Not Exactly Giants in the Earth, But Pluck and Gumption

Last night, after a long stressful day, I ventured out to my garden in the back yard to take a look. The odd placement of Memorial Day this year has me disoriented. It's only the first week in June but it feels as if I've been tardy in getting things started. Several of my friends put their tomatoes out too early and lost some to frost. I planted most of my garden on Memorial Day weekend. So far my 41 tomatoes are alive but spindly and anemic. They need a steady train of BTUs.

The winter was so long and unsatisfying this year that I looked forward to the temperate season (May 1-November 1) more than in any year since I returned home in 2005. My hope was that we would glide sweetly into summer by way of a long series of gentle drizzly days with the temperature in the high 50s. Instead, one day the trees were barren and the next day all the cottonwood leaves had popped into a full canopy of brilliant verdant green. Not just "as if overnight." This year, overnight!

North Dakotans like to say that we have a seven (or nine) month winter, followed three days later by summer, with little or no spring in between. That has always seemed like a myth to me, but that's precisely what happened this year. According to my home weather station—an array of integrated weather monitoring modules that would have made Thomas Jefferson weep with joy—the last time it froze was May 16, at 28.5 degrees at my house. Since then the temperatures have climbed into the high 80s and even low 90s, and on several nights in late May I was almost tempted to turn on my air conditioner. (I just couldn't make myself do it).

I'm worried about drought. Normally, I till my 50 x 60 foot garden three times before I plant. Once I got my tiller working (more on that below) I crept it out into the garden, and with deep joy started to turn the soil. After I had made two rounds I couldn't quite understand why things were going so well. Then I realized that usually the subsoil is moist enough to clog the tines of the tiller every fifteen or twenty minutes, which requires shutting down the rig and clearing the tines with a wooden stick or screwdriver. Tedious work. In a typical spring I do this at least a couple of dozen times before the soil is ready for planting. This year I tilled the entire garden all three times without ever once clogging the machine. Even on first tilling the soil had the consistency of coffee grounds. Not good.

The tiller provided a home handyman challenge of a much graver sort this year. It's a heavy duty Sears tiller, my mother's housewarming gift to me nine years ago. It has been an extremely reliable machine. It typically starts on the first or second pull even after a long winter. This year it wouldn't start at all. So for two days the focus was a new sparkplug, some new bits for the carburetor, fresh oil, forcing air through fuel hoses, and other Hail-Mary remedies. By the time it finally started I was in a mood to churn the earth. But when it had turned precisely one three-foot swath of the garden, there was a sickening metal-on-metal sound, and though the tines continued to turn smoothly, the forward propulsion mechanism just stopped working altogether. In other words, if I wanted to till with the thing now, I'd need an ox or a mule.

Thus began a very long (and sometimes very frequent) series of trips to the big box hardware stores, specialty farm stores, the Internet, and Wal-Mart. It took five days altogether to fix the thing. I was tempted from the beginning of this ordeal to retire the tiller, and buy a brand spanking new one that I had begun to covet on the many journeys to the garden shops. But my advisers assured me that it could be fixed. I have been reading Thoreau this winter, and I knew he would be against abandoning my old tiller, 99% of which was as strong as the day it was born. Besides, that old rusted out black hulk has high value to me, in memory of some gardens past, and because my dear mother gave it to me.

To get to the drive train required taking the tiller almost entirely apart. This meant scores of screws, bolts, cotter pins, precise sequencing, and a growing pile of parts and bits that gave me great anxiety about ever putting the thing back together again. When the guts of the machine were finally exposed, in a blue-green trough of gritty grease, I discovered that a drive chain (like a bicycle chain) had broken. Trip to three box stores (hereafter TTBS). For the first time in my life I fixed a chain link (using some very interesting new one-function tools). Put the whole damn thing back together again at infinite cost to my knuckles. It didn't work. In fact, even the tines were inert now. Took it all apart. Discovered that the clutch system was extremely primitive and yet persnickety at the same time. Somehow managed to fix it. By now the drive train gasket was torn. TTBS. Fired up tiller. Seemed to work, but after thirty seconds the rubber transmission belt began to burn up before my eyes. TTBS. Installed new belt and fiddled with tension springs to prevent burning. Fired tiller up. Within seconds, second belt burned to a crisp. At this point my greatest (and possibly only) desire in life was to pour five gallons of gasoline over the Sears Best tiller and light a match. TTBS.

By the time I finally got the machine working again, my pride was pretty deeply engaged in the project. Fortunately, I had the help of an extremely resourceful geologist who has spent the last few years in the outback of Australia, where, if you cannot weld, operate a torque wrench, and machine a new bolt, you are going to die of starvation. My tiller now works again—I ponied it through three complete tillings of my garden, without a single subsequent breakdown. I cannot say it works like a charm. It works like thing on its last legs, with some odd metallic rumblings from inside that I never heard before, and it has a kind of internal combustion limp. Every time I fire it up, I can feel the low-tech fragility of its inner workings, and I'm gentle with it now as if it were operating with three stents, a transplanted pig's heart valve, and a pacemaker.

The good news is that everything's planted, and most things are now up (though barely). The Canadian thistle is thriving. If it were edible, I'd stop gardening altogether. So far I'm ahead of the weeds, though not by much. Last night I found that my sweet corn is an inch high, a gorgeous strait up pale green. That miracle—one dry wrinkled seed that will soon metamorphose into an imperturbable four-foot stalk with two bountiful ears of corn, each with 800 kernels!—is enough to make it all worthwhile.

The grace of God is in a garden—and redemptions of all sorts, and healing. And the essence of life.