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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

One Day in My Garden

Updated: May 27, 2020

Terry M. Pace (2002)

One of my earliest memories is playing with toy soldiers; the green GI Joes sold in packages in the 1950’s and 60’s. I played in the dirt, building forts and battle fields in the edge of my folk’s garden at home on our farm, while I watched my parents working the garden. About 40 years later during a visit home, while out walking on a summer evening, I discovered one of those little soldiers just staring up at me from his fox hole, about right where I left him, in the edge of the field where the garden once was. I wondered along with him, just where the years and the garden had gone. I took him home and told him that the war was over and I was long grown up and we both could now look for peace. I still have the little guy here with me to this day and I think he is finally at peace.

My parents both grew up on Texas and Oklahoma farms in the 1920’s and 30’s. Times were often hard then, especially in the dust bowl and great depression years and they had large families to feed. But even in those times, hard work, the mercy of the soil, the sun and a decent water well, helped them to produce about half of their own food supply most years. Thus, gardening was a way of life for them.

In my childhood my father planted up to five acres of vegetable gardens and we always had lots of flowers around the house, providing both sustenance and beauty. During high summer gardening season we often got up before daylight and after coffee, biscuits and eggs we worked a couple of hours in the garden until the heat of the day arrived by mid-morning.

I can still see my mom in her pink floral work dress, hoeing weeds or gathering produce in the garden in those early mornings of my youth. It was a pleasure to work along- side her in those earlier years, before I graduated to working the farm with my brother and my dad. But, any child under the age of 10 who happened along, such as my younger cousin Amy, would became mom’s garden helper. Most famously every child who stayed with us in the summers recalls the necessity of picking black- eyed peas and then shelling them the rest of the morning with mom. And one of my strongest memories of dad is seeing him after his field work, in the summer evening, disappearing into our sweet corn patch, with his tan fedora hat being the only sign that he was still there. He would carefully inspect each cob, only picking the ones at perfect ripeness and filling a five- gallon bucket for us. We would then sit in the shade of the summer evening to shuck the corn and sometimes nibble a fresh cob or two just like it was. It tasted like sweet sunshine!

My dad, Glen Wilson Pace, died in February 2002. One day during the following summer, I had gone out to work in my own back- yard garden, where I grew lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, and radishes in the spring. And by mid -summer I usually had a crop of tomatoes, peppers, onions, sweet corn, squash and okra. In the fall, I often had pumpkins and turnips. It was a hot early July day in the late afternoon and there was just enough shade to retreat to for breaks. I worked slow, inspecting the plants, harvesting whatever was ready, weeding a row and then watering a row at a time as I went. After a while the heat took over and my mind drifted, so I sat down to rest in the shade. Though we lived in a rather quiet neighborhood, it was extra quiet then with everyone still indoors from the heat and it seemed like I might as well be back on the farm with the locusts singing in the trees and only a slight breeze for company. As I sat and cooled off, I remember carefully watching as the water slowly soaked into the earth. I can only speculate that this scene absorbed all of my senses and a trance of some sort came over me. I lost track of time and began to hear my dad speaking to me. In was in a wavy manner, flickering like and reaching me as if from my dad’s old short- wave radio I listened to as a child. Or perhaps it was like a shadow or maybe like the heat waves rising on the horizon of a summer afternoon, there and real but moving and dancing at the edge of consciousness and belief. I do know it was my dad’s voice and I felt a sudden stillness. As a psychologist, I had the chance to help many people in grief. A common experience in grief is to see or hear a departed loved one. Often people worry about if they might be crazy for having such experiences. In reality whatever else each person believes, these are fairly common occurrences and can be a normal response to grief as well as a comfort and means of healing.

My grief had been difficult in the six months or so since my dad had died. When alone, I often cried and I had lost the capacity to listen to music which was a clear sign of my depression. Oh, perhaps I still carried on as needed at work and home and others did not readily see how lost I felt, though I could not fool myself. I had thrown myself fully into my garden that year, instinctively knowing I needed that outlet more than ever then. So, it may not be too surprising that my father spoke to me on that afternoon in my garden. It was almost as if the words of the old hymn came alive then:

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear, falling on my ear

The Son of God discloses

And He walks with me

And He talks with me…

-In the Garden (1912) by C.A. Miles (RIP 1868-1946)

Dad told me there were six gifts he had found in gardens. He said the first gift in a garden is love. If one will stand still in any old garden plot and just pause – the work and the care given there will fill you with love. Tending a garden is also like - in the old- world words “husbandry” or caring for and loving one’s family. A garden and a family need space to grow, sometimes they need extra support to carry the weight of all the challenges of life, they need nurturing – sunshine, water, food – playfulness, recognition, and respectful guidance. But just as too much of any of these may wilt a garden so too with people, one must be measured and understanding in our care for one another.

The second thing found in a garden is faith, which is a deep form of hope in things one may not see in the present, but believes in nonetheless. In a garden, faith is ever present in the cycles of seasons and in life’s natural changes, that bring renewal, growth, productivity, aging, death and transformation. All these may be gleaned in their natural and universal forms from careful attendance to a garden. The very existence of a garden is a testament to faith. One must believe in things unseen and beyond ones full understanding just in order to have the motivation to plant a garden. Anyone who will quietly and regularly tend a garden throughout the seasons will also find their faith. I believe this is where my father often found his own faith.

The third thing one can find in a garden is the gift of vibrancy. The feelings of resonance as seeds are sown, the smells of the earth as it is turned and comes fully alive in the spring warmth. The colors of the plants and their produce – yellows, greens and reds that brighten our days. In the productive work of a garden one can find a means to health in the exercise of the body and the attention of the mind. Dad said that one will find the greatest joy in the garden if one tarries and attends to these wonders a moment before and after working and in this way know the cycles of experiences and the unity of life. There is a psychological theory about this, called the “attention restoration hypothesis.” It says that time in nature can restore mental sharpness and physical restfulness as our bodies respond to the natural life of our ancestors and histories, allowing us freedom from the unnatural developed and tangled world most of us live in. There is good scientific evidence that this is a real effect for most people.

Dad said that the fourth gift of a garden is wisdom. In learning to respect every part of a garden, one sees the limits and values of each plant and element of nature and of their connection to the whole. One can understand that while all plants need soil, water and sun, they may need these in varying degrees based on their unique histories. Even things we may often see as bad, such as coldness, is understood as also being good in the right place and time, thus cool season plants thrive when others perish. One can see the wisdom of diversity at work in any garden. Also, such wisdom is not painless, as it knows of loss, decay, destruction and death. Yet, in the seasonal year, wisdom also knows of return and rebirth and shows us what work we can do to add to life’s good. In this ancient and spiritually enlightened wisdom, one must attend to the history of a place and to the circumstances one finds, thus knowing when it’s a good time for planting, for watering, for harvesting and for letting go in the garden and in life. So pay attention to the wisdom in the garden and the greater messages about one’s own life and times, it will not betray you.

Fifth comes memory. In the garden is where our souls are most connected, close to where the dramas of daily life are found. Dad told me that he always remembered his grandparents and his parents when he worked in his garden. Then he said as time went by he thought more of my brother and I as he worked his garden, and further along, his grand-kids. As knowledge of the garden is passed among the generations, so too is the memory of those generations. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden in your past, just stop and see it again in your mind and you will also be visited by anyone who loved that garden. In seeds are the reposits of generations and in soil is a record of time. These connections show we are never alone as we exist within this vast nexus of creation, culture and in our own unique place and time. A garden connects a year together and is a place of sanctity in every season. Even in the coldest and barest of winter, the quietness of the garden as it sleeps and waits for spring, offers a respite from the chaos of our ensnared lives. If we practice going into a garden to simply be still, we can glimpse the sweetness of life, even in the snows and early night stars of the winter. Then by sharing in the patience of winter, we are prepared to also know the bursting hope of spring, the joyful bounty of summer and the soft beauty of the fall. Come into your garden with memory, and you will not ever be truly alone.

Without a change in his expression, Dad then said that the sixth and final gifts from a garden are tomatoes and onions! He reminded me of how my brother and I had often helped plant his spring tomatoes and how mom had fresh tomatoes on the table all summer long. And I remembered just how much dad loved his onions with every meal and how indeed planting and harvesting onions were times of happiness in our family. Yes indeed, this got my memories turning. But just as soon, I found myself sitting and starring, like waking from a dream, reorienting to the garden, the day, the hum of the locusts and the heat rising from the sweet wet earth. I was at peace.

Notes: My favorite version of the hymn “In the Garden” is by John Prine and Mac Wiseman (Standard Songs for Ordinary People, 2007). I have posted this song on my blog under the Songs link.

On my Poem link, I also posted the poem “New feet in my garden go” by Emily Dickenson where she speaks of the on-going connections a garden may offer across generations.

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