The summer solstice has come and gone. Though I am continually amazed towards dusk that it is still light at ten o'clock p.m. (where did the evening go?), I have begun to feel that low-level uneasiness that comes immediately after the solstice. Summer as we know it in North Dakota is just getting started (it was 62 degrees on July 1), but something deep in my diaphragm groans that it is all down hill from here until late December, when the forces of darkness overwhelm the earth, and we are plunged again into sub-arctic night.
Make hay while the sun shines. No evening passes now in my neighborhood without kids clattering by my house on skateboards and scooters, adults (usually women) processing their days together while engaged in the slow-mo North Dakota version of the power walk. After supper, as we sit out on our decks listening to the breeze in the trees, we can almost forget, for an instant, that most of the North Dakota calendar must be spent indoors. What would human life be if we did not have a magical ability to forget pain?
Up near Horizon Middle School, under the blue water tower, there is a grass clippings collection plaza with eight or ten huge white steel containers. In the evenings, men congregate there, delivering a few bags of clippings in gleaming giant pickup trucks that could haul barrels of lead just as easily. They leave their engines running and frisk the clippings into the appropriate bins. Frequently they linger and lean on the back fenders and talk with men they don't know about optimal sprinkler cycles or whether Roundup is really the answer. A visitor from Jupiter might surmise that this civilization is required to bring grass sacrifices to propitiate some pastoral god. Perhaps the Jovians would initially conclude that the water tower must be that god, for on any summer evening, dozens of huge pickups appear ritually at its base with pure grass tributes. The great god Mulch. Sometimes there are little traffic jams at the clippings site. Ah, summer.
All of my adult life I have read Jefferson's prose poems about the glories of agrarian life—"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," and "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural." The great Jefferson's pastoral idealism has always appealed deeply to me—perhaps because I have never actually farmed!—but it has felt a little like an abstraction, like an English major's pastoralism. But now that I have an actual vegetable garden it is much more real.
Several nights this last week, I ventured out at about six p.m. to tackle the weeds that have eaten my garden. I don't quite understand the biology (or perhaps it is the karma) of weeds, but I can tell you two things that have the certainty of natural law. First, in the cool, rainy, even chilly June just past, my corn and tomatoes barely clung to life (five inches high by the Fourth of July!), but all the weeds proliferated as if they were on an invisible Miracle Grow drip. I was gone five days last week. When I came back the Canada thistle were the size of large pumpkins. I don't understand why weeds grow like, well, weeds, and spread maniacally and thrive, while onions and potatoes droop around in stunted form, looking anemic, and waiting for the July heat.
Second, these weeds are like the killers in horror films—they never really die. I go out with stiff gloves and a little hand hoe, and work three hours among the tomatoes and corn to uproot those weeds I can, and clip the rest as close to the ground as possible. It's unpleasant work. The Canada thistle have really highly evolved defense systems. When I am not wincing from sticker pain, I mostly muse about the genius of farmers markets, where for a fraction of what it costs me to grow a bushel of vegetables, I can buy oodles of beautiful organic produce grown by someone with a real talent for it. Still, at some point in the evening I have cleared the tomato patch to perfection, and—with a feeling of satisfaction bordering on smugness--I go into the house and pour myself a tumbler of whiskey.
But two days later—the minute you turn your back--there are scores of new weeds, as tenacious as the first wave, creeping in at the wan little defenseless corn stalks.
Last night, in a rage, I went out with my weed whacker and attacked the Canada thistle. It was like a scene out of the Iliad. I should have worn protective goggles. I waded boldly into a sea of thistle and began to fell it. I had carefully adjusted the plastic string so that I could take out weeds without damaging those few remaining plants I wish to protect. It was a scene of pure garden carnage. The weeds were so tall and thick, and so full of all the moisture that should be nurturing my tomatoes, that the whacker threw up a green slurry, and sometimes gobs of green sludge, into my face. I had to refill the whacker tank twice.
Finally, dusk arrived mercifully at my little patch of ground. It was a perfect sunset, with charcoal and tangerine skies to the west, and a magnificent crescent moon setting about the same time as the sun. The temperature was exquisite—shirtsleeve weather just edging towards the evening chill. I hand watered my tomatoes, filling each venerable rusted coffee can to the brim, twice. The glugging sound of the water filling the tomato cans took me magically across space and time to my grandmother's garden near Fergus Falls, MN, and there she was, in a faded-flower cotton apron, with her thick pure white hair and her gold-tipped front tooth, puttering about her flawless, weedless garden, stooping to pluck some lonely stray sprig of a weed from the pea patch.
I was a real mess. My whole front looked as if I had stood too close to the painting bay of an autobody shop when they were rehabilitating a John Deere tractor.
But I had brought order to my garden. I had got down on my hands and knees and out of my head, and I had pressed my fingers into the soil. I had given all of my attention to the careful nurture of a few plants that were domesticated in the Middle East or South America tens of thousands of years ago. I was doing something that really mattered in some very basic way, and my whole body was involved. I could not do it without stooping to the earth in prayer.
As I slumped into my chair, after stripping down to my shorts and a tshirt, I felt better about the world. I felt better about myself. I felt more whole. I felt more alive. I was happy. And I could almost taste that tomato that is still only a yellow bud on a rangy little plant in my back yard.
Thomas Jefferson was right, as usual. An American garden is as much the meaning of the Fourth of July as those glorious abstractions in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.