a garden unlocked

on a day when the sun, i swear, was trying to make soup out of candles, i wandered off to a garden. a locked garden. a garden you need to get into through the swift punching of buttons in a particular order. and then through a lock and a key on your particular plot.
it wasn’t my garden. i don’t have to lock what i grow. but my old friend irene does. she locks what she grows back by the gravel yard, back where the garbage once rose, in the old city dump. back where when she first started digging, 35 years ago, she dug into radiators and stove parts, old shoes and tin cans.
“pure gray clay, two feet deep, and that’s how i met my first chiropractor,” says irene, who is 80 next week. irene, who lives in public housing. irene, whose father, long ago, invented a kind of a camera, a swell camera, one with bellows and a really fine german lens. a camera that bought them a penthouse and three live-in maids. but then the depression came, the family split up. irene moved with her mother to a cold-water flat.
ever since, irene has been using that gene from her father, the inventing gene, to never take no for an answer, to think and to think and come up with ingenious devices. ways to get around all sorts of obstacles.
ways to grow gardens on dumps.
you should see what she grows there: comfrey and gooseberries, butternut squash, and a squash from somewhere in asia. she can’t remember. korean yellow watermelon and amaranth that’s purple, russian seaberries and fennel and even plain old tomatoes. okra and jerusalem artichoke. globe artichoke, too. red currants and asparagus and some italian zucchini, called zuccetta rompicanti–or trombone squash–that the nasty old squash borer, a pest if ever there was one, leaves all alone.
her plot, by the way, is maybe the size of two double beds. she grows so much that over the years she’s had to splurge and rent her an annex of sorts. that’s another $55 a year, which for irene is rather a lot.
but she feeds herself for the whole year from the two little plots in the community garden. and these days she’s feeding the homeless as well, and that’s part of the reason i went off to see her. for my dayjob, you see, i’m telling that part of the story. (and, sorry, but you’ll have to wait.)
irene, who swims in the lake every morning, for years has ridden her bike to every starbucks around to pick up free grounds for her compost. she now makes a tea for her garden, mixing weeds–thistle and comfrey–and water, and letting it steep for 21 days, till its perfectly heady.
she read that in a magazine, one of her organic magazines. and she decided to follow the recipe. now, in a 54-gallon drum she recycled from somewhere, she keeps a tub brewing smack dab in the midst of her amaranth.
a young chemist, she explains, was hellbent on finding “some way to capture the goodness and essence of weeds,” to put it back in the garden.
irene, a disciple of any such thinker, is most pleased with the tea. thank goodness she didn’t ask me to sip some. irene is always sharing whatever comes from her garden. i would draw the line, though, at a bubbling brew in a recycled industrial vat. ykkh.
this year has been a rough one for irene. way back in the spring she took her first vacation in years. went out to california to stay with some friends, and came home with a wrenched knee from cross-country skiing. she couldn’t walk for nearly two months. had tears soaking her leathery, deeply-lined cheeks.
that set her back a few weeks when it came to getting her tomatoes in. and while she was gone, someone broke in her apartment. stole all her heirloom tomato seeds, her jeans, warm socks and two packets of beans.
not long after, out in the garden, someone up and dug up her raspberries. helped themselves. to a whole bush. two bushes, in fact. “they knew mine were the best,” she explains, matter-of-factly, almost proudly. without one drop of guile.
then the heat and the rains came. so too did the corn-root worm beetle, which did in her plain old american zucchini, and most of her cukes. and one night in august it dipped down to 50 degrees. that did in the basil.
“so it went into the compost,” says irene, over her shoulder, pushing a vine right out of the way.
nothing is ever a defeat in irene’s garden. she learns from every wrong turn, finds the triumph in experiments that you might call botched. she tries again. tries a new angle. keeps getting smarter, uncannier. and when all else fails, there’s always the compost pile.
pretty much, that’s the metaphor for her life. if she can’t get around the corn-root worm beetle, can’t stop a cold night, well then, it’s heave-ho to the compost.
ah, but that’s where her black gold comes. that’s where she throws down the dead stuff, waits for decay to draw out the life, so she can put her foot to her pitchfork and turn it back in. resurrection, quite plainly. she uses the velvety born-again soil to bless all that breaks through the earth, pushes clear to the sky, in her garden.
that’s what i love about irene. irene, who, by the way, puts in 10-hour days under the sun, plenty of days. four hours, she calls a short day. she never sits still because she is intent on coaxing the best from this earth, from this lifetime.
irene understands something essential, something worth learning. there’s not a day in her book, not an hour, that’s wasted. not, say, a recycled jungle gym that makes for a fine cucumber trellis. someone was throwing it out. it was rusty and bent, and tossed to the curb. she saw its beauty. possibility, too. she hauled it off to her garden. made it stand, proud and tall. now covered with curlicue tendrils and the start of a few baby cukes, it is irene at her best. it is stunning.
irene who has little is one of the richest women i know.
and that’s why i took you out to her garden today.

maybe some day when we all pull up chairs, irene can supply the tomatoes. or the italian zucchini. you would love her, her and her deep gravelly timbre. way before caller i.d. (which i have but don’t ever use), i knew it was irene on the line, because of the way she says, barbara. if i grew a garden of people, irene would be the vine that climbs over everything, stops at nothing, goes for the sky. and is breathtakingly lovely. do you have someone in your life who teaches you things worth putting on paper? lessons on making something from nothing? who is someone you’d grow in your garden?

most importantly, today is my big brother’s birthday. my california brother, the one who flies high for a living. the one who signs every letter and card, “blue skies.” that means way more than love to him. that means that’s where he goes to touch all the heavens. he’s a soul more at home in the sky than down on the ground. we all love him. so, happy birthday, uncle airplane. from us on the ground.