I have no hard evidence that gardening played a role in the death of American Revolution soldier Ethan Allen. It was the tenor of his words that makes me suspect. Concluding that death was imminent, Allen’s physician said, “General, I fear the angels are waiting for you,” to which Allen allegedly replied, “Waiting, are they? Waiting, are they? Well, g-----n ’em, let ’em wait!”
Ethan Allen died on Feb. 12, 1789. And although Vermont was well into winter, I contend that Allen was preoccupied with gardening when he fell incapacitated. I maintain that he was outside wrestling bull thistle from the ground, the exertion of yanking stubborn roots from frozen earth proving too much for the former leader of the Green Mountain Boys. Allen’s last recorded words were just the sort of intractable response you’d expect from a headstrong gardener.
Here, on or about the 40-second parallel, just about midway between the Tropic of Cancer to the south and the Arctic Circle to the north — the Temperate Zone — gardening is a big deal right now, regional gardeners enjoying a scant window of opportunity. Easily picked out of the landscape, you’ll find them bottoms up, headlong in the least statuesque pose possible, absorbed in the rigors of herbaceous exuberance. How ironic that such a most worthy and rewarding endeavor should be saddled with the least dignified posture.
Nevertheless, gardeners prevail; there’s much to do and little time to do it. With three-quarters of the year against them, they’re faced with hard, sobering work, sandwiched in between past and future frosts, nature, impulsive, putting on the squeeze. To be snatched by angels now would be an egregious inconvenience. I speak from experience when I say that gardeners have as much contempt for the grave as they do that first frost.
Gardening is as much about the gardener as it is the garden. It’s certainly more than dragging out a garden hose and watering a few times a week. Gardening is preparation — laying a foundation, preparing soil, digging and chopping and scratching the dirt, all of which, I assure you, can amount to a near death experience when done correctly. Breaking ground is physical. Sustainable earth doesn’t just happen. Soil can be irrational, unpatronizing, unwilling to comply in any way that would make the spade, the hoe or the grub axe nonessential tools. Seeds don’t hop out of seed packets and plant themselves in perfectly aligned rows. Gardens are created; perspiration, backache and fastidious attention sum up a large part of the gardening experience.
Spending as much time in the garden as I do, I’ve come to see gardening as a faultless analogy for life, a template for living. Kindergarten is a primary example, a place to sow good seed, cultivate the imagination and weed out the no-nos. It’s a place to cajole the spirit, instill good manners in a child and establish those all-important roots — and without, I would hope, the influence of partisan opinion, something effectually equivalent to introducing insecticide into an otherwise organic environment.
On a much grander scale, when observed from distant space, our little slice of the galaxy appears to have only one tiny deviation, one departure from the norm that’s worthy of being called a garden. It’s the anomaly we call Earth. Powered by the energy of the sun and refreshed by streams and rivers, we are the Eden of our solar system — maybe the entire universe — tended by a benevolent force beyond human reasoning. That’s my belief; it may not be yours.
Given a little thought, it’s easy to see how the tenets of good gardening can be superimposed over most all human activities, from growing tomatoes to growing nations. The problem as I see it is our growing apathy toward that end, our growing indifference toward one another in a burgeoning atmosphere of resentment. We seem disinterested in the dignity of work and the harmony of working together. Irrational sums up how we greet each new day.
There’s a recognized concept that all things in the universe tend toward disorder. In the absence of effective gardening, this concept, entropy, will reduce a garden to a fruitless weed lot in a short period of time. And what’s true for the garden is true for the gardener. When we fail to establish healthy roots early on, fail to anchor ourselves in the inherent truths of life, fail to grasp the principles of good growth, we become susceptible to every blight that comes along, miscreant weeds worming their way into sordid lives. Over time, we become indistinguishable from the weeds.
It’s easy to see how the tenets of good gardening can be applied to our lives. A productive, well attended lifestyle promotes vitality and happiness, whereas the unattended lifestyle reverts to chaos, falls prey to the infectious, devastating effects of pestilence. And pestilence, like entropy, is ever-present in our lives and waiting to fill the void left behind by the inattentive gardener.
Statistically, gardening is worth the risk.
Donald E. Melville, author and regular contributor to the Messenger Post, resides in Honeoye. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.