Dirt 1

“It all started with the cicadas, and Josephine died a young, single mother. I am her son.”

Josephine and baby, circa 1932

“And I cannot guess what we’ll discover
When we turn the dirt with our palms cupped like shovels
But I know our filthy hands can wash one another’s
And not one speck will remain”

– Ben Gibbard/Death Cab for Cutie, Where Soul Meets Body

It all started with the cicadas – and Josephine died a young, single mother. I am her son.

Reminiscence is a powerful yet awkward instrument; I’ve learned this lesson well. Whether feelings arise from the nuance of fragrance, the chirp of a songbird or the brush of texture against the skin, within the garden’s fold they may stir quickly and without warning. The ensuing memories which surface may be tranquil, troublesome, terrifying, or fall somewhere in between.

Some years past, I first wrote about my youth as a gardener in a process started and stopped several times. The results were sporadic and uneven. My hope was open enough of a crack in a window long painted shut to look back upon the self-study and discovery that – out of a disheveled past – helped to shape me first as a gardener, later a professional Horticulturist and business strategist, then ultimately as a functional being. Depending upon the need for exposure, such a process can vary in depth and intensity from one gardener to the next; many who come to gardening later in life or from less contrary circumstances may view their own discovery in a completely different light. Unfortunately for those who don’t garden or otherwise touch the Earth, many never view it at all.

We live in apprehensive and even dangerous times: grave uncertainties have become the rule as war, economic and environmental catastrophes mangle destinies in ways difficult to ignore. Yet there is always reason for optimism: despite overwhelming calamity, those who feel a deep natural connection to the Earth often seek solace, and may even find deliverance, in the garden. Deliverance came to me as a toddler when my mother died suddenly. Through the post-traumatic shock, I soon became wide-eyed at all that grows and my life as a gardener began.

As my interest and education in Horticulture, Business, Technology and Leadership evolved into a long career, I’ve often found myself – simultaneously – on opposing sides of the garden fence. Whether ears to the ground or eyes peering through the slats, I’ve had a knack for getting the most exotic kinds of dirt under my nails – often asking tough questions and not always avoiding a scuffle.

Whether steering vendors and sales at the brokerage division of an international genetics originator, managing the technical side of interior landscape services, directing wholesale and retail nursery sales, in procurement and project management for privately and publicly held landscape services firms, in a Technology Development and Integration firm as content manager and administrator of a large SQL database of Horticultural plants, as author and consultant serving both the Horticulture industry and home gardeners, or just by making mud pies in my own back yard – I seem to have found intrigue and occasional conflict at just about every turn.

Throughout the journey, as both industry insider and emotional outsider, I’ve occasionally turned inward as I had from the beginning. I wondered: had those original childhood instincts which first connected me to the Earth and all that grows, then later affirmed me, somehow led me astray? How did I wind up in this strange and sometimes dangerous world of commercial Horticulture – aching with environmental woes, saddled with chemical dependency, littered with a hopelessly confusing nomenclature, peppered with profiteers and narcissists, mired in financial scandal, and subverted by bloodthirsty regimes? Could I somehow recover the affirmation and find the deliverance I’d sought, and thought I’d found?

“Just like everything
The garden waits for spring
Just like everything
We don’t look back we don’t know where we’ve been

“Just then looking down
Feet planted in the ground
Just then standing there I found a secret I could never share
That day breaking free I saw my future starin’ back at me”

– David Stephens, The Garden

Within the Horticulture industry I’ve found the occasional bland (or even volatile) professionals, and well-meaning (but sometimes mediocre) educators who view gardening, and nature as a whole, through the narrow perspective of ID textbooks on woody plants, perennials, and so on. Barely able to rely upon their own inertia to learn by practice, trial, and blunder – how I as a gardener learn best – these sorts of people appear to me, at best, loosely connected. Whether in my formal schooling or my professional work, recurrent acquaintance with an embarrassment of these dissociates rings a profound and universal truth: all that is green is not necessarily loving and giving. Sometimes – perhaps more than in other more “refined” and tightly regulated professions – passive-aggressive or even abusive behaviors are not just tolerated but expected.

Fortunately, among those who view the garden as their home or calling – there are many others, at times whose education is self-taught, who take the gifts they are given and nurture them fully. In doing so, they unquestionably broaden their understanding not only of the smallest garden or tiniest seedling, but also of the amazing natural world around them – in the process giving generously to others.

By no means do I profess knowledge of a magical worldview that applies universally to all childhood gardeners grown to adulthood (funneled through chaos), or to even a few. While this exploration was first set aside, I had to get far more personal – with myself. I needed to pass through several stages of realization and in the process weather a considerable number of life’s challenges. Were it not for the close comfort of the garden, grounding my connection to the Earthly home, these sensations that propel me back in time – sometimes sprung upon me without warning like the myriad, pernicious spines of a thistle – would be far more frightening indeed.

 

And what of those sensations – sound, touch, and smell – which stirred this reminiscence in the first place?

And what of those sensations – sound, touch and smell – which stirred this reminiscence in the 1st place? After all, it’s late July. Here in the upper Midwest the incessant drone of the annual – or dog-day – cicada, Tibecen canicularis, is deafening. The thick muggy air hangs dense across the land like an impenetrable iron wall. And that smell – a strange, intoxicating, yet subtly disgusting blend of Noxzema® and BO – could only mean one thing: the Stargazer lilies are in bloom!

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