While I was writing The Merman’s Mark and had a small square of dirt to do so, I started an overambitious vegetable garden to get more into nature and into character. And, if there is one thing I can say after a year or two of plowing and planting, it is that gardening…is difficult.
Firstly, the ground was awful, filled with bits of bone and broken tile and knobs from appliances circa 1960. I even pulled a bra from the underbrush, which was quite surprising and also a bit gross. I stopped sifting after that for fear of what else I might find.
The dirt itself also wasn’t the best. A dry, grey, lifeless color mixed with sand, the stuff that was passing as soil was a far cry from the soft black-brown stuff I was used to seeing in flowerbeds back home (This was before I started composting, which later fixed the issue). Still, I forged ahead like the naive farmers trekking across the western U.S in The Grapes of Wrath, hopeful and unaware of the frustrating issues that would befall me.
Still, there were successes. I did manage to fill a whole casserole with veggies, among other things, and overall, it was a wonderful experience. Would it have kept me alive should all infrastructure collapse and life cease to exist as we know it, though? No, it definitely would not have.
Now, I should say up front, I have unrealistic expectations for plant life-expectancy. I have this idea in my head that a plant should be a sort of Gandalf/Treebeard fruiting hybrid, producing food for an indeterminate length of time. That’s just not true in most cases, and even if it could be, it’s usually not preferred (I’m told young plants produce tastier offspring).
So far I’ve tried to grow more than forty different edible plants on my little patch of land, not nearly as many resulted in something to eat. Diseases, wrong watering, wrong timing, wrong soil, (general impatience) all affect the output, and the bugs…don’t even get me started on the bugs.
Needless to say, there were a lot of sad days and unspeakable inefficiencies. Even plants that did manage to do well aren’t always practical. The surviving cauliflower was amazing cooked from fresh, but the plant is HUGE, as is broccoli. Some plants take years to be fruitful, others require a lot of water, both of which pose difficulties n the middle of the drought-stricken Cape. It’s a tough time all around.
But I still love the puzzles that come with plants and gardening, and I’m learning to appreciate bugs. It has, however, made me wonder considerably about the balance between exploring and knowing things for one’s self and acknowledging the skill of people who are far more intellectually and emotionally invested in a subject than I am. There’s a massive historical record of trial and error, of knowledge behind what we eat. I think that is true with many things, and it’s a shame how often in these Cartesian instances of “hey, I can also do that!”, the effort of others can become ignored or mistaken for easy, and people disrespected for their life’s work.
In many ways I think you pay for the authority your voice carries, in the trial and error and the time you put into the knowledge behind it, but what also of those who may be equally passionate but with far less resources?
I don’t really have a great answer for the question. At the moment I guess all I can do is continue exploring my little patch of land with a certain level of thankfulness… the kind of gratitude that comes in knowing that while my cucumber writhes with white worms and my tomatoes turn crusty, somewhere out there on this big blueberry, other heavy-lifters are feeding my fridge.