Getting Sore in the Garden

We had a wet late Summer, last year, followed by a wet Autumn and a wet early Winter. Since then . . . drought.

One thing that gardening will do for you is, it will teach you to pay attention to the natural world, to rainfall given or withheld, to early warmth, to the state of the soil, to late-appearing frosts. To love a Bit of Earth is to give yourself over, without reserve, to the vagaries of Mother Nature. Some seasons will be perfect and even your lapses won’t matter and some seasons will, no matter what, break your heart and you might as well go into it — gardening — go into it with your eyes wide open, your head held high, and your hands stretched forth, either to receive a slap or a gift and who knows which will turn out to be which? You have to go into gardening as Edith Piaf went at life and promise that, whatever comes, you will regrette rien. If you can’t do that, if you want to come at gardening seeking only gardening’s peace and gardening’s pleasure, well, to reference Gibran,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor,
Into the seasonless world where you
shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.

Because gardening, like any good spiritual practice, must be done daily and won’t let you hide from reality. It either rains or it doesn’t. Those seeds either germinate or they don’t. And, in the end, it’s all just “information.” It’s all real and it’s all metaphor and there is always more.

This past weekend we were predicted to (finally) get heavy rain. I was out all day on Friday and Saturday planting things in the garden, pulling weeds, putting some hostas and Solomon’s seal back in the ground, moving pots around the deck.

I’m an old woman. The way that I garden is to work for a while, stop and rest, work for a while, stop and rest, work for a while, stop and rest, work for while, tell myself that I really can’t do any more, stop and rest, work for a while, tell myself that I really, really can’t do any more, stop and rest, work for a while, tell myself that I’ll just do one more thing, work for a while, stop and rest, work for a while, . . . . you get the idea. Rudyard Kipling said that “half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees.” I think that half of my gardening is done upon my old and aching knees, half is done sitting with my old hips upon the cold Earth, half is done lying on my stomach in the dirt, half is done . . . . you get the idea (the sum really is more than the parts).

By Saturday evening, when the rain finally began, I could already feel the soreness settling in. Moon in Taurus, I don’t have a masochistic bone in my body, but I really do love that deep muscle soreness that comes from good, honest, physical work.

I earn my living and, thus, spend most of the hours of most of my days, sitting at a desk thinking, reading, writing, talking on the phone, writing some more, thinking . . . . I joke most mornings that I produce prose for pay, but, it’s not really a joke. It’s really what I do: I sit at a desk and write a particular form of prose.

And maybe that’s why gardening and the soreness that it grants me mean so much to me. It helps to, in the words of Frost’s poem about a poet’s love for physical work, unite, “my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes are one in sight.” It feels, in some way, as if I’ve brought into my own body the energy and effort that yield growth and beauty in the garden. It unites me and my garden in an interesting way that I wouldn’t experience if I simply sat in someone else’s garden and admired the view (not that I don’t love OPGs (other people’s gardens)).

And maybe that’s why Heaney’s poem about the relationship between the difficult, physical work of gardening and the difficult, sitting work of writing has always mattered so much to me (ok, and for the line: “Till his straining rump . . . bends low, comes up twenty years away”):


~ Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

from Death of a Naturalist.

What draws you back out over and over into that dance with Mother Nature? Do you dig with your pen?

Picture found here.


4 responses to “Getting Sore in the Garden

  1. I’m on the Wet Coast but I hear you sister…the soreness is so worth it!

  2. Put my back out on the Friday the 13th — so painful — but I’ve recovered and planted lots of black cauldrons and pots full of flowers and herbs. Been taking valerian root from my chiropractor ….

  3. I love your writing. We are so blessed that you can write all day and then come home to share this.

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