Summers, when I was a teenager, my father made me work in our vegetable garden. I would have rather been doing anything else. Running a tiller, hoeing around plants, hilling potatoes—none of it was much fun. Instead, it was sweat and dirt and what seemed like endless trips up and down the rows.
My father was an expert gardener. He grew typical vegetables like corn and beans and lettuce and tomatoes, but he also had a flare with the more exotic things like cantaloupes, watermelons, eggplants, strawberries, and raspberries. Nothing seemed to be beyond his capability. He even had peach trees and apple trees. He had a large garden, both at our home in town and on our farm, ten miles to our south. The last summer of his life, he grew enough fruits and vegetables to sell them from the back of his pickup truck at local farmers’ markets. By this time, he’d survived his first heart attack and had stopped farming, leasing our ground to another farmer instead. My father wouldn’t survive his second heart attack, which happened when he was cutting the grass in our back yard near the garden and the fruit trees he loved so much.
I wish, when I was young, I could have loved it as much as he did, but the truth is, like most teenagers, I felt imprisoned by the work my father demanded of me and spent hours whining and trying to wheedle my way out of the chores he set before me. From my perspective now, I understand how much it must have hurt him each time I balked. He loved the land and the things it could grow, and I’m sure it would have pleased him had I only been able to love it, too.
Wisdom comes in its own time, not only for teenagers but for writers as well. Sometimes we need the distance time can give us to fully understand our intentions in a piece of writing. Sometimes we just need to be patient in order to know our characters and their situations better, to be able to add and cut and rearrange as we revise. Other activities such as. . .well, such as gardening. . .can provide a silence that quiets our rational, critical minds so we can better hear the voices from our imaginative, dream-like states. Running is another such activity for me. Sewing or crocheting might provide the same function for others. Whatever the case might be, doing something disconnected from the writing process can often put you more in touch with it. We feel and we intuit when we don’t try too hard to think. While we’re gardening or running or sewing, our unconscious minds are revisiting what we’ve created on the page, opening it in new and exciting ways, and waiting for the right time to bring it to our awareness. This revision by indirection can send us back into the draft with a clearer vision of our intentions The piece seems new to us. Our revision process, then, can be creative rather than just editorial. Forgetting can often lead us back into our imagination.
As a young adult, I thought I’d put my time laboring in my father’s gardens behind me, but gradually I began to plant my own gardens. Today, Cathy and I put seeds in the ground for our cool weather crops—lettuce, kale, radishes, carrots, spinach, parsnips. As we worked, the sky turned dark, the wind came up, and thunderclouds started to roll in. “Step it up, Bubba,” Cathy said, and together we marked the rows, laid the seeds, and covered them with our hands, each of us working from separate ends, meeting, finally, in the middle. I like to think someone else was there helping us along—my father and mother who worked together planting so many gardens. When the rain finally came, I remembered the way I’d sit with my father on the porch of our farmhouse in the middle of a thundershower, and he’d say with such a voice of wonder and appreciation, “Mercy, just listen to it rain.” I listened today, and I heard the ticking of my father’s high-wheeled cultivator as he pushed it through the loose soil of the worked up seedbed, marking the furrows for the rows, a sound I’d nearly forgotten, but not quite.