardeners, both teachers and students alike. I learned that Marjo, my French teacher, has a brother in college, and that Alex, my cabin mate, really did not like the “squash bugs” that were crawling throughout the area, scavenging for food. We talked about movies, summer camps, and caterpillars, laughing and listening, but always ripping the plants out of the ground. There is something incredible to be said about really yanking a weed out from the tips of its deepest roots. Despite the difficulty of wriggling the plant from the soil, there is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction knowing that it will not return again the following season. Another amazing discovery was the life crawling underneath the garden’s top layer. Often, after pulling up a particularly large weed, I would stop in awe, watching the slimy earthworms slither away, or the multi-sized bugs fly and creep back into their dark haven. So much could be seen just by taking a minute to really watch the garden. Our work came to an end at 3:45, and as I walked back towards my cabin, Orchard House, to change out of my muddied clothes, I paused and admired our work. The jungle of a garden had been transformed into a clean, smooth, bed of brown soil.
Playing in the dirt was a favorite pastime of mine as a child. I always enjoyed watering tiny sprouts and waiting for them grow, or digging through the myriad of mud that followed after a rainstorm, hoping to find a bug that I could rescue. In many ways, I was once again able to play in the dirt, and watch the rewards of my work. Yet, by replaying this brief moment of childhood at an older age, I was able to gain a new perspective, and to more completely value what “playing in the dirt” is really about. I loved feeling the echo of my childhood experiences as I ran my fingers through the soil, picking up “woolly mammoth” caterpillars or just standing still to fully appreciate what was moving. As I stared at the garden, I was filled with the contentment of knowing that I had contributed to the farm by preparing for the upcoming season, and that my enjoyment in cultivating the soil had served a greater purpose. Needless to say, the next day when I was reading through Two Gardens for English homework, and I came upon the purpose of a garden in childhood, I couldn’t help but smile and remember just how happy I am to be here.
-Sarah Alexander, Atlanta, GA